MONTREAL – On the plane ride here, Brooks Laich learned he had been thrust into Washington’s second-line center battle, and as the veteran later recalled, the conversation with Coach Barry Trotz went something like this:
“We’ll just have to make some decisions and live with those decisions right off the bat and go from there,” Trotz said before Washington beat Montreal, 2-0.
Will it be Evgeny Kuznetsov, the natural center from Russia entering his first full NHL season? Or Andre Burakovsky, the summer experiment rising through the ranks? Or Marcus Johansson, shuttled to the wing Sunday to offer Laich a crack? Or even Laich, who after scoring an empty-netter and shaking off a knee injury said he, all along, considered himself best in the middle?
“Still take a lot of pride in that position,” Laich said. “It was a little scrambly tonight. Played with a couple new linemates. You could see, the game in general was very scrambly. I like the hustle of the center ice position. I like the intelligence of the position. Just would’ve liked to create a few more chances. After the hit in the second period, limited the legs a bit and slowed down my game offensively. I’d like another crack at it.”
“We may have to do that,” he said. “Brooks is a very intelligent player. He’s a guy who’s a student of the game. The more I can use him on left wing, right wing, center, it’ll give us more flexibility in the roster at center ice. We’ve still got Burakovsky, I thought had a real strong game in the middle of the ice. We’ve got Kuzy as well, who’s a talent. We’ve got some youth in our lineup and they did a good job.”
Between the uber-effective pairing of Joel Ward and Jason Chimera, Burakovsky catalyzed Washington’s game winner, out-racing P.K. Subban for a dumped puck behind the net and finding a trailing Ward, who beat Carey Price late in the third period. The 19-year-old Swede had dominated development and rookie camp at the new position, but any concerns about his ability to adapt to a higher level are slowly getting alleviated in management’s eyes.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Trotz said, when asked if he’d consider keeping Burakovsky on the Capitals as a third-liner. “I wouldn’t have to consider it. He’s working his way onto the lineup. The great thing about him is he’s playing center out of position. He’s doing great. I know I can put him on the wall where he’s more natural.”
Given Ward and Chimera’s habit for making any center look good, they could offer a veteran safety net for the rookie Burakovsky, should the Capitals keep him around for the regular season. Three preseason games remain – at Buffalo, home against Philadelphia and Carolina – and Trotz hoped to trim the roster to 15 forwards by next Friday, two days before the exhibition finale.
“I felt much more comfortable tonight actually,” Burakovsky said. “I felt like I could really play my own game, take care of the puck all the time, do stuff with the puck and really play my game. … I think it’s going better and better every day. At this point I actually feel very comfortable at the center position.”
Regardless of what choice he makes, Trotz knows it must come soon.
“We’ve got three games left here, so we really need to finalize what we’re going to do after tonight, the direction we want to go,” he said.