Chris Brown tackles the challenges of switching to center

March 28

(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

If there’s one position where the Capitals have an abundance of depth, it’s right wing. So when the team acquired 23-year-old right wing Chris Brown from Phoenix as part of the trade that sent Martin Erat to the Coyotes on March 4 it was uncertain how, or where, he would fit into the mix.

But for the second time this season, Coach Adam Oates has answered the question of what to do with an extra right wing by trying to mold him into a center.

If it works, the Capitals will have a more versatile young player and will have added to something no team can have enough of – depth down the middle.

And Brown, well, he’ll take on any new position if it means finding a regular spot in the NHL.

“I’ll play goalie if they need me to,” said Brown, who aside from the past three games with the Capitals played center only at the squirt and pee-wee level. “I think it’s just getting to know the position a little more — obviously faceoffs are difficult. It’s just about trying to keep it simple.”

Oates’s first transformation project this year was Eric Fehr, who began the switch to center after a lifetime and eight NHL seasons as a right wing. While he switched back and forth between all three forward positions at the beginning of the year, Fehr has settled into the responsibilities as a center and has worked primarily as the third-line pivot since the Olympic break.

While Fehr has embraced the greater defensive responsibilities of playing center and found success within that role, the adjustments are ongoing even after nearly a full season of the experiment. Brown will need time as well to make that transition.

“I like the way he moves in terms of at center and the way he skates, just like Fehrsie. I think Fehrsie’s really improved in the position and maybe Brownie can do the same thing,” Oates said. “I really like what he brings, he got lost a couple times in our end, which we all do at times, but I see no reason why he can’t learn it.”

Oates knows that the switch isn’t an easy one because centers are required to play all over the ice. That means players must be as comfortable making plays on their forehand as on their backhand and must have an awareness of everything that is happening around them, even if it’s something that could develop in their blind spots.

Those are adjustments that come with time and repetition, as does success with faceoffs. (Fehr is at just 45.2 percent in the 316 draws he’s taken this season.) So far, Brown hasn’t felt too out of place and even got on the scoresheet the past two games — he scored his first NHL goal on a shot that went off Dan Boyle in San Jose and then picked off a pass in the defensive zone to spark a breakout that led to a goal by Dustin Penner against Los Angeles Tuesday.

He’s also getting plenty of assistance from teammates in the form of on-ice communication from the defensemen and goalies and answers when he quizzes the team’s forwards on how to cope with draws.

“I’m that second layer so you have to be a bit more cautious in the D-zone, you have to make sure you’re not getting spun around, you’re facing the puck,” Brown said. “I think I’ve asked everyone in the locker room how to take a faceoff. I talked to Fehrsie, I talked to Beags, Backy, all the centers that are here. And I talk to all the guys that are playing wing too, guys like [Penner] when we played L.A. He knows those guys, so what are their tendencies? I ask a bunch of questions. I’m sure it probably gets a little annoying but the guys have been great helping me out.”

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