The Washington Capitals envisage a future lineup featuring Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov patrolling the middle of the ice.
Kuznetsov's usage in particular has been an early-season storyline. Coach Barry Trotz "absolutely [sees]" the 22-year-old, who starred in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League as a wing, as a center. He has seesawed throughout the lineup, settling predominantly on the fourth line, not a place where players of Kuznetsov's ilk are often utilized.
Cognizant of that, Trotz spoke after the Capitals' 4-2 vixtory against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday of his intent to "build a line around" Kuznetsov that would better complement him. While "grinding types" like Michael Latta and Liam O'Brien personify the fourth-line mentality, Trotz would like to form a more dynamic group with Kuznetsov as its nucleus.
“Kuzy’s more a pretty good distributor of the puck,” Trotz said. “He’s not I would say a high cycle guy. He’s not a guy that [Joel Ward] and [Jason Chimera] play with a lot, because that’s not really his game. He’s probably more with [Andre] Burakovsky and [Marcus] Johansson and [Troy] Brouwer-type of line, where they’ve got speed and give-and-go. We don’t really have that, because of the injuries to [Tom] Wilson and [Brooks] Laich.
“Once we get healthy, I think we have that. We just haven’t had a healthy Brooks Laich, and Willy hasn’t been healthy. Once we do that, I think we can get more of that into Kuzy’s game. Then we’ve got to balance it out."
As Trotz alluded to, injuries to Wilson (lower body) and Laich (shoulder) limit the options available to him. In a Wednesday conversation with Monumental Network, general manager Brian MacLellan mentioned that a "Tom Wilson kind of a player" would be the "ideal teammate" for Kuznetsov, "someone that forechecks, that's physical, that can get the puck to the middle of the ice for the centerman."
That theoretically fills the hole to Kuznetsov's right. As for the left...
"On the other side," MacLellan told Mike Vogel, "you'd want a finisher, someone who can shoot the puck and finish some of the plays and get to the net for him."
How to properly flank Kuznetsov presents an intriguing puzzle. Because of his limited ice time and the almost nomadic nature of his deployment, miniscule sample sizes exist to measure his success with different linemates.
One skater that comes to mind is Eric Fehr, who like Kuznetsov has yet to find a permanent home.
Fehr, currently centering the third line, may be replaced by a returning Laich, but has the offensive instincts to be the finisher MacLellan is seeking. He and Kuznetsov have had success together with a 78.6 Corsi-for percentage, which measures shot-attempt differential. Yet their combined ice time is just 12:25, too small of a time frame to truly gauge their chemistry at this point.
Trotz did not rule out utilizing a prototypical, "grinding" fourth line -- O'Brien, Latta and Jay Beagle, for example -- when certain opponents call for it, but he knows that to be successful, the Capitals need to be a four-line team. That begins with finding greater opportunities for Kuznetsov.
"I think Kuzy’s best assets are his abilities to skate and distribute pucks," Trotz said. "I don’t see him as a wall guy. You saw that [Wednesday] in practice. That’s not really his strength. He’s best when he’s in the middle of the ice. He’s got great vision and hands."
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamVingan and e-mail your story ideas to adamvingan (at) gmail.com.