Through the early part of the Washington Capitals' 2013-14 season, the lines and line pairings have been a definite work in progress.
With the exception of the top offensive line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, there has not been much in the way of consistency from one night to the next for the Caps.
Defensively, the Caps have used rookies along with veterans and had to deal with injuries as well. Connor Carrick debuted early on and played in three games, even scoring a goal. Jack Hillen suffered a fractured tibial plateau and will be gone for much of the season.
This has given newer players such as Alexander Urbom and Nate Schmidt some true opportunities to play and produce.
On the offensive side of the puck, there has been quite a bit of movement and shake-up as well. The last week has seen Martin Erat go from the forgotten man to the second line with quite a bit of success.
Mikhail Grabovski, who started the season with a hat trick, got moved to the third line to try and get some improved production there.
The swapping of Erat and Grabovski has been rather successful, as the Caps have won three in a row since head coach Adam Oates made these changes.
Though it is still very early on—and even though the Caps lines continue to fluctuate a lot—let's pass out some early grades for the various lines of the Washington Capitals.
The Caps third defensive line has had a bit more fluctuation and variety than the other two defensive pairings. The most consistent part of the Caps third defensive line has been Steve Oleksy.
Oleksy came from relative obscurity last season and became a solid and consistent member of the Caps blue line. A season ago, Oleksy played in 28 games. He had a goal, eight assists and a plus-nine rating. In general, he was one of the harder working players on the team and brought a physical presence that the Caps needed on defense.
He has picked up where he left off so far in 2013-14. He has played virtually every game on the Caps third defensive line. In eight games so far this season, Oleksy has three assists and an even efficiency rating. He is by far and away the Caps most physical presence on defense as he leads all Caps defenders with 20 hits.
Though Oleksy is pretty consistent, his linemates have not been. The past few games have seen Oleksy paired with Nate Schmidt, Alexander Urbom and John Erskine.
The pairing with Erskine the past couple of games seems to hold the most promise. Between Erskine and Oleksy, the Caps have two of their more punishing defenders on the ice at the same time. Erskine, however, needs to play a more solid brand of defense, as he is a minus-four for the season.
Of course, one of the problems with this defensive pairing—as it is with all the Caps defensive lines so far—is that no one is scoring. Connor Carrick has the only goal so far by a Caps defender...and he is playing in Hershey now.
But the Caps third defensive line consisting of Oleksy and, as of late, Erskine has been doing a pretty good job of doing what they are supposed to do, which is playing defense.
Early Grade: B
The Caps second defensive pairing has struggled a bit more than the third line or the top defensive unit.
The past few games, the second defensive line has consisted of Mike Green and Nate Schmidt.
Schmidt is one of the feel-good stories for the Caps this season. The 22-year-old, who was signed as a free agent by the Caps last April, got his chance to play after injuries to Jack Hillen and John Erskine left the Caps rather thin at the blue line.
Schmidt has now played in six games for the Caps and his play has been pretty good. Nothing spectacular mind you, but pretty good all the same.
Like many of the Caps defenders, Schmidt has a negative efficiency rating at minus-one. It does look like Schmidt has good vision and good puck movement. He is also not afraid to shoot. His 11 shots are fourth among Caps defenders.
But Schmidt is dead last among Caps defenders in hits with just two, and he ranks near the bottom in blocked shots with just three. Those are all areas that must improve as the season progresses.
Green, on the other hand, can only be considered a disappointment so far. After leading all NHL defensemen in goals last season, Green has none through the first 10 games.
To be fair, he does lead all Caps defenders in assists and points with five, and he shoots the puck more than any other Caps blueliner. Then again, this makes his inability to find the back of the net somewhat more troubling.
Green's defensive play, overall, is a bigger concern. Green has, surprisingly, emerged as the best shot-blocker on the team, leading the Caps right now with 16. Most people, myself included, expected John Carlson to run away with this statistical category, but that has not been the case so far.
But Green's defensive lapses have been costly to the Caps. He has a minus-four rating, which has him tied with Erskine for the lowest efficiency rating among Caps blueliners.
Green's defensive problems were visible for all to see during the Caps recent 5-4 shootout victory over the Winnipeg Jets. Green was actually benched with just over nine minutes left in the game because he was playing so poorly.
Green was a minus-two in the game against the Jets, which was worst on the team. He would bounce back with a solid effort in the Caps 4-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night, as he had a plus-two rating with a couple of blocks.
I think you will see the Caps second defensive unit improve as the season moves on. Schmidt will get better and I think Green will start to score.
For now though, you have to consider the Caps second defensive line a bit disappointing.
Early Grade: C
The Caps top line of Karl Alzner and John Carlson looks poised to make a difference on defense.
The Caps top defensive duo has emerged as John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Alzner has been on the Caps top defensive line the whole season. For a while, he was sharing duties with Mike Green. But with Green's recent struggles, it sure looks like Carlson and Alzner are going to be the Caps No. 1 defensive unit for the foreseeable future.
It was during the 2012 NHL playoffs when the duo of Carlson and Alzner first gained a level of notoriety. The two men were paired together to try and neutralize the best players of the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and, subsequently, the top-seeded New York Rangers.
Alzner and Carlson kept the mighty Bruins in check as the Caps pulled off a shocking upset in seven games. They very nearly repeated the feat against the Rangers.
During the great run Alzner had two assists, 33 blocks and a minus-one rating against two of the best offenses in the NHL. Carlson was even better with two goals, three assists, 38 blocks and a minus-one rating.
Seeing the two men back together on the Caps top defensive line has to be a good thing.
So far, results have been somewhat mixed. Since the two men were placed on the Caps top defensive line, Washington has not lost.
From an offensive standpoint, neither man is exactly lighting things up. Alzner has just one assist on the young season; Carlson has only two.
Alzner is the only Caps defender with a positive efficiency rating with a plus-one. Carlson, who has spent some time on the Caps second defensive line this season, has a minus-three.
Both men are proving to be effective shot-blockers as well. Carlson is second on the Caps with 14 and Alzner is third with 11 blocks.
So, early returns on the Caps top defensive unit of Alzner and Carlson have to be considered somewhat mixed. Then again, the two guys were only recently reunited as the top unit—and the Caps have not lost since that happened.
It will be interesting to see if head coach Adam Oates keeps the two men together for an extended period of time. If he does, I expect better things out of them.
Early Grade: B
On all hockey teams, the fourth line is usually the checking line, the line of enforcers, the muckers and grinders who frequently try and send a message to the opposing team.
In that respect, the Caps fourth line has been successful to a great extent.
The one constant on the fourth line, ironically enough, has been the youngest player on the team. Nineteen-year-old Tom Wilson has played in all 10 games for the Caps this season. He has yet to register a point in his very young NHL career. Yet there is more to this young man than offensive production.
Though he is playing just over seven minutes per game, Wilson leads the Caps in penalty minutes. He has absolutely emerged as the Caps enforcer, but he is no goon. He will drop the gloves with anyone at any time. But he usually does this for a specific reason.
Do you want physical play? Look no further than Wilson who is third on the team in hits, despite his limited playing time.
All of this convinced the Caps management to keep Wilson in D.C. for the duration of the season, only the second time a junior-eligible rookie was retained for the opening night roster and beyond during general manager George McPhee's tenure with the team.
The rest of the fourth line has seen a lot of shuffling. Martin Erat spent some time on the fourth line and was wholly ineffective. Jay Beagle has seen about five games worth of action on the fourth line as well.
During this three-game winning streak, the fourth line has consisted of Wilson, Eric Fehr and Aaron Volpatti.
I think this is a very solid mix, as with Wilson and Volpatti you have some real bangers and guys who can really play a hard-checking style of game. With Fehr you have a player who can score to complement the other two.
Fehr is the only one of the three to register any points this season with a goal and an assist. But, Fehr has an abysmal minus-eight rating for the season, which is worst on the team.
All in all, the fourth line is doing what it is supposed to do. Wilson is emerging as a real force on the team despite limited minutes, Volpatti is a good complement to him, and if Fehr can rediscover his scoring touch, the fourth line could be even more productive.
Early Grade: B
It was prior to the Caps' recent game against the Columbus Blue Jackets that head coach Adam Oates made some key changes to the Caps lines.
The Caps had just been shut out by the struggling New York Rangers and with the team's record sitting at 2-5-0, the season seemed to be slipping away a bit very early on.
One of the big changes that Oates made was moving Mikhail Grabovski from the second line to the third line. After gathering a hat trick on opening night, Grabovski had not done much since then. He had just two assists and no goals over the next seven games.
With the entire team struggling to generate offense, Oates decided to pair up Grabovski with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward.
The difference has been profound.
Since Grabovski was moved to the third line, he has a goal and an assist. Ward has two goals and an assist. Chimera has a goal and an assist.
The third line has become the bread and butter of the team. They are the line that tilts the ice the most and racks up strong offensive zone possession numbers. Grabovski, Chimera and Ward all cycle the puck very well, and the third line is one of the hardest working lines on the entire team.
In many ways, the third line is a hybrid between the high-powered first and second lines and the checking fourth line. But make no mistake; the third line knows how to score as well. Grabovski is second on the team in goals and Ward is third.
What is also encouraging is that the third line is adept at scoring at even strength, something that the Caps have struggled with at times this season.
Like the rest of the team, as a collective unit the Caps third line has an overall negative rating of minus-five. But the unit of Grabovski, Ward and Chimera looks very capable of giving the Caps the depth they will need to compete with the big boys of the Eastern Conference.
Early Grade: B+
Another big change that head coach Adam Oates made prior to the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets back on Oct. 19 was the decision to move Martin Erat from the fourth line up to the second line.
Up until that moment, Erat had been playing on the fourth line and was only averaging about eight minutes of ice time per game. It was almost unthinkable that Erat, the focal point of a very unpopular trade last season, had slipped to relative obscurity so quickly.
Up until the game against Columbus, Erat had done absolutely nothing. He had no goals, no assists and no points. His role on the Caps was being questioned, his future very uncertain.
Once he got moved to the second line though, everything changed. Erat got paired up with Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich, and the results speak for themselves.
Against Columbus, Erat had three assists, Brouwer had a goal and Laich had a goal as well.
Against the Winnipeg Jets a few nights later, Brouwer picked up his third goal of the season.
The second line was held off the board against the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday, but it does not diminish the fact that since Erat was moved from the fourth line to the second line, his play has improved dramatically, as has the overall play of the second line.
Of all the Caps lines, the second line seems to have the most untapped potential so far. Brouwer was second on the team in goals last season and Laich was injured for all but nine games. If Erat is the missing piece of the puzzle, then the second line could conceivably go on a real tear here over the next few weeks.
Brouwer, in particular, looks like he might be ready to start scoring some more goals.
Similar to the other lines discussed, the second line also has a negative efficiency rating at minus-four. But like the other lines we have looked at, the second line looks like they might be turning the corner.
They have not quite lived up to expectations, but it looks like better days are ahead for the second line.
Early Grade: B
While the Caps other lines have struggled with consistency, the same cannot be said for the top line.
The line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson have been producing at a steady—and potentially record-breaking—clip pretty much all season long.
Perhaps the most surprising has been the production of Johansson. Believe it or not, but MoJo is tied for the team lead in assists with 10. During the Caps' recent three game surge, Johansson has tallied five assists.
True, he has yet to score a goal, and he is not shooting the puck enough. Still, MoJo's early season performance should be cause for all Caps fans to be excited.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Backstrom is the man tied with MoJo for the team lead in assists. Of course, Backstrom finished third in the NHL in assists a season ago so his being tied with MoJo for second in the NHL in assists should not really be all that surprising.
During the Caps recent three-game winning streak, Backstrom has also been on fire with a goal and three assists.
But all of this is just the icing on the cake because the man Johansson and Backstrom are setting up, more often than not, is having a career year in an already tremendous career.
With 10 goals in his first 10 games, Ovechkin is on a scoring pace unlike any he has been on before. Even during the 2007-08 season, when Ovi scored a career-high 65 goals, he only had six goals in his first 10 games.
Ovechkin is now a smarter player gifted with, perhaps, an even better shot than he had five years ago. He is leading the NHL in goals and shots, is second in power-play goals and is third in points. If there were doubts about whether or not Ovi was truly back, he is silencing every critic and doubter that was in existence.
All told, the Caps top line has accounted for 43 percent of the team's goals and 50 percent of their assists.
It is hard to find a lot of fault with numbers like that.
Early Grade: A