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Japers' Rink Mailbag: Third-Line Center, Penalty-Killing D and Green vs. Laich

A look at the third-line center (down a line from the usual fare), who's going to kill penalties, a battle of the oft-injured and more in this week's edition of "you ask, we answer."


Training camp is in full swing, so let's hit the 'Bag:

There's no doubt that centering the third line between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward was a choice assignment in 2013-14, most notably for Eric Fehr and Mikhail Grabovski, who, in nearly 500 combined five-on-five minutes in between the two big wingers compiled a 53.1 Goals-For percentage and a 49.8 Corsi-For percentage - not bad, considering that line's role and, well, the team. And while good fortune consistently smiled upon whomever constituted that trio last year, being the middle-man on line three should be a good gig again this year. Chimera and Ward are reliable and both are good at the dirty work; the former has great speed to pressure a defense, while the latter has a decent shot and nose for the net.

Based on everything Barry Trotz has said, it looks like the second-line center is primarily a battle between Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson, and it seems reasonable that the third-line center spot will go to the loser of that battle. Conceivably, Brooks Laich could play that role if either of the 2C candidates is not up to playing center in the NHL, and we've already seen what Chimera-Laich-Ward can do, so if that trio ends up together again it would seem to form a very strong defensive line.

Kuznetsov and Johansson wouldn't provide the same defensive chops as Laich, so it would limit the team's ability to use that third line in a shutdown capacity (especially if those two continue to struggle with face-offs). However, the two young Europeans also both have more offensive ability than Laich, so they could potentially create a more potent offensive line, even if (when) Chimera and Ward experience some offensive regression. The speed Johansson and Chimera have would make it the fastest line on the team by a long shot; Kuznetsov would provide a much more talented player with the puck, freeing up Ward and Chimera to focus on the dirty work and getting to the net.

I wouldn't expect exceptional scoring from the third line, but I do expect it to be one of the more reliable lines for the Caps again this year, regardless of who ends up centering it. Of course, if a first-round pick ends up centering your third line, can you really call it "success"?

Let's start with the second question: training camp opened, what, three days earlier and the team hadn't even practiced the penalty kill yet so it's questionable whether John Carlson even knew what the right position was at that moment. It's a learning process, and there will be some bumps in the road - but if it's still happening at, say, Halloween, let's revisit the issue.

As to who gets shorthanded ice time, Carlson led the team last year (and no defender in the NHL played a higher percentage of his team's penalty-killing minutes), so it's a near certainty that he'll once again be a staple of the PK. But the added depth will allow Trotz and company to not lean as heavily on Carlson and Karl Alzner, and that in and of itself should help what was a historically bad group last season. After Carlson, Brooks Orpik is going to be relied on to play in man-down situations, as he was last year in Pittsburgh. How well he's able to help out a unit that has struggled for years is an under-discussed aspect of his signing, and will be an important factor in the team's attempts to rebound from last year. Alzner will also get a lot of PK time, as defensive zone play is pretty much his meal ticket.

That gives three mainstays for the kill, but they'll need at least one more guy to log regular minutes. I'd bank on Matt Niskanen being that fourth guy, as he was able to handle top-six competition last year (i.e. the type of guys that end up on power play units), and because it makes the top-four penalty-killing defensemen match the top-four even-strength defensemen (based on what we expect the pairings to look like). Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov may be forced to take some penalty killing duties here or there, but I wouldn't expect either of them to be regulars. Depending on who replaces Orlov while he heals, there may be another option in the mix, but the replacement (who would really slot in as the seventh or eighth defenseman on the team) is not likely to be a better option than the top-four are, so again we're probably looking at spot duty from Jack Hillen/John Erskine/Cameron Schilling/whomever.

If both are healthy and perform as they were expected to before the injuries, it's Green by a mile. Green has elite, almost-impossible-to-replace skill. He's a game-changer. Or, he was before the injuries and decline in his play over the last few years (a decline which is probably not quite as great as people generally perceive it to be). A 20-30 goal and 60-70 point Mike Green covers up a lot of the question marks with the secondary scoring and provides a dynamic offensive threat that you generally find on the teams that win playoff series (multiple). But don't take our word for it, here's his new coach:

You are going to see a guy like Mike Green get back to some of the numbers that he had in the past.

Sign me up.

Laich is a nice player, he's versatile and he can do a lot of little things that help teams win. But he's simply more replaceable than Green and if you look at the rest of the forward ranks, there's no reason some combination of Fehr/Troy Brouwer/Ward/Chimera/Michael Latta can't provide what Laich will provide. It's obviously better to have those guys and have Laich, but adding or subtracting Laich doesn't change the picture of the team as much as adding or subtracting an elite performing Green, even with a deep corps of defensemen.

Until Trotz gives me a reason not to believe him, I'll believe him when he says that he's not going to keep up a kid unless they earn substantial ice time. During his tenure in Nashville he wasn't prone to handing over ice time to kids, so he does seem to really mean the "earn" part of that statement. So unless Andre Burkovsky out-performs Kuznetsov and Johansson for the second-line center spot, or somehow loses the 2C battle but in the process wins a top-six wing spot, I think Trotz will have no hesitation to send him to Hershey, where he can hopefully hone his skills as a center against less difficult competition, playing on the top line and top power play unit...

...with Tom Wilson. Although Wilson was an NHL player last year, he is still a developing prospect and would be better served by playing more minutes. Just because he's big and strong and not technically a rookie won't lead Trotz to hand him a roster spot. I think. I hope. Wilson isn't a candidate for a center spot, and the wings are very crowded on this team, so it'll be a tough battle for him to earn a spot on the roster. Factor in that he's not even skating in training camp yet, coming off an ankle injury which must have hampered his cardio training this summer, and I think it's exceedingly unlikely that he's ready for NHL minutes at this point.

Give them both a chance to earn a spot in the NHL, but make them earn it. When they don't, let them go form a dynamic duo on the top line in Hershey (and Trotz has already talked about the importance of pairs among the forward lines) so that they can develop their skills and be prepared to contribute in the NHL when the time finally comes. It will come, it's just not here yet.

We might as well stick to our guns on this one and go with Cameron Schilling.


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. As always, there are always a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.