The day before training camp is one of anticipation for most Caps. For players like Mathieu Perreault, though, it’s a very anxious time.
Perreault will be among a handful of players battling for a spot on the 23-man roster when camp opens Saturday morning at KCI. And at 23 years of age, the diminutive center knows his days of being considered a prospect are dwindling.
“I feel the heat,” Perreault told me Thursday. “It’s like it’s now . . . well, not never. But you feel like, yeah, I have pressure. I don’t want to go back to the American Hockey League. I’ve done what I had to do down there. I feel like I should be up here. Hopefully I can stick around.
“There was a spot open last year. I thought I had a good camp, but Marcus [Johansson] had a good camp and I ended up going back to Hershey. This year I feel the same way. I have to battle with a few guys for that one spot. Hopefully this year it’s going to be me.”
Assuming Nicklas Backstrom will be the Caps’ first-line center and Johansson locks up the second line spot, that could put Perreault in a tight competition with Mattias Sjogren and Cody Eakin, as well as dark horse candidates Chris Bourque, Christian Hanson and Ryan Potulny, for the job centering the third line center.
“I feel this team is a three-line offensive,” said Perreault, a native of Quebec. “They always been like that: three good lines with your fourth line being more defensive. I feel like your second and third lines could be lines that could score, so I feel like I can fit on either one of those lines.”
Perreault’s biggest hurdle might be his reputation as a streaky scorer at the NHL level. He skated in career-high 35 games with the Caps last season, recording personal bests of seven goals and 14 points. But too often he took on a starring role one night while having little or no impact the next.
When Perreault was called up in October, he notched a pair of assists in his season debut. Then he went scoreless the next two games. When he was called up in December, he torched the Maple Leafs for a pair of goals in his first game back. Then he went without a point the next four games. On Dec. 19 in Ottawa, he returned to the lineup and potted a pair of goals to help the Caps end an eight-game losing streak. But he had one goal and a single assist in his next 15 games.
“He’s just got to continue to do things on a consistent basis and be better than the other guys,” Coach Bruce Boudreau told my colleague Katie Carrera recently. “I don’t know quite how to put a finger on it. We know what Matty can do. He’s been great at times. He’s won games for us individually at times. [But] there’s other guys pushing him, and we’ll see where it takes us.”
“He reminds me so much of myself as a player. You just look at the parallel careers, up and down, up and down — I know what he goes through. He must wonder when he gets sent down, ‘What do I have to do?’ It’s tough sometimes, but we’re going to have a pretty good team and there aren’t going to be too many days when you can let up.”
For the first time in Perreault’s brief career, his contractual status finally is on his side. Like Bourque, Hanson and Potulny, he must clear waivers to be assigned to Hershey. Sjogren and Eakin, on the other hand, do not.
“At least this year, I have a little bit of an advantage,” he said. “So that might make it a little different, what’s going to happen.”
There are two other factors that Perreault hopes will help his cause: He’s fully healthy after playing through a suspected concussion last season, and he’s considerably heavier and stronger than he was as a rookie.
Perreault suffered a broken nose against Carolina on Dec. 26th . He knew his injury was worse than just his nose, but he didn’t want anyone to know. After sitting out one game, Perreault returned to the lineup and mustered only one goal over the next 23 games before getting sent down Feb. 26. After the trade deadline acquisition of Jason Arnott, Perreault did not get another call-up.
“I think I had a concussion, but I didn’t really want to admit it,” he said. “I had headaches the whole time I was here after that. I didn’t want to stop playing because I wanted to stay here. I felt like if I stop playing maybe I’ll go down. . . . Looking back, I would have stopped playing and waited until I was fine. But that happened.”
Perreault also said he hopes physical maturity could help him stick in Washington. Generously listed 5 feet 10, Perreault said he’s about 25 pounds heavier than he was as a rookie.
“Two years ago, I go in the corner to get the puck and a guy just push me,” he said, gesturing like someone flicking a bug. “With age, I’m getting bigger. I just feel stronger on the ice. I was too light. I got bigger, my legs, my [butt], I feel heavier, stronger and faster. It’s not fat; it’s muscle.”
Physically, Perreault said, he’s as prepared as he’s ever been. Now he’s aiming to master the mental part of competing against the world’s best players.
“I just have to try to play my game no matter what,” he said. “If I start trying to do thing to try not to make mistake, it’s not going to work. It will get me sent down every time. That’s what I’m going to do – just play my game and see what happens.”