The in-house option for second-line center became the only option after the Capitals let Mikhail Grabovski leave during free agency and exited July 1 with roughly $1.1 million in available cap space, so general manager Brian MacLellan and Coach Barry Trotz looked harder within. They had already given cursory glances to fill the spot, frequent in both player turnover and criticism received, and emerged confident that one of several options will help fix the problem, or at the very least try.
“I’d like to explore [Evgeny] Kuznetskov playing his natural position at center to see how well he can handle that,” MacLellan said on a mid-June teleconference. “[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.”
With training camp’s dawn approaching in a little more than a month, Trotz and the Capitals haven’t committed to a second-line center, but the options remain whittled down. In a “Five Questions With…” interview on NHL.com, Trotz said he would put both Johansson and Kuznetsov in the middle, ushering Eric Fehr — who centered the successful Jason Chimera-Joel Ward third line last season — back to the wing.
But Trotz also tossed a third name into the mix, a name that only recently became associated with the position altogether. Prospect Andre Burakovsky rocketed onto Trotz’s radar after a strong development camp, dominating the three intrasquad scrimmages at the team’s practice facility all while shifting to a spot he barely knew. “Outstanding,” Trotz called the performance, per NHL.com, and the Capitals seem bullish on trying Burakovsky, a virtual lock to play either in Washington or Hershey this season, at center during preseason camp.
“I’m going to let them play it out,” Trotz said. “We’re going to try to get the best three up the middle in terms of the people who are really good at distributing the puck and making things happen from the middle of the ice. After those three I think the fourth line will probably have a little more definition, probably more bite to it. I’m going to let them play through the camp, but my vision is that Johansson will play in the middle and Kuznetsov or Burakovsky will play in the middle and one will have to move to the wall. In today’s game, the more options you have the better off you are.”
The entire interview contains enough lineup speculation to offer an elixir to the dead hockey days of summer, so it’s worth a read. Trotz also talks about Alex Ovechkin — “His 5-on-5 production has to be higher.” — and how he envisions a healthy Tom Wilson as, one day, becoming a top-six forward. For now, while Wilson recovers from offseason ankle surgery, Trotz expects him back “really early in training camp so he can catch up to everybody.”
As for the forward lines, Trotz doesn’t seem to have any plans to break up Chimera-Ward, who played together roughly 80 percent of the time last season and produced a career season from Ward. The second-line combination, he said, will likely be culled from “Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer — one of them might have to play on the top line — Kuznetsov, Johansson, Burakovsky, Fehr.”
“If we can do that,” Trotz said, “the depth of the third line will be very good too.”
In the end, though, even when asked about Kuznetsov, Burakovsky’s name popped back up, apropos of nothing.
“I’m going to play [Kuznetsov] in the middle right through, and if you get some people who are pretty hard-driving guys on his wing he could be a great fit,” Trotz said. “That’s why I’m hoping a guy like Wilson will be ready to do a lot of the heavy lifting and Kuznetsov can use his high skillset to make things happen. Hopefully I’ll get to see that. But the other guy I didn’t know much about that I got excited about was Burakovsky. He’s a talent and he has a very mature game.”
At this juncture, how do you think Trotz and the Capitals should construct their forward pairings? Toss your thoughts into the comments, if sharing is your thing.
(h/t Japer’s Rink)