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The Second Line: Into the Unknown

The arrival of Mikhail Grabovski and the health of Martin Erat give the Capitals reason for optimism, and also many questions.

Martin Erat possessing the puck
Martin Erat possessing the puck
Clyde Caplan / Clydeorama

Looking at the Washington Capitals 2013-2014 projected lineup, one line stands out more than the others as a pre-season uncertainty.

It’s not the first line. That line has Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom on it, and as long as those two are clicking, never mind who the third wheel is. Last year this line was tremendous down the stretch, and expectations will remain high going forward (as they should).

It's not the third or fourth line either. Look at the bottom two lines of the Caps’ lineup, and you see an usual amount of skill and production potential (and salary). That was the effect of signing Mikhail Grabovski, which presumably bumps Brooks Laich down to third line wing and Jason Chimera to the fourth line, giving the Caps’ bottom 6 forward ranks the following look:

Brooks Laich - Mathieu Perreault - Eric Fehr

Jason Chimera - Jay Beagle - Joel Ward

Boasting three former 20-goal scorers and five former 30-point scorers (Jay Beagle the only skater not qualifying here) is a pretty stacked look for a pair of supposed checking lines.

But what about the second line? The one that, you know, is designed to produce. We can surmise based on personnel, based on coaching preferences, and based on previous usage, that the line will look like this:

Martin Erat - Mikhail Grabovski - Troy Brouwer

It looks good, but there is a lot of unknown as well. Troy Brouwer is a possession sinkhole. Mikhail Grabovski had the worst year of his career last season. Martin Erat only played nine regular season games in a Capitals' sweater last year, and suffered a season-ending injury before he really found his stride in the nation's capital last year. So how are these three, heading into the season with no rapport to speak of, supposed to comprise the second most responsibility-laden (as measured by ice time) line on the squad?

As we have detailed in the past, the possession numbers of Martin Erat and Troy Brouwer both suffered at the hands of Mike Ribeiro last year. Ribeiro and Brouwer atoned for this by putting up the two highest shooting percentages on the team among forwards who played more than 150 minutes. Interestingly, Martin Erat trailed only Nicklas Backstrom in terms of Individual Points Percentage, which is to say that when good things were happening for that second line, Erat usually had his hand in the pot in one way or another (though Erat’s IPP includes his time with the Nashville Predators).

Erat’s positive IPP numbers are a nice foil to Brouwer’s, who has been historically horrible in this regard. We’ve highlighted this before, but it bears repeating: From 2010-2012 there were 98 forwards who skated greater than 2000 minutes. Of these forwards, only Tyler Bozak tallied fewer points than Troy Brouwer on goals for while on the ice. Martin Erat only skated 1865 minutes during that time frame, but among skaters who skated more than 1500 minutes, Erat clocked in at a respectable 68th best (of 242), with names like TJ Oshie, Matt Duchene, and Thomas Vanek for company.

But what about when Erat and Brouwer are on the ice together? They only shared 78:52 of even strength ice time (an obvious contributor to the element of unknown going forward), and both saw their possession numbers take a little dive, though it’s worth noting that each player improved on his GF/60 versus GA/60 ratio when together.

This is why Mikhail Grabovski was brought to Washington. Well... this is one of the reasons, anyway. Last season notwithstanding (for the reason that Grabovski’s uncharacteristic numbers were the result of what appears to be stubborn incompetence on the part of Randy Carlyle), Grabovski has been a Mr. Fix-It in terms of possession, which is what the Caps’ second line was sorely lacking last year.

As we wrote back in July when we were praying to the powers-that-be for a Grabovski deliverance:

But Grabovski, unlike Ribeiro, improves the possession numbers of whoever he's skating with, almost to a tee. In 2011-2012, only one skater who played more than 100:00 with Grabovski saw his CF% decrease in those minutes. That skater? Our old friend Joey Crabb, who skated 157:06 with Grabovski. In 2010-2011, the story is the same- in fact, it's even more impressive. Every skater who spent more than 15:00 on the ice with Grabovski saw their possession numbers improve, and many of those by 10 percentage points or more. There were, uh, a lot of skaters who saw more than 15:00.

If Grabovski does end up a Capital, and he has the effect on the Troy Brouwers and Martin Erats of the world as he had on the entire Leafs roster, it will go a long way towards keeping pace with the toughest division Washington will have played in since the Patrick days-and especially if Alex Ovechkin and his merry band of top-liners produce at anywhere near the rate they did in 2012-2013.

A few weeks ago, our own Rob Parker wrote the following:

Erat, Grabovski, and Brouwer have a great mix of speed, passing, shooting, defense, and checking. It's a balanced line that should be very solid.

The factors outlined above give that statement even more depth. And it's true. On the surface, it appears that the tools for success are present on the new-look second line. Troy Brouwer, if nothing else, is a finisher (except for this), whose final boxcars tend to help glaze over the underlying numbers. Martin Erat is a guy who’s usually in on scoring plays. Mikhail Grabovski is the puck-possessing guru who gets the puck over the blue line, and then keeps it there. Playmaker, puck-possesion wizard, finisher. Sounds like an ideal line composition, right?

If the on-paper logic translates to a corresponding on-ice product, this lineup’s biggest offseason mystery could turn into one of its most pleasant improvements, and, given the conventional responsibilities of a presumed scoring line, one of the most important elements to a successful 2013-2014 campaign.

But as always with unknowns, we're speaking in ifs.