By Adam Vingan
According to head coach Bruce Boudreau, the theme of the first full week of the Washington Capitals’ training camp is “experimentation.” Through the first six days of camp, there has been plenty of it, especially on the top two lines. While the pairings of Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson on the first line and Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom on the second line have mostly been a constant, it’s the open right wing slot on the first line that has seen quite a bit of shuffling.
Mike Knuble, who has been the right wing compliment to Ovechkin and Backstrom throughout his first two years in Washington, has been shifting between the first and second lines during training camp. Newly-acquired Joel Ward played on the first line during Wednesday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets and was paired with Ovechkin and Johansson during practice Thursday. Yet, one player has seen time with both Ovechkin and Johansson as well as Backstrom and Semin on two different versions of the first line. Troy Brouwer’s versatility is an intangible that can only help the Caps, especially considering Boudreau’s manic tendency to switch around his forward lines.
Many have pegged Brouwer into a checking line role with Washington, but he actually has experience playing on the top line. “On and off for the last two seasons” with the Chicago Blackhawks, Brouwer saw time on the top line and skated with the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, two players who he believes prepared him to play with their Caps counterparts like Ovechkin, Backstrom and Johansson.
“Both lines are real skilled players that want the puck and need the puck to be successful,” Brouwer said in regards to his former and current teammates. “That’s where I think I fit in well. I like to go in the corners, get pucks and finish checks and try to create room for them. For them to be successful, they need to have the puck and hopefully a player like myself who likes to go get the puck will compliment them well.”
Brouwer has yet to play in a preseason game for the Caps as he is coming off surgery to repair a tear in his right shoulder, but is taking full contact and expects to be ready for the start of the regular season. Once he recovers, one major advantage of having Brouwer on the top line with Ovechkin is that it provides the Caps with an pseudo-checking line of sorts to go along with the scoring that top lines are responsible for. Last season, Ovechkin and Brouwer both ranked in the top 10 in hits in the NHL (Brouwer ranked fifth, Ovechkin 10th) and combined for 503 hits (Brouwer had 262, Ovechkin 241). Add to that the fact that the two combined for 49 goals last season and having Ovechkin and Brouwer together could provide one of the league’s most formidable and intimidating lines.
“It creates a lot more turnovers,” Brouwer said when picturing himself playing on a line with Ovechkin. “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. 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.”
Perhaps most importantly, Brouwer, who Washington acquired in exchange for the 26th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft June 24, brings with him something that only Knuble can relate to: a Stanley Cup. Yet, unlike Knuble, who won the Cup with the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings in a limited role, Brouwer was a focal point of the Blackhawks’ 2010 championship run, earning eight points in 19 playoff games. Brouwer’s playoff experience is unmatched by anyone in the Caps’ locker room and that type of leadership should pay dividends for a team that has yet to reach the pinnacle of its purported success. Brouwer, however, does not expect to automatically slide into a leadership role, but wants to help out as much as he can.
“I’ve got some experience in the league and in the playoffs and that’s part of the reason they brought me in,” Brouwer said. “I’m not trying to be the captain or assistant captain or anything. We already have guys for that. Any team will tell you that everyone needs to be a leader in their own way. I like to lead by my example. Hard work’s contagious and hopefully guys will follow after that. Situational play as well. I’ve been in a lot of situations, whether it’s been in the playoffs, regular season, stuff like that. I’ve been in tough situations, I’ve been in good situations and hopefully, if we get into those situations, I’ve got something to say.”