If Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau is known for anything (besides his colorful language and acting skills), it is his almost-manic tendency to switch around his forward lines. Yet, for the last two seasons, there has been one line that has stayed mostly intact. The first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble has been tasked with providing the scoring punch that top lines are responsible for doing since Knuble joined the Caps in July 2009.
Part of that consistency can be attributed to the obvious success that those three players have had as a group, but another part has to do with the lack of potent right wingers that the Caps have had in recent years. Excluding Alexander Semin (whose natural position is actually left wing), Washington's most capable right wingers have included Chris Clark and Eric Fehr, players who had the ability to score, but not to the effect that was needed for a first line position.
That problem, however, was taken care of this summer when the Caps signed Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer, two right wingers with the kind of touch that can be used on a scoring line. In fact, Brouwer's skill set may actually benefit Washington and its top line more than Knuble's at this point, and the team should consider replacing the latter with the former at that position.
Many depth charts have Brouwer - acquired on June 24 from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for the Caps' 26th overall selection in the 2011 NHL Draft - penciled in for a checking line role with the Caps, but a quick look of his statistics compared to Knuble's shows that the two are very similar players. Last season, Knuble and Brouwer had similar goal totals (24 to 17), average time on ice per game (17:52 to 15:06), average power play time on ice per game (2:19 to 2:06) and power play goals (each had seven). Knuble has the edge in experience (14 seasons to Brouwer's five) and has eight consecutive seasons of 20-plus goals, but there is one statistic that Brouwer has a distinct advantage in that could and should turn the tide in his favor: hits.
Last season, Brouwer ranked fifth in the NHL with 262 hits. Meanwhile, Ovechkin ranked 10th with 241. If Brouwer and Ovechkin skated on the top line together, the Caps would have a hybrid line that not only provided scoring (49 goals combined last season, a total that Ovechkin is capable of eclipsing on his own), but a grittiness that would make it one of the most formidable and intimidating lines in the league.
"When you dump the puck in, the [defenseman] is not going to be very excited to go pick it up if you see 200 and whatever [pound] Ovi and 215 of myself coming at you," Brouwer said on September 22. "It's just no fun for [defensemen], so they'll be a little more reluctant to go back and pick up the puck and it creates more offensive chances for us."
Of course, statistics do not explain everything. One thing that Brouwer and Knuble share is that they are the only two current Caps that have won the Stanley Cup. Knuble, however, won the Stanley Cup in 1998 in a limited role with the Detroit Red Wings, while Brouwer was a focal point of the Blackhawks' 2010 championship. Therefore, Brouwer is the only member of the Caps that knows what it feels like to win a Stanley Cup in the modern NHL.
At 39 years old, Knuble is naturally slowing down and his one-year contract with Washington this season could very well be his last. Both Brouwer and Knuble are rugged and versatile right wingers with a tireless work ethic, but Brouwer can provide the same leadership and industriousness for years to come. For two seasons in Chicago, Brouwer spent time on the top line with stars like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, so becoming acclimated with their Caps counterparts in Ovechkin and Backstrom should be a seamless transition, one that will ultimately give the Caps one of the league's most dangerous first lines.