Theme: “…you were meant to be here tonight. This is YOUR time.”
-- Herb Brooks (“Miracle”)
Mathieu Perreault’s apprenticeship as a professional hockey player technically ended on April 24, 2011. That was his last game as a Hershey Bear, a 3-0 loss to the Charlotte Checkers in Game 6 of the first round of the 2011 Calder Cup playoffs. In 2011-2012 Perreault was a full-time member of the Washington Capitals, finishing the season with a surprising 16 goals in 64 games. He was on an 82-game season pace to play in 67 games last year in the abbreviated 2013 NHL season.
Nevertheless, Perreault was a player without certainty in terms of his role. Was he a potential scoring line center? A third line center who provided offense? A player whose diminutive stature might relegate him limited minutes on the fourth line? Then there was the matter of his intermittent benching last year by new head coach Adam Oates. By early-February, Perreault had sat out six of the Caps first 11 games. Oates remarked that, with respect to Perreault’s play, “it’s not about production; it’s about playing correctly.”
Perreault seemed to get the message. In his first game back after sitting for five games – a 5-0 win over the Florida Panthers – Perreault had a goal and an assist in 12:40 of ice time. Those were his first points of the season and set off a finish in which he appeared in 34 of the Caps’ last 37 games, going 6-11-17, plus-10. That was a 14-27-41, plus-24 pace per 82 games, not bad for a player who averaged less than 12 minutes of ice time a night, spending most of that ice time on a line with Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr.
And here is the thing about Perreault’s performance last year. He assisted on 11 goals scored by seven different players. Most his assists came on goals scored by Eric Fehr, who scored three goals off primary assists from Perreault, but what is noteworthy is that of his 11 assists, 10 of them were primary assists. He did not come by his helpers cheaply.
Insofar as “playing correctly” is concerned, Perreault seemed to have made progress on that front. At 5-on-5 Perreault was second among the team’s forwards in Corsi/on ice and second in relative Corsi (on-ice minus off-ice Corsi), suggesting superior possession performance. Among forwards playing in at least half of the Caps’ games, he was on ice for the third fewest goals against. He had the team’s second best PDO (sum of on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage) at 5-on-5, suggesting good things happened when he was out there.
Mathieu Perreault has suffered being thought of as too small to take the day-to-day, 82-game physical grind that is the NHL. The thing is, though, Perreault has missed only six games in his career for physical reasons – one for food poisoning, one with a broken nose (he might have suffered a concussion but missed only the one game…perhaps not his brightest career move), and four with an “upper body” injury sustained a year to the day after his broken nose when his stick was caught in a seam along the boards in a game in Buffalo against the Sabres, and he speared himself.
He has been surprisingly consistent in his output over his brief NHL career to date, even as he has had to bear those intermittent benchings and early-career yo-yoing from Washington to Hershey. He has consistently been just under half a point per game (0.44, to be exact), deviating less than 0.05 points per game per season over his four year career. Over his four years he has the highest shooting percentage among all skaters playing in at least 150 games, almost a full percentage point (18.9 percent) greater than Steven Stamkos (18.0 percent).
Was Mathieu Perreault’s season a mirage? If you buy into the idea that the Caps feasted on weak Southeast Division competition, Perreault was like a competitive eater with a tapeworm. He was 3-10-13, plus-10 in 17 games against the other four Southeast Division teams in 2013, 3-1-4, minus-1 in 18 games against everyone else.
And there is always going to be that idea that he will struggle with an 82-game grind until he doesn’t. Over his last 20 games he was 1-4-5, and all of those points came in games against Southeast Division teams (Tampa Bay and Winnipeg).
The Big Question… Is Mathieu Perreault ready to have his name written in ink on the lineup card?
Perreault’s early career has been a series of fits and starts, spending time shuttling between Washington and Hershey in his first two seasons, getting a seat in the press box from time to time in his most recent two years. As last season progressed he seemed to be settling into a third line role with Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr. It would seem that to start this season Perreault will be centering Fehr and Brooks Laich on the third line (Laich’s current state of health notwithstanding). This could be an interesting line to watch as the season unfolds. Laich is probably more adept than Chimera at fishing out loose pucks and battling in front of the net. Fehr was as pleasant a surprise as one could hope for last season. But the line has to be driven, and that is going to be Perreault’s job.
In the end…
One usually thinks of a third line center as something of a grinder, a player who is matched against an opponent’s top line to shut them down more than as a player who generates offense. Mathieu Perreault might be one of those “pound-for-pound-the-toughest-guy-in-the-league” kind of players (he certainly is not shy about trafficking in hard places), but he still shows signs of being predominantly an offense-oriented player.
That is not a bad thing, especially if one adheres to the idea that “the best defense is a good offense.” If Perreault can replicate his possession numbers from last season, the line could surprise with Perreault leading it. And before we succumb to the idea the Perreault is something of a one-trick wonder, able to perform only against those weak Southeast teams, consider that over his four year career his per-82 game production against the Southeast was 12-30-43, plus-27, while against everyone else it was 17-19-36, plus-9. He might have a somewhat better record against the Southeast, but he has not been a dog against the other 25 teams in the league.
What it comes down to is that the time for uncertainty or the intermittent nature of his role with the team has come to an end. He will turn 26 just after the start of the new calendar year. The 2013-2014 season is Mathieu Perreault’s time to establish himself in the regular scheme of things.
Projection: 71 games, 13-18-31, plus-5
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America