Washington Capitals find themselves in need of center on second line

Washington's Brooks Laich, above, has seen some time at center on the second line as well as Marcus Johansson. Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau is looking for the best fit for the position.
Washington's Brooks Laich, above, has seen some time at center on the second line as well as Marcus Johansson. Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau is looking for the best fit for the position. (Richard A. Lipski For The Washington Post)
By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 12:59 AM

When the Washington Capitals acquired Scott Hannan this week to add a greater shut-down presence to their defense and bring extra depth to the blue line, they also traded away the player who at the start of the season was dubbed the team's solution to a vacancy in the second-line center role.

Prior to being traded to the Colorado Avalanche for Hannan, Tomas Fleischmann had been moved back to his traditional spot on the left wing and the experiment of his playing center had all but formally come to a close. The transaction highlighted once again, however, that the Capitals have yet to determine who will fill the second-line center position.

"We've sort of settled on the one [top] line and we'll monkey around with everything else. We're looking for the perfect match and it might take 50 games to get it," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We've got options, so we'll just have to see how it works out."

Among those currently on the roster, rookie Marcus Johansson and Brooks Laich have spent the most time playing on what could be considered the second line as Boudreau and the rest of the coaching staff employ numerous variations as they seek balance among the forward combinations. In the past four games, each started two games in the middle of the second line.

Since it became clear that Fleischmann wasn't working out at center and given his subsequent departure, Boudreau has hesitated to dub either player the clear owner of that spot. In Johansson's case, Boudreau doesn't want to heap too much pressure on the 20-year-old rookie whose game has steadily improved since he returned from a hip flexor injury that sidelined him for nine games earlier this year.

"There are times when he's going to play with [Alexander] Semin and Brooks but sometimes a young guy feels like 'Oh, I've got to get them the puck,' " Boudreau said. "We want him to relax and play in his comfort zone, so there's a balance."

General Manager George McPhee stated his high expectations for Johansson since training camp and affirmed that he's pleased with the young Swede's development.

"He's played there a few times already and done very, very well and he'll get more opportunities there throughout the year," McPhee said. "I think Johansson can do [the second-line center] job right now. It may not be every night to start, but he looks good there."

The presence of Laich, a natural center who relishes new responsibilities and challenges, gives Boudreau additional room to experiment. Laich is comfortable with the defensive duties that come with playing in the middle and does not overanalyze any switch in position.

"I'm not coming in and trying to be 'the man' there or something. I just want to go there and play, if they leave me at center great. If not that's fine too," Laich said when asked about the conversation he had with Boudreau about playing center more. "I enjoy the responsibility in the defensive zone, I enjoy being a two-way player and being a tough player to play against, doing the right things with the puck and when you don't [have the puck] doing the right things in getting back."

Washington's options may not end there though. Mathieu Perreault, currently playing with the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears, competed for a spot at center in training camp and could get another chance to prove himself in Washington. Then there's always the possibility of McPhee making a move to bring in a more seasoned veteran pivot, considering that the Capitals are still more than $2.3 million under the league's salary cap. The contract of a player acquired mid-year is prorated based on the portion of the season that they will play with the new club.

Boudreau has repeatedly pointed out that the second-line center position was far from settled at this time a season ago, as Fleischmann, Perreault, Brendan Morrison and Eric Belanger all spent time there.

"I think we're just looking for some consistency up the middle," Laich said. "Maybe that's why we still haven't sorted it out. Guys play a couple good games there [and] then their performance maybe tails off, so maybe it's just some consistency for us and solidifying the lines."

Capitals note: On Friday, HBO film crews began their documentation of the Capitals' run up to the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field. Producers and cameramen will follow the players and coaches at home and on the road to produce "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: The road to the Winter Classic" a reality television miniseries that will debut Dec. 15.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company