The 2011 trading deadline is approaching for the National Hockey League, and no fan base waits with more anticipation for what might transpire than that of the Washington Capitals. The Caps filled one hole via trade this season already with the acquisition of defenseman Scott Hannan for forward Tomas Fleischmann in late November.
But what remains is something a lot of folks think of as a bigger hole, that of the center position behind Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps have held auditions for the part this season, including one for the traded Fleischmann. Since Fleischmann was traded, the focus shifted to giving a pair of rookies – Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault – an opportunity to grab the job by the throat.
In principle, the strategy made sense. Two rookies competing for the same job and with enough games remaining in the regular season to give coaches a comprehensive look at their plusses and minuses. And, since the Caps were an “elite” team then (as opposed to, well, now), they had the luxury of accommodating what was an extended audition for each while the more experienced, more skilled players contributed to a pile of wins.
Thinking the strategy as a sound one depends on an important outcome – consistent, or at least demonstrable improvement from the start of the audition to the end of it. We would hope, if not expect, that either or both of Johansson and Perreault would improve from the fall to February and beyond, thus giving the Caps’ front office some confidence that either could perform in the second line center role adequately for the playoffs. Or, at least there would not be the urgency (and thus, the potential for overpaying) for obtaining a second line center via trade.
So, how has it gone? One way to look at it is by examining each of the players’ performance over ten-game slices of the season. We took a look at “rolling” ten-game segments to try to smooth the effects of simply dicing their games played into a few ten-game segments. First, Marcus Johansson, who has played 44 games this season:
Next, Mathieu Perreault, who has played in 30 games this season:
Neither player has spent all of his time at the second-line center position, and in fact Johansson has spent time at wing in stretches. But what seems evident, at least in terms of being able to generate offense in general, is that both players could use more seasoning. Neither appears ready to take on the playoff responsibilities that accrue to a scoring line center. There simply hasn’t been enough demonstrable improvement in their respective offensive production.
Both players, in fact, have been reasonably consistent in their offensive production, Perreault hitting the ground running a bit more than was the case for Johansson (understandable, since Perreault did have some NHL experience before this season, and this is Johansson’s first year playing on the smaller North American rinks). Both are, for the moment, more or less high-20’s/low 30’s point getters on an 82-game basis. Based on current scoring among NHL centers, that might not get you into the top-100 centers in total points (Johansson currently ranks 107th, Perreault 116th among centers in scoring). And their progression over the course of the year, based on the information reflected above, does not indicate that their current level of production is appreciably higher than the level of production they exhibited earlier in the campaign.
What it says is that the Caps had a problem coming into the year with their second line center position, and they still have that problem. While either or both of these players could in the future become contributing, even valuable forwards, the answer to the Caps’ second line center problem – for this year – is not to be found in house, at least between the rookies. This doesn’t address the matter of whether Brooks Laich is an answer or any of the other centers on the roster. Generally speaking, though, we cannot help but think (as we have for some time) that this year’s answer to finding production out of the second line center position comes from elsewhere. The Caps need to make a trade to address that problem.