Boston a Big Stage for Caps' Center Hopefuls
By Scott Lowe
Everyone wants to know who will start the season as the Washington Capitals' centers - at least on the second, third and fourth lines. The problem is that the guys fighting for those spots are all stepping up to the challenge.
Usually in these situations coaches have their minds made up long before they tell the media and public what their plan is, and Bruce Boudreau rarely is forthcoming with his personnel decisions. This time, however, Boudreau may not be playing cat and mouse with us.
Given a chance to play on the first line with Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble in place of banged-up Tomas Fleischmann Tuesday night in the Caps’ first preseason home game against Boston, Matthieu Perreault rose to the occasion and delivered the game’s first goal. Young Swede Marcus Johansson, who has received praise from Boudreau almost daily, recorded an assist and told the media that he thought he had played his most complete game to date. And 19-year-old longshot Cody Eakin, who has impressed almost every day since the summer rookie camp, netted what turned out to be the game-winner.
Although Fleischmann was kept out of the lineup because, as Boudreau said, “this is the preseason and there’s no sense in pushing it if he’s not 100 percent,” he scored two goals and recorded three points in his only preseason outing to date vs. Columbus.
Right now Eakin, Perreault, Johansson and Fleischman are definitely competing for the second- and third-line center positions, and their performance has made some wonder whether potential veteran fourth-line centers Boyd Gordon and David Steckel are going to fill that role or if one of the others might slide to that slot. No one, not even Boudreau, seems to know how it all will play out.
“At this point, I think anything is possible,” the coach said. “They are sure making the decisions tough. No one is giving an inch. They’re out there playing every game. I think two of the three will play for sure (Wednesday) night. I think that all the pro scouts from the organization will be there and we’ll sit down after the game and see what’s best for the team.”
After a summer in which Washington avoided a free-agent spending spree, probably because management realized the talent it had in the pipeline and how a large, multi-year financial commitment (see Michael Nylander) could hamstring the team in the future, many believed that Perreault was the frontrunner to center the third line, and Boudreau said that the second-line job was Fleischmann’s to lose as camp opened.
Eakin, a third-round pick in the 2009 draft, and Johansson, a first-round selection the same year, have been singled out since day one of rookie camp. It seems as though Boudreau and others are waiting for them to show signs that they can’t compete at the NHL level, but those signs don’t appear to be forthcoming anytime soon.
The catch here is that Eakin must spend the season with his junior team, the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL, if he doesn’t make the Caps’ NHL roster. He can’t play at the AHL level until the junior season is completed. That’s what he did last year, appearing in four games for Hershey of the AHL.
The fear is that if Eakin plays junior hockey again he might not develop as quickley as he could at the professional level. Many times in situations such as these teams will give a player a shot at the NHL level for a few games, either to provide them with extra experience or see if they can cut it, before sending them back to juniors. That option gives Eakin a better shot at making the club out of camp.
“Quite frankly you wish that if he wasn’t here that he was going to be in the American League,” Boudreau said. “But if he does go back, it’s a great experience for him playing in the World Juniors and everything else. We haven’t made any definitive decisions on anybody yet.”
Perreault looked great centering Eric Fehr and Jason Chimera during camp intra-squad games and potted a big goal last night. Johansson has three assists in three preseason contests, including two in the first game at Columbus and one vs. Boston Tuesday. Fleischmann was a standout in his only appearance, and Eakin has a goal in two of his three outings.
“For me it felt better than the last time,” said Johansson, after his third preseason appearance vs. Boston, “but the other guys had a great day as well. They had a goal each. I think we are all playing good. It’s just fun being in the game. This is the way it’s supposed to be.
“Tonight I was more involved with the puck and created more offense than last time. I got to where I wanted to be both on defense and offense, which was better than last time. But I have to score, too.”
Taking a deeper look into the situation, Eakin seems like more of a fourth-line fit, but it wouldn’t make sense to have him playing fewer than 10 minutes a game from a developmental standpoint – unless he is considered a key penalty killer. Johansson possesses the skill set to center the second line, but putting him there sets off a domino effect, with either Brooks Laich or Fleischmann dropping to the third line and possibly Chimera falling to the fourth if Perreault is deemed worthy of centering the third line. Perreault, who is maybe 180 lbs. after a big pregame meal, does not have the body type to play as a traditional fourth-line physical grinder for the duration of a long, 82-game season.
Okay, so that doesn’t help solve anything. Let’s look at preseason ice time. Fleischmann played 16:17 in his only game, with Johansson logging 16:00 (1:26 pk), 18:00 (4:32 pk, 0:56 pp) and 16:37 (0:57 pk, 1:43 pp) in his three appearances, Eakin compiling 11:04 (0:33 pp), 12:05 (1:15 pk) and 15:24 (0:07 pp) and Perreault posting 14:54 (2:04 pp, 0:32 pk) and 12:43 (1:51 pp).
Washington’s top power-play unit, which led the league last year before faltering in the playoffs, is basically set with Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Knuble, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom, so preseason extra-man minutes for others are inflated. The area where the Caps need to improve is on the penalty kill, which ranked in the bottom half of the NHL a year ago, so if players are getting a significant look there in preseason that could be a better indicator of their potential role and overall value to the team.
Fleischmann is going to make the team barring a trade, so the only question there is if he will hold on to the second-line center job or be pushed to second- or third-line wing. Johansson has logged nearly six minutes on a shorthanded unit that has gone 12-for-12 so far, while Eakin and Perreault have seen much less penalty-killing time.
“Our penalty killing has been good all preseason,” Boudreau said, “but you didn’t see Bergeron or Krejci or Chara out there, so I don’t want to get too caught up into thinking we played their A squad tonight. We’ll see that tomorrow, and I’m sure it will be a little different. We also killed off our first 12 power plays last season and ended up where we ended up in the penalty killing. I do like what I see, but I’m not married to the fact that we are the best in the league right now.”
So, out of all the evidence presented, we are left with this:
The remaining centers competing for what are thought to be open slots all have played well thus far. Eakin may have an advantage out of camp, because the Caps’ staff may want to make absolutely sure he’s not ready (or is ready) before committing him to another year at the junior level.
Perreault has the most NHL experience and has shown he can more than hold his own at the highest level, but Johansson may have been the most consistent performer to date and has done well on the penalty kill, an area in which Washington desperately needs to improve.
“It’s hard to come to the rink every day and know that if I have an off day that could be it for me,” Eakin said. “So I’ll just try to keep bringing my A game to practice and see where it goes. Sometimes it feels a little better than others, but I think playing at Hershey last year has helped me adjust to the pace and size and speed. Anything is possible, I think. If you work hard, good things usually happen. You need a few good bounces along the way. I’m just having fun and looking forward to the next one.”
Keep in mind that the Caps have most of last year’s high-powered lineup returning, which means that they have a ton of talent and the luxury of experimenting quite a bit during at least the first half of the year. So the players who make the team out of camp may or may not be the ones who they expect to be the long-term solutions and may or may not even be the ones on the roster come April.
Three preseason games still remain for Washington, so anything still can happen. But you have to think that the coaching staff would like to have the lineup pretty much set for the last two games at home to prepare for the regular season. Wednesday night’s game at Boston could go a long way toward determining who ultimately makes the team, particularly if someone stumbles against what should be a loaded Bruin lineup. And there may be a deal on the horizon to free up a roster spot for someone as well.
You never know. Based on numbers, ice time (quantity and quality) and overall praise from Boudreau, however, it looks to me like Johansson is the frontrunner to make the team, with Perreault and Eakin neck and neck for what could be the final spot. Right now, because of the situation, Eakin may have a slight edge over Perreault coming out of camp.
That means that for these three guys, this road matchup against Boston will be a pressure-packed opportunity against a formidable lineup of mostly NHL-caliber players. Is there a better stage on which to judge a young player’s NHL-readiness?