- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Until Tuesday, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz had restrained himself from a full-scale adjustment of his lines, putting the onus on players to fight through whatever demons they had been battling. Sure, he would tinker here and there, substituting players on an occasional basis even during games, but the reset button was frequently pressed the next morning, the status quo returning.

With the Capitals dropping six of their previous seven games, though, and the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings in town, Trotz decided a greater change was needed. He moved Marcus Johansson, the second-line left wing all season, to the top line, reuniting him with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, with whom he played the last two years — albeit on the right side.

Rookie Andre Burakovsky, who was a healthy scratch for three consecutive games after 10 games on the top line, returned to the lineup to fill Johansson’s spot. And on the fourth line, Trotz activated Aaron Volpatti from long-term injured reserve and plugged him as the left wing, next to center Jay Beagle and right wing Tom Wilson.

The results were clear. The Capitals won, 4-0, with each of the top three lines responsible for an even-strength goal. Washington also scored on the power play, and in a frenetic window late in the second period, mustered three shots — two off turnovers in the Kings‘ defensive zone — that could have easily led to a short-hander.

“I liked all the lines,” Trotz said after the game. “I mean, I was saying that we were getting a lot of production from Ovi and Backy and we needed some more from some of the other lines when we were going really good. Earlier in the year, we were getting contributions every night from different lines, and there wasn’t a real pattern, just that there was multiple lines contributing. I thought tonight was more of that type of effort where we could have gotten a goal from every line tonight.”

The hesitancy Trotz has with reconfiguring his lines is a large deviation from that of his predecessor, Adam Oates, who shuffled his forwards religiously as the Capitals‘ coach the previous two seasons. Oates also placed a heavy emphasis on having his players manning their appropriate sides, believing that having right-handed shooters play on the right wing — and vice versa — was important.

Moving the left-handed Johansson to the right side against the Kings underscored how trivial Trotz believes that is. Instead, a weight is placed on merely making plays, which Johansson has done frequently this season; in his fifth full year with the Capitals, Johansson has scored 13 goals, one shy of a career high with two months to play, and has 17 assists.

Furthermore, keeping him on the second line — he rarely received a look on the top line during training camp and the preseason — has been crucial in other areas. Despite cycling through seven other players as the top-line right wing, Trotz had been hesitant to try Johansson or Troy Brouwer in that spot, believing that consistently keeping them on the second line would help Evengy Kuznetsov, a rookie, in his development.

“I think we’re just trying to get some people settled,” Trotz said. “For a guy like Kuzy, giving him the same people for a long period of time has probably helped him. I think that’s probably the main reason. I just want to settle a couple of the younger guys down, especially someone who’s going to play in the middle.”

The Capitals began the season with Eric Fehr, now the third-line center, on the top line for five of their first eight games. Brouwer was in that spot for three games in mid-October, and then the splitting of Ovechkin and Backstrom for three games led to Joel Ward appearing on the top line.

Wilson spent 20 games on the first unit, Burakovsky was up for 10 and, recently, Beagle filled in for three as Trotz tried to add more grit and tenacity to the top line. Jason Chimera, a healthy scratch on Tuesday, also made a cameo alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom when the Capitals visited the New York Islanders on Dec. 29.

Trotz is very diligent about his matchups and making sure that we have certain guys to go against certain guys in their lineup,” Brouwer said. “You can’t be top-heavy, especially with how we do matchups, and I think all that plays into the rotation of that top-line right winger.”

Since the beginning of the season, Trotz has preached the importance of being able to roll four lines deep, citing the offensive nature of the modern game. He’s also come to understand that the reality of the salary cap prohibits many teams who hope to do that from having three heavy-hitters to fill out a top line, unless one happens to still be on his rookie contract.

Thus, the constant rotation on the top line doesn’t bother Trotz, who has maintained that he doesn’t hope to find a long-term solution for that right wing position. He’s content plugging in someone new — Wilson, Burakovsky, Beagle, and now Johansson — until he gets the results he wants.

“Hockey is a sport where you have to sort of adjust on the fly, adjust on injuries,” Trotz said. “Whoever’s here, that’s what matters right now.”

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