[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.
|Sidney Crosby||S t e c k e l ’ d|
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.
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.