Adam Oates thinks his breakout year was his first with the St. Louis Blues. Or maybe it was his last with Detroit, the year before he got traded to the Blues.
Either way, they’re good choices. Oates had 16 goals and 62 assists in 1988-89, his last with the Red Wings. He had 23 goals and 79 assists the next season. The current coach of the Capitals established himself as a force in the league early in what became a Hall of Fame career.
It’s not all numbers. Oates had better seasons numbers-wise later, including 97 assists in 1992-93. That’s more assists in a season by anyone not named Orr, Lemeiux or Gretzky.
“Everybody is different in terms of how they value their game and what’s a successful game for them,” Oates said. “For me, I expected to get points. I felt like I needed minutes.”
No matter how you define them, every team needs a few players to have breakout years if it is to reach or exceed whatever expections it has. The Capitals, for example, know what they’re going to get from Alex Ovechkin. He has won three Most Valuable Player awards since 2007-08. But the Caps haven’t advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs with Ovechkin.
To burst through that ceiling, several Caps need to burst through theirs. Candidates are many. One on each of the top three forward lines stands out. All three agreed they haven’t reached their peak, that there is more in them than they’ve shown thus far — even though they’ve each shown a good bit.
Working from the third line up:
Eric Fehr, center, third line
Fehr, 28, had 21 goals and 18 assists in 2009-10. Yet he was the most emphatic that his best is ahead. He’s only had 21 goals and 19 assists total since then.
“In my mind, I haven’t” had a breakout year, Fehr said. “I think I’ve shown spurts of what I can do and what I think I can accomplish.”
But it won’t be all about points.
“I think it is just the way you feel on the ice, just feeling confident every game,” Fehr said. “I think there’s some games where you feel like the puck is following you around and you’re playing great and there’s some games when you’re not feeling it. Finding a way to be consistent and bringing your best game forward and helping the team in some other way is important.
“For me, moreso than points is just being consistent every night. That’s when I’ll see myself as a breakout player, when I’m able to be consistent every night. I’m feeling a lot more confident than I have in years past, feeling more confident with the puck. I think I can feel better yet.”
The Caps asked Fehr to move to center this year, a pleasant surprise and a switch he thinks he’s adjusting to well. As he gets used to the new spot, improvement should follow.
“I’m getting more comfortable, definitely,” Fehr said. “It is a lot tougher. As a winger, you’re kind of a robot out there. You know where you need to be right down to the square inch on the ice. As a centerman, you’re all over the place. You have to read and react. I think that’s the toughest adjustment for me, knowing which guys I have to take and which guys I have to get a body in front of, finding a way through the zone.”
Troy Brouwer, wing, second line
Brouwer is the only Cap who has won a Cup. He did it with Chicago in 2009-10, when he set a career high with 22 goals. He had 19 last season in the lockout-shortened campaign, so it was a better year statistically. It is not unthinkable for the 28-year-old to hit the 30-goal mark and he could also establish a career mark for assists (19 in 2010-11) playing on a potentially explosive line with wing Brooks Laich and center Mikhail Grabovski.
“Just coming off last season, points-per-game it was by far my best season and I think that’s not an unrealistic goal to believe that I could do it again,” Brouwer said. “I’ve scored 20 goals before, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise I was able to put up good numbers. It would have been good to see with a full season what the final numbers could be.”
Center Mike Ribeiro, who left via free agency in the offseason, told Brouwer last year not to give the puck back. The addition of Grabovski through free agency and the return of Laich from injury gives the Caps’ second line more shooters. Thus far, Grabovski is the only one with any points and most have come on the power play.
“I think I had a lot of opportunities last season to be able to handle the puck, be in good positions to get good shots off in scoring opportunities,” Brouwer said. “I’m trying to get myself in those situations this year. It has only been three games. I’m not worried about it yet. I do need to start contributing.”
Marcus Johansson, wing, first line
As a 21-year-old in 2011-12, Johansson had 14 goals and 32 assists. Breakout year? He says that’s not for him to judge.
“I just play the best I can,” he said. “If somebody calls it a breakout year or not, I don’t care about that.”
Playing on a line with one of the best in the game in Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom provides him with plenty of chances to pad the scoresheet. He had his first career three-point game (all assists) in the Caps’ home opener last Thursday.
“I want to get better every day,” Johansson said. “I’m 23 years old. I don’t think I’m as good as I can be.”