Capitals During Wartime: Centerless

[Editors note: over the next month, we'll be looking at the challenges the Capitals face, the trade deadline, and the playoff chase. It's not gonna be fun, but we gotta do this.]

When Nick Backstrom took a blow to the head from Rene Bourque on January 3rd, the Capitals lost the service of their number-one center. Backstrom was on track for a better than 80-point season, which would have been a strong recovery from the slump of ’10-’11. Instead, the team lost the anchor for its top line and its most productive forward.

Without Backstrom, the Capitals have only three strong options for centers: Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, Jeff Halpern. Additionally, Mathieu Perreault, Cody Eakin, and Matt Hendricks have done center duty in a pinch. Meanwhile, the Capitals offense has  been shut out twice in the last three games and have averaged only 23 shots on goal since mid-December. That’s just not good enough.

Marcus Johansson is a talented skater who has a bright future, but he cannot be expected to put up more than 20 goals or 50 points so early in his career. He’s not yet the offensive presence that the first (or even second) line demands, and he’s still a liability on the face-off dot (winning a little over 43%).

Brooks Laich is a team leader and an admirably committed defensive forward. His penalty kill service– sometimes stickless– has distinguished him on the Capitals’ end of the ice, where he starts most shifts. But Brooks’ scoring output is flat this season (8G, 15A). Besides, he is only an ersatz centerman who has spent most of his career on the wing. Laich’s move to center — either on the 2nd or 3rd lines– was a move of necessity.

The once and current Capital Jeff Halpern is the third best face-off guy in the NHL (behind Pavelski and Toews). George McPhee may not have been looking for a replacement for Dave Steckel (who is ranked 5th) last summer, but he got one anyway. Halpern’s solidarity on the dot and modest offensive lean have made him one of the best surprises of the season, but he hasn’t been a top-6 forward in years.

Compare that to the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team notoriously strong up the middle: Jordan Staal, Sidney Crosby (when healthy), Evgeni Malkin, and even Tyler Kennedy supply the core of the Pittsburgh offense. It’s common wisdom that building a good hockey team starts from the center position, but the Capitals are hollow between their wings.

Center Goals Assists Games Played PPG
Evgeni Malkin 25 30 36 1.53
Jordan Staal 15 6 34 0.62
Tyler Kennedy 6 15 36 0.58
Sidney Crosby  S  t  e  c  k  e  l  ‘  d
Nick Backstrom 13 29 38 1.11
Marcus Johansson 10 17 45 0.60
Brooks Laich 8 15 46 0.50
Jeff Halpern 3 9 45 0.27

And the Capitals can’t look elsewhere in the organization for help. Keith Aucoin is certainly a future AHL Hall of Famer, but his NHL window has come and gone. Ryan Potulny has NHL experience at center but– at age 27– is in a situation similar to Aucoin. Mattias Sjogren threw a hissy fit last year and left North America. RMNB phenom Evgeny Kuznetsov is prolific, but he’s weak on the face-off and will require some adjustment to his defensive game when he makes the jump. The pipeline is not strong.

Since Sergei Fedorov left North America at the end of the 2009 season, the Capitals have been without a solid second line center. Now that Nick Backstrom is injured, the Ovechkin line is anchorless as well. Guys like Jason Arnott, Eric Belanger, Michael Nylander, Victor Kozlov, and Tomas Fleischmann yielded varying results at center and could not be sustained.

The Capitals have tried training Marcus Johansson on the job as a top line center. They tried moving Brooks Laich off of the wing. They tried giving the grinding expert Jeff Halpern a chance at the big time. Nothing has worked. The lack of viable centers on the Washington roster is George McPhee’s lasting disappointment. Now that the Washington Capitals are firing fewer shots than at any point since the lockout, the lack of a strong playmaking center is more pronounced than ever.

Season Total Shots
2011-2012 2257
2010-2011 2566
2009-2010 2693
2008-2009 2748
2007-2008 2538
2006-2007 2295
2005-2006 2445

2011-2012 shot total is a projection based on shots through game 46.

Acquiring a center before the deadline will not be easy, and it will not come cheap. But it’s desperately needed for the immediate and long-term needs of this team.

What do you think McPhee should do?

Additional reporting by Ian Oland.

  • Vokswagon

    Trade for Legwand or Backes?

  • http://twitter.com/CapitalsCenter Capitals Center

    I think if Mojo and Brooks can step up and play better in the coming weeks, and Backstrom comes back sometime near the trade deadline, that will be our biggest addition. 

  • Peter

    Maybe,  but who do you give up in that trade?

  • http://twitter.com/chukwukamso Jack Barry

    Schultz can go. How expensive would those guys be?

  • Peter

    Man, I don’t agree. Mojo and Brooks have a ceiling to their output. If everybody played better, that would be nice– but I don’t think it’s a viable option long-term.

  • http://twitter.com/FedFedRMNB Fe(yo)dor Fedin

    My candidates: Boyes, Roy, Nielsen, Hecht, O.Jokinen, LaRose.

  • Peter

    p.s. MJ90 is sick— some are speculating it’s an injury from 2 games back

  • Rockthedread

    The reason nothing has worked so far is because the problems run deep and can’t be fixed with rental/complimentary players. This team is built around arrogance, laziness and stupidity while championship teams are built around strength, intelligence and heart. I think most fans see this now so I have to assume GMGM sees it too, and he probably knows if this team has to be overhauled then he is gone as well.

  • Sonja Andrews

    I don’t even care what you wrote in that article … it’s awesome because the title is a riff on a Talking Heads song.  This is part of what makes your blog so great.  However, it is a very strong article … trade Schultz, Erskine (?) and maybe even Perreault (even though I really like that guy … I don’t think he fits with Hunter’s system) for a strong center.

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  • Bill

    McPhee should resign. He’s fiddled with this team for 12 years, and no Cup competitor (his first season doesn’t count). He finally screwed up an East Conference champion by pushing Boudreau to play a more defensive style game. What happens? Caps get bounced (again) from the playoffs. If you’re looking for Dale Hunter to take this team to a Cup final, Good Luck. Won’t happen. Dale will want to blowup the current team so he can play “Marty-ball” a la Hitchcock/Lemaire. Way to go, George.

  • Dougie Fresh

    Why the hell would St. Louis give up Backes?

    That has to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Please go watch the NHL Network non-stop until you realize how good the Blues are. 

  • Peter

    That wasn’t very nice, Mr. Fresh. I’m sure there was a kinder way to say that.

  • Peter

    Thanks for noticing the title, Sonja. It’s actually a series, so we’ll see it again.

  • Hassettpm

    GMGM’s butt is on the line is the subtext of this post and the subsequent posts. We’ll see what he does in the next 5 weeks, but the stakes are high.

  • michael01a

    I feel so sorry for you, that this time you can’t use an argument, that ovi sucks…

    you know what? this time caps have more chances for the cup, than ever before. mark my words

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  • Never leaves a game…

    O. Jokinen can’t produce in the playoffs, assuming we get there, so that’s a no go. I thought Perreault finally delivered on a line he needs to be on. He is a creative player, not a checker, and until he plays on lines 1 or 2, he won’t be able to demonstrate that. Either Perreault or Mojo need to be traded for a big bodied second line center. Brooks should be on third line with chimera and ward or hendricks, and halpern on the 4th line with beagle, and ward or hendricks. That leaves Mojo or Perreault for the second line center spot (when baby back is healthy) and top center, bringing someone else in. I am sad we gave up on Arnott because I don’t think we didn’t succeed because he didn’t fit in with the team. At this point, no one is going to sell the farm for Semin, so I don’t think trading him is worth it even if that means losing him for nothing in the summer. I would try to trade the farm for Jeff Carter. He’s not old, he’s strong, and has proven to be a top center when surrounded by talent. Columbus is shopping him if they get something worthwhile. We would need to move at least schultz to make room…

  • Emily

    Err.. GMGM should be fired and frankly I wish Boudreau was back.. Caps registered
    More SOG with him than hunter. If Bodreau hadnt changed the way he coached bc of McPhee perhaps he’d still be here and the caps would be as successful as they were at the beginning at the season. Whatever happens I hope Alex Semin is not traded now that hes playing stronger.

  • Anonymous

    You know trading Perreault may not be that bad of an idea as part of a package for a strong center. He’s young, he’s got speed and could be a good pick up for a mid level team to develop but honestly I don’t think he’s much of a hook.

    If we’re talking big nameish center, is can/should McPhee deal away our Avs pick from the Varly sale? Or is this again the “Idea That Shall Not Be Named” when Holtby as trade bait comes up?

  • Alex

    Trade with Calgary.
    Flames get: C Mattias Sjogren, 2012 COL 2nd round pick.
    Caps get: C Olli Jokinen.

    There we get a 2nd line center who is rough/tough around the net, scores a little, and plays defense well.