Sunday, July 18, 2010

Down the road a piece

Going into the 2010-2011 season, the Capitals are likely (absent any further personnel moves) to have some serious issues at center. Nicklas Backstrom might be among the top five centers in the game today, but after that, it becomes something of a roll of the dice for the Caps. No serious option for second line center – Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich – has as many as 100 games at that position (no, we do not include Laich, who has primarily been a winger). This is arguably the most serious problem the Caps have going into the season. You think otherwise? In the Caps’ first round playoff series against Montreal last spring, they recorded no goals from any center not named “Backstrom” (Boyd Gordon had a shorthanded goal in Game 3). They had a total of two points from other full-time centers (assists from Brendan Morrison and Eric Belanger). No points were scored by any center (including Backstrom) in Games 5-7, all Caps losses.

You could call this an area of concern for the Caps.

But this is summer, the season of hope for hockey fans as development camps get underway all across North America, and there was plenty of reason for it this week at the Caps' development camp. Looking at the prospect roster, the Caps have quietly stocked themselves with a lot of options at center down the road. As much as the defense could be a strength in a year or two with Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Jeff Schultz on the blue line, so too could the pivot position a year or two later. Consider the following prospects that might play one of the three center positions behind Nicklas Backstrom…

Matthieu Perreault
Jay Beagle
Cody Eakin
Stanislav Galiev
Anton Gustafsson
Marcus Johansson
Evgeny Kuznetsov

What do these players have in common? All are 24 or younger. Four of them – Johansson, Eakin, Galiev, and Kuznetsov – have not reached their 20th birthday. What’s more, this is a versatile bunch. Any could fill a hole at center, but just as much any could fill a role on the wing.

Will all of them make it in a Caps sweater? Will all of them make it to an NHL roster on a regular basis? Perhaps not. But Perreault showed flashes of quality play in his brief stint with the Caps this past season. Beagle was just rewarded with a two-year deal and might be the sort of grinding forward the Caps need (and have in short supply) to man the third or fourth line. Gustafsson has seen his early career hampered by injury (his scrimmage was cut short yesterday by another one), but has a skill set that suggests at least getting a shot at a roster spot down the road. Eakin, Kuznetsov, and Galiev have skill sets that suggest at least the possibility of challenging for top-six forward spots (Eakin might ultimately be better suited to a third line). Five years out, this is a team that could have a top-three line complement of:

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Evgeny Kuznetsov
Alexander Semin – Marcus Johansson – Eric Fehr
Tomas Fleischmann – Cody Eakin – Stanislav Galiev

Five years from now, only Semin among these players will have reached his 30th birthday. And if, say, Semin or Fleischmann are not among the roster players five years from now, Brooks Laich might still be here (he would be 32), and perhaps Anton Gustafsson will have shaken the injury bug and demonstrated why he impressed the Caps enough to use a first round draft pick to get him. And, that group includes a number of players who can play center or wing.

OK, in the summer, just on the heels of development camp, one might be guilty of irrational exuberance. We get that. But the Caps have at least put themselves in a position in which what is now a weakness could become a strength, perhaps sooner than later.