Japers' Rink Mailbag: Mikhail Grabovski on the Penalty Kill and Top-Line Left Wings

USA TODAY Sports

Grabo on the PK and who rides shotgun with Alex and Nick in our latest installment of "you ask, we answer"

Our first question this week is about Mikhail Grabovksi and the penalty kill:

We talked a bit about the penalty kill last week, focusing on the frequency with which it would be pressed into action, so this is a nice follow-up in terms of personnel.

Over the course of this summer, the Caps' penalty kill lost the forward who logged the second-most ice time (both during the regular season and the playoffs) when Matt Hendricks split town and headed to Nashville. But they're presumably getting a healthy Brooks Laich back into the lineup, and Laich has actually led the team's forwards in per-game ice time while shorthanded over the past three years, so it's reasonable to assume that he and Jay Beagle (who spent more total minutes on the kill than any Caps forward last season) will be Adam Oates's top-two penalty-killers, especially since both can and do take faceoffs. Additionally, Nicklas Backstrom led Caps forwards in shorthanded ice time during the playoffs and was fourth in per-game time during the regular season, and Troy Brouwer, Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, Martin Erat and Marcus Johansson all got significant time on the kill when the Caps were last playing meaningful hockey. So Oates is clearly willing to spread out the penalty-killing duties a bit.

But will Grabovski get in on the action? During his season of misuse last year, Grabovski got 1:28 of shorthanded ice time over the course of 55 regular season and playoff games. That's not 1:28 per game (i.e. a few seconds less than what Backstrom averaged), but 1:28 total. A year earlier, he averaged 17 seconds per game (the second-highest per-game mark of his career), and in 2010-11 peaked at one minute per game... of what looks like pretty good penalty killing. Huh. (Clearly when George McPhee referred to Grabovski as "a good penalty killer," he was focused on quality and not quantity.)

Anyway, the Caps seem to have a handful of warm bodies they can throw out there to try to kill penalties this year, and it's not something Mikhail Grabovski has much experience doing. That said, if you set the over/under at the 1.6 seconds per game he got last year, I'd feel pretty comfortable betting that he will get increased penalty-killing responsibility this season.

Next up, a question (which we'll let Rob answer) about one of the best gigs in the NHL:

Let's handle these two questions together, since they are ultimately related. It's tempting to say that Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are so good that it doesn't really matter who plays on their left wing, but regular readers are well-aware that we've spent a lot of time discussing Ovechkin, and what makes him productive. As good as Ovechkin is, he needs some help. Ideally, the top line left wing will be a player that is a good puck carrier, allowing Ovechkin to play more away from the puck, finding and exploiting soft spots in the offensive zone. We'd also like to see Ovechkin play with a defensively sound linemate, allowing Ovechkin to focus more on offense (or, depending on how you look at it, covering for Ovechkin's defensive shortcomings) and boosting the line's possession numbers, giving them more opportunities to score goals. There are three options for the top line left wing, each of them satisfying some of these criteria, while lacking in others: Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, and Martin Erat.

Johansson rode shotgun with Ovechkin and Backstrom last season, and after a sluggish start (in which he was not alone) he really seemed to find his place on the line. Johansson is a truly elite skater, and he found his stride carrying the puck through neutral ice and establishing offensive zone possession for Ovechkin and Backstrom. His speed backed defenders off and allowed Ovechkin to find open ice around the tops of the circle, something that had been increasingly rare since the 2010 Olympics. Johansson has historically put up poor possession numbers, but managed to put up solid possession numbers last season. This should give him the inside track for the top line position, but he's not a lock for the position. He isn't a great defensive player, won't win a ton of puck battles to help gain or maintain offensive possession, and hasn't shown above-average passing or shooting once he's in the offensive zone. He'll need to show that he wasn't riding a hot streak through the end of last season, but as far as our criteria above, you'd be hard pressed to find a better player at carrying the puck through the neutral zone.

Laich is almost the exact opposite kind of player. He's a solid skater, but he does not bring the same speed or puck handling skills that Johansson brings. Laich does not have a strong track record with possession numbers, though it should be noted that a lot of those very ugly numbers were compiled while he was playing center in the top-six, something that we've never been much of a fan of. As a wing, Laich will have fewer responsibilities and will be able to focus on what he does well. He'll be defensively responsible, he'll win battles down low, he'll crash the net, and he'll give an honest effort. You could certainly do worse for a wing to play opposite Ovechkin (and the Capitals surely have). Still, Laich doesn't exactly inspire excitement with his offensive skill set, and on a line that looks to be all-offense-all-the-time a player with better puck skills would make more sense.

Qualitatively, he fits our suggested criteria for the top line left wing better than any other option so in a vacuum he'd be the best option to play left wing on the top line. Unfortunately for Erat, these decisions aren't made in a vacuum.

Erat, while still new and largely unfamiliar to Caps fans, seems to strike a great balance between Johansson's game and Laich's game. He also doesn't have the speed that Johansson has, but he's a very strong skater and has very good puck skills. He's a better player with the puck on his stick than either Laich or Johansson, and he's an exceptional passer. He's strong on the boards, and a reliable defender. His possession numbers aren't much more impressive than Laich's, but those willing to give him the benefit of the doubt would be quick to point out his unfortunate situation playing with the Nashville Predators. Qualitatively, he fits our suggested criteria for the top line left wing better than any other option so in a vacuum he'd be the best option to play left wing on the top line.

Unfortunately for Erat, these decisions aren't made in a vacuum. Putting Erat on the top line really loads up the offensive talent on one line, with the best C, RW, and LW all playing together. The addition of Mikhail Grabovski helps maintain some depth in the lineup, potentially mitigating that concern, but to maintain scoring depth throughout the lineup it makes more sense to play Erat with Grabovski on the second line. That leaves Johansson and Laich to battle out the top line. Given their respective performances with Ovechkin, and the fact that as of now Ovechkin and Backstrom seem capable of overcoming Johansson's deficiencies, leaving Johansson on the top line makes sense. Pushing Johansson down in the lineup would require him to a) do more heavy lifting offensively (if you want his line to score) and b) handle more defensive responsibilities. He's not ready for either of that yet. Laich can help a line cycle and create offense below the face off dots, but can also play reliable defense. That's a perfect fit for a third line left wing.

The only problem with Laich on the third line is that he's too good to give him traditional "third line minutes." The quality of his play (and, if you're into that kind of analysis, his pay check) dictates that he should see regular ice time. Should Adam Oates follow our prescription, Laich would not see as much even strength ice time as a player of his caliber normally would, but we'd have him as a mainstay on both special teams unit. Laich is capable of playing on a top penalty killing pair (and has, see above), and a first or second power play unit, depending on whom Oates looks to as a replacement for Mike Ribeiro's now-vacant spot on the league's top PP unit. That leaves us with Johansson as the top line LW, Erat as the second line LW, and Laich doing what he does best: the jack of all trades.

***

Agree? Disagree?

If you've got something on your mind, go ahead and ask it here on the site, on Twitter (use #JapersMailbag), via email or on Facebook, and we'll try to get to them. It's a long summer and there are a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.

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