- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Two games ago, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz unveiled a completely new set of forward lines.

Before, Trotz had Alex Ovechkin with Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie on his first line. His new top line consisted of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, who was previously on the second line and Justin Williams, who was previously on the third line. The new edition of the second line featured Marcus Johansson, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson, who was previously playing on the fourth line.

The third line featured two players who had played in the top-six before the new edition. Andre Burakovsky, previously a second-line right wing, moved to the left wing spot on the third line. Lars Eller stayed in his third line center role and Oshie slotted in on the third line right wing spot. The fourth featured Zach Sanford on the left, Jay Beagle up the middle and Brett Connolly on the right.

The reason for the changes? It’s simple: Trotz was looking to get more goals out of his unit.

“We have to get better offensively for our group,” Trotz said prior to the Vancouver Canucks game. “I think we are just in the middle of the pack 5-on-5.”

So far, it’s working. In two installments of the new lines, the Capitals have skated away with two wins and four 5-on-5 goals.

The most drastic changes to each line came along the right wing flank, with the general bottom six forwards moving up into top six positions. But the three right wings that moved the most radically, Williams, Wilson and Oshie, all have one noticeable trait in common. All three players play a north-south style of hockey. They tend to be strong along the boards and generally play more in front of the net. Trotz’s desire may have been to just shuffle the three net-front guys around.

“I think there’s one message, one balance message, throughout each line,” Oshie said following the game against the Canucks. “We want to get the puck deep. We want to play fast, we want to limit our turnovers. And with the depth and ability that we have on some of these lines, when you’re getting that puck in eight, nine out of 10 times and working hard to get it back, we’re going to get some chances and o-zone time.”

The net-front theory is even evident in the Capitals‘ fourth line. Sanford, at 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds, has a strong build and tends to work along the boards and toward the net. He provides the fourth line with a more offensive touch, and gives Connolly, who also is a bit more offensive-minded, someone to work with.

But the most notable, and perhaps the most significant, change is the addition of Wilson as a second-line forward. This offseason, the belief was that Wilson was going to be given an increased offensive role to try to develop his game.

“I think it’s on us to turn Tom Wilson into Joel Ward,” general manager Brian MacLellan said in the offseason. “It’s on Tom and on us to turn him into that kind of guy that has a net-front presence, that finds loose pucks, finds rebounds, plays good along the wall. I think Tom is our answer to that.”

At the beginning of the season, Wilson wasn’t given that opportunity, in part because the Capitals went out and signed Connolly and utilized Burakovsky as a right wing.

But given the chance, Wilson has capitalized, scoring his first goal of the season in just his seventh shift with his new role on the second line.

“It was Capitals hockey,” Wilson said of the success of the new lines. “You could tell the urgency [was there], you could tell that we came out and we were skating. We got to continue to have that energy level.”

Johansson, who has recorded four points and one assist in two games, also feels comfortable with his new line mates of Wilson and Kuznetsov.

“It felt great,” Johansson said. “I’ve played with them both before. [They’re] really good to play with. There’s nothing you can complain about playing with those guys. I’ve alway said ‘on this team, it’s such a great team, it doesn’t matter who you play with.’ And I think that showed tonight. Everybody can play with everybody.”

Every forward can play with every forward on the Capitals because there’s a tremendous amount of offensive skill on each line. Between the Capitals‘ top nine forwards, the Capitals have nine former first-round draft picks. There’s another former first-round draft pick on the fourth line.

It’s a star-packed unit, it’s just up to Trotz to find the right combination. So far, he’s found a formula that clicks.

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