Asked Oates about the third line, he cuts off the question "You mean the first line?" #Caps— Katie Carrera (@kcarrera) November 13, 2013
When the Caps signed center Mikhail Grabovski back in August, the assumption was that he was brought in to fill the second-line center role that had been left vacant by Mike Ribeiro’s departure. So when the team’s slow start prompted Adam Oates to shuffle up his forwards in mid-October, resulting in what appeared to be a demotion to the third line for Grabovski, it raised more than a few eyebrows.
Three weeks later, it’s looking like the smartest thing Oates has done since he flipped Alex Ovechkin to the right wing.
The third line as originally fashioned, with Eric Fehr at center between Jason Chimera on his port side and Joel Ward on his starboard, failed to produce much offense (not that they were necessarily expected to), but quickly became one of the team’s more consistent and effective forechecking trios. All told, Ward, Chimera and Fehr combined for three goals and four assists in the first seven games of the season, with six of those seven points coming on three even-strength goals (which may not be terribly impressive on its own, but considering that the team had scored a whopping eight goals at evens during those first seven games... it was something).
Meanwhile, Grabovski started the season on the second line as expected, slotted between Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer, a trio that failed to produce much offense (and they were necessarily expected to). And while he did put up six points in those first seven games, four of them were scored in the season opener against Chicago - and all but one, the team's first goal of the season, came on the power play (and was, incidentally, assisted by Ward). Suddenly the guy who had come to D.C. with a reputation as the great even-strength performer the team needed was saddled with a line that was quickly becoming a black hole of possession, with CF% and FF% routinely on the wrong side of 50% (and sometimes well below, even in wins).
After the team scuffled its way through those first seven games, however, Oates made the decision to slide Grabovski down to the third line between Ward and Chimera. The new-look line debuted on October 19 against the Blue Jackets, and while their impact on the scoresheet wasn't instantaneous, it didn't take long for them to start clicking. By their second game together, the results were starting to show, as Grabovski picked up his first even-strength goal since opening night on an assist from Chimera - and they were off and running.
Since joining forces 12 games ago, the trio has combined for an amazing 32 points and eight of the team's even-strength goals. All three players are shooting more, getting victimized by opponents less and scoring at a ferocious rate; in fact, only twice in the twelve games since October 19 have all three been held without a point (the shootout wins over the Panthers and Wild).
The combined before-and-after stats for Chimera, Grabovski and Ward tell a pretty clear tale:
|First 7 games||5||6||11||-7||2||5||27||0.91||1.09||2.01|
|Last 12 games||15||17||32||11||8||22||65||1.49||1.69||3.18|
Just based on the numbers alone, you can see how bringing these three together has improved all of their games (and that scoring rate is made more impressive by the fact that Grabovski's "demotion" coincided with him essentially being taken off the League's best power play). That 32 points combined isn't just a huge total for a third line - it puts them in some pretty elite company. Check out how they stack up against the top lines for some of the League's top-scoring teams:
|Anaheim||Dustin Penner - Ryan Getzlaf - Corey Perry*||13||17||23||40|
|Chicago||Marian Hossa - Jonathan Toews - Patrick Sharp||11||15||18||33|
|Washington||Joel Ward - Mikhail Grabovski - Jason Chimera||12||15||17||32|
|Washington||Martin Erat - Nicklas Backstrom - Alex Ovechkin*||12||12||18||30|
|Vancouver||Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Ryan Kesler||12||13||17||30|
|Phoenix||David Moss - Mike Ribeiro - Shane Doan||11||12||13||25|
|Tampa Bay||Alex Killorn - Steven Stamkos - Martin St. Louis*||11||14||11||25|
|Colorado||Ryan O'Reilly - Matt Duchene - P.A. Parenteau||10||13||11||24|
|St. Louis||Alex Steen - David Backes - T.J. Oshie||9||8||16||24|
|San Jose||Patrick Marleau - Logan Couture - Tyler Kennedy||11||9||13||22|
|Pittsburgh||Pascal Dupuis - Sidney Crosby - Chris Kunitz||11||7||14||21|
*Note: As line combinations are constantly changing, lines above reflect most recent trios - without injuries - for each team
Even if you take out the goals on the power play and the goals on which neither of the other two assisted, the Caps' "third" line has combined for 9 goals and 21 points... which still keeps them in line with the rest of these "top" lines.
Whether the three can maintain the pace they've set early on probably isn't in question - all three are operating under a pretty high shooting percentage, and between that and the totals they've put up in the past, it's likely that at some point the offense will probably regress a bit. It already has to some extent, with the two games in which they were held off the scoresheet both happening in the last week.
But the combination of Grabovski's sneaky skill, Ward's strength along the boards and Chimera's speed (along with all three players' willingness to go to the dirty areas in front of the net) has made this line very tough to contain, and they're making Adam Oates's decision-making process that much harder. After all, a great third line is only great if the top-six are struggling by comparison, and they are... so at some point the question becomes, do you break them up?