In a conference call with the media Monday, new Caps’ GM Brian MacLellan addressed the second-line center position, which is sure to be a hot button topic for fans this offseason. He noted that the Capitals are interested in re-signing incumbent unrestricted free agent Mikhail Grabovski, but in an eerily George McPhee-like statement also added that they are comfortable addressing the position in-house.
“We have some options,” he said. “I’d like to explore [Evgeny] Kuznetskov playing his natural position at center to see how well he can handle that. [Marcus] Johansson’s played there a little bit. He’s been back and forth. I know the previous coach [Adam Oates] liked him on the wing.
“Brooks Laich has been in and out. I guess my overall philosophy is we’re going to have to develop one of our young guys to play second-line center. I think that’s hard to add in free agency.”
At this critical stage of the Alex Ovechkin era, the Capitals cannot afford to go with any of those options if they have serious hopes of regaining their status as a Cup contender, or even an Eastern Conference Finals contender.
One of McPhee’s shortcomings was his persistent failure to address the second-line center issue. Between the years of Sergei Fedorov way back in 2008-2009 all the way up to Grabovski, the Capitals have suffered greatly from a revolving door of second-line center options that wouldn’t fly on a standard Stanley Cup contender.
Laich, Kuznetzov or Johansson would be an unwise continuation down that same path. Kuznetzov, while a promising young talent, was a puck-possession nightmare last season. His 42.7% corsi-for was worse than any regular forward on the team aside from enforcer Aaron Volpatti. While that’s based on just 17 NHL-games, hurtling the 22-year old into such a demanding role would not only be harmful to his development but very likely lead to the Caps never having the puck while he’s on the ice.
Laich hasn’t been healthy in two years now. Even when he was 100%, he was never an ideal fit for a second-line center role. His production in his prime was heavily dependent on the power play. The very mention of his name in this discussion brings up disturbing memories of McPhee’s “we like our team” quote right before he wisely grabbed Grabovsky out of the bargain bin last year before trusting Laich in that same role.
As for Johansson, who has potted a grand total of five even strength goals over the last two seasons, he has been posting mediocre possession numbers compared to his most frequent teammates, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. How would he do without the benefit of their talent around him? Remember, he’s only 23 years old and played wing all of last season.
It’s awfully hard to contend in this league without an above-average second-line center. The only example of a team in recent years that has had consistent success without a very good 2C might be the Blackhawks, but the Caps don’t have the luxury of Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane as second-line wingers.
The most ideal option is to bring back Grabovski on a reasonably club-friendly deal. Even if they have to go as high as $5 million per year over 3-4 years, it’s worth having a viable solution to a problem that has plagued this team for so long. Other potential options include fellow UFA Paul Stastny, who the Avalanche will have difficulty re-signing, potential trade targets such as Ryan Kesler, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau or even a buyout candidate like Brad Richards.
The reality is that, while we fans have little to do but parse every word MacLellan speaks (it beats doing work), he may be bluffing in order to improve his bargaining position with Grabovski’s agent. It would be a page straight out of McPhee’s playbook and, frankly, smart negotiating. However, the Caps simply can’t go into the offseason without addressing the second line center spot one way or another.