When Brian MacLellan sent Troy Brouwer packing last July, it was because he saw something in the return - T.J. Oshie - that the Washington Capitals had sorely missed since Mike Knuble left town in 2012: a mainstay third-wheel to the Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom partnership.
Through the years, that wing position has been a revolving door ushering in and out occupants of varying skill and merit. It's seen the likes of Marcus Johansson, Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovsky, Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich, Viktor Kozlov, Alex Semin, Jason Chimera, Joel Ward, and on one occasion that all proponents of acceptable decision-making would do well to forget, Joey Crabb.
In fact, since Mike Knuble in 2010-11, when Knubes skated 512 minutes with Ovechkin and Backstrom, the Caps' top forward tandem has only skated 300-plus minutes with one of their teammates in a single season on two occasions. Once in 2012-13 when Johansson skated alongside for 479:04, and last season, when Wilson squeaked by that arbitrary delimeter, at 302:36 in company with the big guns.
With 17 games left on the campaigns, Oshie has already spent 546 minutes on the top line -- more than any other Caps' forward since trio time-on-ice data became available in 2007.
So how have the most frequent of these trios stacked up in the years of relative instability since the days of Knuble? Let's check out Ovechkin, Backstrom and their most common linemate in each campaign, broken out by production and possession.
(data via Puckalytics)
The thing that stands out here is that the iteration of the top line that features Oshie boasts the best goals-for percentage since Knuble held down the fort in 2009-10 (a season in which scoring numbers were so extraordinary that the ability to make a reasonable comparison is a powerful statement of its own). This season, Oshie and company are getting the job done while maintaining the best top-line goal production of the last four years, and holding the opposition to a 1.54 GF/60 for mark, which is the lowest such rate since 2010 (Knuble).
The possession numbers, on the other hand, paint a considerably different picture.
Despite their gaudy scoring numbers, possession -- which tends to better foretell future scoring -- is anything but impressive, coming in below the 50% for only the second time in the past seven seasons. They're generating shot attempts at a lower rate than the past two seasons, and allowing them at a rate higher than any other season apart from 2011-12, when they were anchored by Troy Brouwer.
Granted, when two of three components of any given line are Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, it stands to reason their "true talent" would mask some possession deficiencies, but there's still cause for concern. The trio has a GF% of only 33 over the last ten games, evincing that their possession probably makes their production unsustainable.
With the playoffs right around the corner, and with the production numbers leveling out in accordance with the possession beneath them (the inputs that go into the outputs), it's pretty easy to see this line going cold at just the wrong time of year. That said, your big guns are also the guys you need to step up when the stakes are raised, so the book on the top line certainly stays open until the Spring chapters are written.
Regarding the type of player up top, Oshie is certainly more skilled than Wilson, Brouwer, or Knuble, and Johansson's skillset doesn't necessarily complement Backstrom's so much as mirrors it. (And as to player types, there's plenty Oshie does that doesn't show up on the score sheet, which Dan Steinberg does a wonderful job illuminating.)
Here's a look at the shooting rates and effectiveness for the skaters who got the longest looks on the top line over the years:
Oshie is more willing to fire the pill than any of his top-line wing predecessors since Knuble. Wilson is close, but T.J. Oshie has been a far more effective shooter through his career; meanwhile Johansson is actually more efficient with his shots than Oshie, but when he was on the top line he pulled the trigger half as often as Oshie does now.
Speaking of Oshie's shooting percentage, here's a look at the type of shot the guy is capable of (even though this was on the power play):
Even though Oshie's shot-rate and shooting-percentage numbers for this season are the closest thing to 2009-2011 Mike Knuble since 2009-2011 Mike Knuble, there's no question they go about their business in different manners.
While Oshie isn't shy about getting dirty in the crease, like Knuble, he's not quite so prolific in the high slot and perimeter. But, like the guy on the other wing, Oshie shoots at a considerably higher rate from above the circles, while Knuble opted for those looks at a lower rate than the rest of the League.
Ultimately, production from the top line is going to go through Alex Ovechkin, and Ovechkin's five-on-five goal scoring is on one of its better 20-game runs of the last half-decade:
At the end of the day, the possession troubles of Ovechkin/Backstrom/Oshie are worrisome, and certainly the sustainability of their current production would be more promising were they to get to the right side of 50%. But Ovechkin and Backstrom also know who they're going to skate with on any given night for the first time in five years, and -- most importantly -- they're scoring more goals than the guys across from them, by a considerable margin.