Phase two of Coach Adam Oates’s experimentation with unconventional centers kicks in Wednesday when the Capitals host the Nashville Predators.
Martin Erat, a winger throughout his NHL career, will be the latest to get a few exhibition games skating as a center. Like with Eric Fehr earlier in the preseason, Oates is trying out a possibility that could offer more flexibility among the forward ranks.
Whether it sticks for any length of time or is only a use-in-case-of-emergencies strategy, though, is anyone’s guess at this point.
“We have a lot of good players in positions and he’s a very crafty hockey player, smart and I want to see how he’ll do at center just because he can play both sides of the ice now,” Oates said. “He’s got those skills, I think, to find late guys, dart in and out of plays. I want to use his skill-set and see where it goes.”
Erat, 32, played center occasionally while in juniors but at this point he’s well removed from his days with the Saskatoon Blades and Red Deer Rebels. He does have strong defensive instincts, though, thanks to his time with coaches Brent Sutter in Red Deer and Barry Trotz in Nashville.
Centers are required to be the most versatile, responsible and involved players on the ice at any given time and Oates thinks that the veteran could be a good fit.
“He knows the league and he’s a smart guy,” Oates said. “He’s got great skills and I’d like to see, I think centermen are the guys that play all four corners and I think he’s quite capable of that.”
If Erat becomes a viable option at center that increases the number of possibilities Oates would have to create line combinations and balance the seemingly endless number of forwards in the mix for spots in the lineup. It would also offer a more complete look at Erat, who despite arriving at the trade deadline last year wasn’t able to get fully acclimated because of a knee and elbow injury.
“He thinks that’s a real good spot for him and I would agree with that,” General Manager George McPhee said. “He’s a real clever player as well, real responsible defensively and might be a real good fit at center ice. I think we know what he is, we didn’t get to see enough last year but we might actually get more out of him playing him at center.”