Last season, if Mike Knuble was healthy you could write his name into the first-line right wing spot for the Capitals. But this training camp it appears that’s not a certainty anymore.
Instead, the right wing spot opposite Alex Ovechkin has been a revolving door with Knuble, Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer, as coach Bruce Boudreau is trying to find the ideal combination.
“We knew that from the start there’d be a lot of moving around,” Knuble said. “I think we’re all probably seeing how it’s going to be. It’ll be a constant shuffle.”
Knuble’s incumbent position can’t be ignored, but it seems as if Boudreau is eyeing Brouwer for that role — and the newcomer is expected to be there for Monday night’s home preseason opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“The Brouwer-Ovi combination is more of what we’re hoping to see,” Boudreau said. “It was something you visioned when you’re [trading for Brouwer]. Mike has done a great job, and he might still be the guy that’s there. But you get new guys, you want to get excited and see what they can do in that position.”
Brouwer, who underwent offseason right-shoulder surgery, is physically ready (and beyond that mentally) and will be making his Caps debut Monday — likely with Ovechkin and center Marcus Johansson. Boudreau mentioned that some guys get nervous playing with Ovechkin, but Brouwer knows exactly what he needs to do on the top line.
“I try and create more room — finishing checks,” he said. “I like to get in on the forecheck and because of that D-men don’t like to get hit, so hopefully I can turn more pucks over.”
No matter who starts the regular season with Ovechkin, the idea seems to be the same: The right wing is there to get in front of the net and allow the skilled players to make plays with the puck.
“I just try to bring a little bit of energy and forechecking and little net presence,” said Ward, who took his turn there Friday in Chicago. “Obviously they’re good puck-handlers so if I can distribute the puck to them as quick as I can and get to the net and try to get to the net that will hopefully help create plays.”
Knuble, Brouwer and Ward have a lot of attributes in common — bigger players who are comfortable around the crease and along the boards. Knuble probably has the best scoring touch around the net, while Ward brings good grit and determination for battles in corners and Brouwer adds a physical element by throwing his body around.
The style differences aren’t major in Johansson’s eyes.
“I think they’re all hard-working guys who know how to play the game,” he said. “They work hard and know how to pass the puck and make plays.”
Skating on the top line with arguably the best player in the world is fun, too, and the distinction of top-line right wing comes with the responsibility of more minutes and a heftier workload.
“You can’t find a better player to play with than Alex,” Johansson said. “He always does different stuff. You never know what he’s going to do, but that’s part of the fun.”
That’s also part of the reason Knuble isn’t ceding his spot to either Brouwer or Ward. He acknowledges that the future might mean getting replaced in that role, but the competitive juices are still flowing for the 39-year-old.
“You should never be content as a player. You want to play as high as you can, you want to play as well as you can, you want to play with the best players you can,” Knuble said. “As an athlete if you’re ever going to give up then you’re going to be cooked, you know? So you can’t. It’s disrespectful to your teammates. You’re never going to give up as an athlete. You keep going as long as you can.”
Notes — Brooks Laich left Sunday’s practice after feeling “tight,” according to Boudreau, who deemed it precautionary. … Michal Neuvirth is set to start in goal Monday night, Boudreau said.