Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward arrived at practice Tuesday morning and saw a red jersey waiting for him in the locker room. Then he saw that Alex Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky had them, too.
The shirts served as a simple announcement of the day’s line changes. It didn’t need to be any more complicated than that.
“You just come in and see where your jersey’s at and kind of go from there,” Ward said.
Though the regular season is only eight games old, line changes have already become standard procedure for the Capitals under first-year coach Barry Trotz, who is not only comfortable tinkering with his lines but, in a way, embraces it.
After Washington’s 3-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers last week, Trotz made a handful of tweaks to his forward groupings, mixing and matching in an effort to manufacture offense. At Tuesday’s practice, in preparation for Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, he did it again, pairing Ward and Burakovsky, a 19-year-old rookie, with Ovechkin on the top line.
“We need some balance in our scoring a little bit,” Trotz said. “I think we’re getting it from our bottom six [forwards]. We need a little more consistency on our top six, game in and game out.”
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As a byproduct of Tuesday’s shift, Nicklas Backstrom, who has long been Ovechkin’s sidekick, was bumped down to the second line. The two have been linemates for much of their eight seasons together in Washington.
“I think we’ve been playing really well defensively, but maybe it hasn’t really clicked offensively as we would like,” Backstrom said. “Maybe that’s what [Trotz] is thinking: switch it up and maybe get a couple new looks.”
That’s certainly one explanation. Though in Trotz’s eyes, line changes can serve a variety of other purposes.
For starters, changes help build total team cohesion, chemistry between players that could prove useful if injuries occur over the course of the season. They allow players to assume new roles within new groups, possibly discovering new strengths in the process. And they allow Trotz to motivate players in different ways, when needed.
For an example, look no further than last week’s disappointing three-game road swing through Canada. After being demoted from the third line to the fourth on Saturday, Ward responded with two goals in a win over the Calgary Flames. Time on the top line is his reward, Trotz said.
“Moving guys around sends different messages,” the coach explained. “I don’t ask guys to play higher or better than they’re capable of playing, but I knew [Ward] had another level. He got my message and he responded.”
Ward’s four goals this season rank second on the team only to Ovechkin’s five. And Burakovsky has been even more impressive so far, recording seven points (two goals, five assists) in his first eight NHL games.
The 23rd overall pick in the 2013 draft said he is focused on improving his defense and playing more consistently in each shift rather than pairing good shifts with bad. “I want to be more even,” he said.
But he also admitted that he feels surprisingly comfortable in the new league, despite the speed of the game and his switch to center from his natural spot on the left wing.
“I can’t say [it’s becoming] easier because it’s the hardest league in the world,” Burakovsky said, “but I think I feel better every single day I’m out there. I feel more comfortable with all the guys. [I’m] starting to get closer to my teammates here.”
Though the line changes might help boost the offense, several players said it all starts with individual effort. Backstrom and Ward each pointed to a strong forecheck as the key to winning Wednesday, regardless of who is on the ice with whom.
“I’m going to be honest with you, we’ve been pretty much the same guys on the team for a long time,” Backstrom said. “We’ve been playing a lot with each other. So at the end of the day, I think it’s all about work ethic.”
The new lines could hold over throughout the week and beyond, with Burakovsky developing a strong rapport with Ovechkin and Backstrom fueling the second line. But if recent history is any indication, more change is likely on the way.
“The great thing about mixing the lines up? You can always put them back together,” Trotz said. “That’s the cool thing about this thing. It’s not like they’re written in stone.”