Entering his second summer leading the Washington Capitals’ front office, General Manager Brian MacLellan held more pressing priorities than finding a permanent third-line center, but the vacancy lingered in his mind nonetheless. Still, between signing Justin Williams, trading for T.J. Oshie and negotiating new deals for three high-profile restricted free agents, all higher on MacLellan’s stated checklist at the start of the offseason, little cash remained for addressing secondary needs. Simply put, the funds were allocated elsewhere, forecasting an in-house battle for the spot predominantly filled by Eric Fehr last season.
“I’m not sure,” MacLellan said, when asked for his No. 3 center right now. “It’s not set, I don’t think in the coach’s mind or in the manager’s mind. I think we’re going to try, maybe, different people, where we’re at. These guys should be capable of all handling it.”
Much like how Coach Barry Trotz handled his top-line right wing carousel last season, cycling through five skaters in the first 16 games and eight by season’s end, MacLellan projected Washington’s center depth chart unfolding according to need. “It’s just a matter of which way we want to go,” he said on a Monday teleconference, “how we want to set our lineup up.”
For an offensive-minded line, MacLellan said, Andre Burakovsky or Marcus Johansson might be tabbed, though MacLellan preferred Burakovsky to his fellow Swede, citing the 20-year-old’s versatility and potential to “be a legitimate second-line center with some development.” Both also figure to factor into the competition for Evgeny Kuznetsov’s left wing, skating opposite either Oshie or Williams.
“To me, he could play any position, right wing, center or left wing,” MacLellan said of Burakovsky. “He’s just that good. Marcus I’d like more on the wing than on the center.”
But, MacLellan said, if Trotz preferred a stronger defensive line, Jay Beagle or Brooks Laich would be considered options, veteran skaters stronger in the Capitals’ end than Burakovsky or Johansson. Laich opened last season as the team’s third-line center, but departed to the wing for good by the fourth game. Beagle, meanwhile, stepped into Fehr’s role for the postseason, deployed mostly with Burakovsky and Troy Brouwer.
“I think it gives the coaches opportunities to try different combinations,” MacLellan said. “It’ll basically be on their strategy, how we want to match up against different teams… If Barry wants to have a defensive line, I think we’d go with Laich or Beagle. If we were to go offensive, we’d play one of the other guys.”
>> Of course, the opening-night roster for Oct. 10 against the New Jersey Devils might come with an asterisk, depending on the health of center Nicklas Backstrom, who had arthroscopic surgery two months ago and is working toward returning for training camp.
“I think he’s progressing well,” MacLellan said. “I heard he started skating recently, so that’s a good sign.”
If Backstrom cannot start the season, Kuznetsov would likely slide onto the top line, freeing up the second-line spot for Burakovsky or someone else. The ripple effect would see Beagle, Laich and Michael Latta in contention for the bottom-six center spots, which they already will be anyway.
>> MacLellan felt confident that defenseman Brooks Orpik, who recently had wrist surgery, will “be 100 percent healthy” to start the season. He said Orpik had “managed” a wrist issue for some time, and while “it hasn’t really affected his play,” the alternate captain made the call this summer to have an operation and permanently fix the problem.
“I think he’s decided I just don’t want to manage it, I want to get it back to 100 percent,” MacLellan said.
As he did last season, Orpik is expected to work on the top defensive pairing with John Carlson.
>> With Brouwer shipped to St. Louis, Joel Ward inked with San Jose and Eric Fehr signing in Pittsburgh this offseason, the Capitals lost three forwards who together averaged more than five shorthanded minutes each game. They still return their Nos. 1, 3 and 5 penalty-killing forwards in Laich (2:10), Beagle (1:51) and Jason Chimera (1:23), but nonetheless have jobs to fill.
Asked about the situation on his teleconference, MacLellan named Laich, Beagle, Backstrom and Oshie, who averaged 79 shorthanded seconds per game for the Blues in 2014-15, as potential replacements. He also showed confidence in Johansson, whose skating ability he believed lent itself to an increased penalty-killing role, though Johansson hasn’t average more than one shorthanded minute per game since his rookie season.
For now, though, it remains undecided.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do in that area yet,” MacLellan said. We haven’t really discussed it.”