Through the first week of training camp and during Washington’s first home preseason game, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau has pieced together a top line with an unfamiliar look. Despite having Marcus Johansson in the middle, Boudreau has bumped new acquisition Troy Brouwer into the top line right wing spot opposite Alex Ovechkin. Brouwer’s promotion means that Mike Knuble has been demoted to the third line, as Brooks Laich has been on the second line left wing. This switch has sparked a debate among Caps fans about whether this is the right call or not. Read on for my take.
It’s not the right call.
As I have written several times before, I think that Knuble needs to be on the top line in order to maximize his effectiveness for Washington. At age 39, Knuble is simply not fast or skilled enough anymore to create offensive chances on his own. Taking him off the top line and bumping him down one spot to the second line significantly decreases the talent level he has around him. Putting him on the third line, however, really has the potential to seriously dent what could otherwise be a bounce-back campaign for him.
Some have suggested to me that having Knuble off the top line may be better for Ovie and Nicky, because Brouwer’s ability on that unit could “open up” room for them to work. I disagree. Alex Ovechkin is one of the best players in the world in addition to being an absolute wrecking ball; he doesn’t need anyone to hit and open up room for him nearly as much as say, Marcus Johansson would. And though he may be younger and a little bit of a better “garbage goal” player, the drop off between Brouwer and Knuble in that department does not warrant a switch. Knuble can still get the job done with Nicky and Ovie.
Others have told me that Knuble would be a good third line player because he is a veteran and he can do “whatever is asked of him.” Again, I disagree. A third line of Mike Knuble, Jason Chimera, and Mathieu Perreault (or Cody Eakin) is an okay unit, but I would much rather have Joel Ward in that spot instead of Knuble, because Ward is better third-line type defensive player than Knuble is. Besides Ward being better suited to that type of game, he’s also more durable; he’s far more likely to make it through a season unscathed playing those tough minutes than Knuble is. You can’t have Knuble on the fourth line and Ward on the third line, either, that makes absolutely no sense and is just a waste of the talent that Knuble has.
In short, Knuble’s role comes down to an ageless cliche: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There are several things that have been wrong with the Capitals that have led to their recent playoff failures, but the first line is not one of them. The top unit of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble has been a good combination for the last two years, and there is no reason to add defense-first players to offensive lines and add offense-first player defensive lines. It’s counterproductive and, like Brooks Laich not playing center (more here), it really hurts the potential effectiveness of the team.