Washington Capitals: Examining The Third Line

Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After a busy off-season that saw the Washington Capitals overhaul their top six forward group and drastically increase their forward core, it appears that the Washington Capitals are most likely done making any major moves. They still might add a depth center, depending on how Nicklas Backstrom recovers from his injury, but with Washington Capitals general manager wanting a salary cap cushion of roughly $1,000,000 going into the season (for call ups), they’re probably done making any major signings. 

MORE FROM STARS AND STICKS: Point Projections For The Caps

We have already looked at the Washington Capitals and their likely top two forward lines. Long story short, assuming Backstrom is healthy, the Washington Capitals have five of their top six forwards set. The sixth spot will likely be awarded to either Andre Burakovsky or Marcus Johansson. The loser of that battle will be sent to the third line, which is not going to be your traditional third line. Usually when I say third line, people immediately think “checking line”. If we look at how the players who could be on the third line have been deployed in the past, they probably shouldn’t be utilized in a “checking line” role.

Washington Capitals Have A Unique Third Line

Usually, one’s checking line is a bottom six forward line that is sent out to crush their opponent’s top forward lines. They’re expected to have success despite usually seeing heavy defensive zone starts against quality competition. That is not a role that the two guaranteed members of the third line are well suited for.

Tom Wilson certainly loves to hit people. However, if we take a look at how he has been deployed so far in his career, he been sheltered with offensive zone starts and facing a low quality of competition. This is at even strength.

CREDIT: Hockey Abstract

This should come as a surprise to nobody, as Wilson, save for a first line stint last season, has been a steady member of the Washington Capitals fourth forward line. Is he ready to take a step forward? Absolutely. I think Wilson is ready to take on more responsibility on a consistent basis.

In 2013-2014, like most Washington Capitals forwards, Wilson was awful as far as possession. In 2014-2015, like almost every Capitals forward, Wilson saw a noticeable increase in possession. Part of that is due to the uptick in offensive zone starts, but that alone doesn’t explain the huge increase. The huge increase? That was mostly because of Wilson’s improvement (and Barry Trotz’s system not being a dumpster fire).

The other guaranteed member is either Johansson or Burakovsky. At even strength, Johansson faced higher quality opponents than Burakovsky and had a lower offensive zone start percentage as well. Like Wilson, I think that Burakovsky is absolutely ready to see more minutes on a consistent basis. He’s earned it. The Capitals need to find a way to get him more minutes because he makes a lot of great things happen when he’s on the ice.

CREDIT: Hockey Abstract

However, let’s look at how the Washington Capitals checking line was deployed last season. The checking line was Eric Fehr, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward. Jason Chimera and Curtis Glencross were also a part of it at times.

CREDIT: Hockey Abstract

Fehr, Laich, Chimera, Glencross and Ward can be found in the top left of the graph. Basically, they each saw an offensive zone start percentage of about 46% at even strength (Fehr was actually a little bit lower). Not only that, they faced the highest quality competition out of all the forwards. Is that a role that two players who have never faced high quality competition should be utilized in? Absolutely not. 

Here’s my proposal: the third line should be a sheltered line. Let me bust a myth. Your third forward line does not NEED to be your “checking” line. Absolutely not. It usually is, but it certainly isn’t always the case. The Chicago Blackhawks and New York Islanders are two teams that deploy their respective fourth forward lines as their checking lines.

The Washington Capitals can afford to do this. The first forward line faces high quality competition. They’ll be even more efficient with the addition of T.J. Oshie. The second forward line, thanks to the addition of possession demigod Justin Williams and the improvement of Evgeny Kuznetsov, should be able to be more than just a pure offensive zone start line. The Caps can certainly afford to shelter their third forward line.

I think in this case, Burakovsky might be the best fit for the third line. If he whoops Johansson’s butt in training camp and shows that he’s deserving of playing with the second line, put him there. I don’t think he’s quite ready yet. I’d put him at third line center, but his versatility is key because it gives the Washington Capitals two options.

The first option: Burakovsky as the third line center with Stanlislav Galiev as the third line left wing. Galiev had an impressive season in Hershey, but everything I’ve heard suggests that he was quite sheltered (which is fine). They could also sign Jiri Tlusty. That third line has the potential to be a scoring line, but the offensive zone start percentage would likely need to be at least in the 60% range. For the record, the Nashville Predators did that with their first forward line last year and it worked beautifully for them. Galiev (or Tlusty) is no Filip Forsberg and Burakovsky is no Mike Ribeiro, but a very sheltered forward line could have success.

The second option: Burakovsky as the third line left wing. This creates a slight issue, in that the Washington Capitals don’t have a third line center who would be ideal for that sheltered role. Free agent Derek Roy, however, would be perfect for that role.

What do you think the third line should look like? Let me know in the comments!