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Posted at 11:48 AM ET, 01/26/2011

Wanted in D.C.: a centrist mindset

By Kareem El-Alaily

Want to know how to spark a hearty debate among old-school Cap fans? Ask him/her the last time the Caps had two highly-skilled, impact centers on the roster. Some may go back to 2002-03, when the Caps had Robert Lang and Michael Nylander; some may go back to the 1994-95 season when the team could roll out Michal Pivonka and a still-playing-center Joe Juneau. Others would argue that it was the 1991-92 team with Dale Hunter and Mike Ridley. Regardless of what year you choose, it’s been a long time since the team has had two “play-in-all-situations” centers on the roster.

For argument’s sake, let’s generously assume the answer is 2002-03. That means seven seasons have passed with the Caps failing to address their center situation, a looming debacle that is coming to a head this year. The Caps have a team very capable of challenging for a Stanley Cup, except that there is a glaring hole in their second-line center spot. As I’ve stated in several previous posts, proponents of Mathieu Perreault or Marcus Johansson as 2C are overly optimistic if they genuinely believe those two can endure multiple grueling playoff series against Pittsburgh’s, Tampa’s or Philadelphia’s centers. None are ready to play 2C for this year’s playoff run.

The impact is tangible. There is no second-line able to take the scoring pressure off of the first line, allowing opposing teams to over-play Backstrom and Ovechkin. There is no one on the current that can untrack Alex Semin and Brooks Laich and maximize their offensive contributions. There is no one to relieve Backstrom from taking so many defensive zone draws and allow him to get more offensive zone starts. From a matchup perspective this weakness makes us sitting ducks against teams with good centers, especially on the road when opponents get the last change.

How did the Caps get to this point where they’ve assembled a world-class roster but are missing one of the key parts? The answer is underinvestment and poor drafting. Let’s unravel this painful story by listing all Caps centers who received meaningful playing time from 1995-96 to 2009-10:

Joe Juneau, Dale Hunter, Michal Pivonka, Jason Allison, Andre Nikolishin, Adam Oates, Jan Bulis, Benoit Gratton, Matt Herr, Kip Miller, Glen Metropolit, Trent Whitfield, Danius Zubrus, Anson Carter, Jeff Halpern, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander, Kris Beech, Andrew Cassels, Jakub Klepis, Bryan Sutherby, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, David Steckel, Boyd Gordon, Sergei Fedorov, Tomas Fleischmann, Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger, Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson.

This list includes skaters who did not pan out (Beech, Gratton, Klepis, Herr), were moved to the wing (Juneau, Carter, Zubrus, Laich), were past their prime (Fedorov, Hunter, Morrison, Cassels) or were no more than a 3C or 4C in the NHL (Bulis, Metropolit, Steckel, Halpern, Sutherby, Gordon, Belanger). Only three names on this list were (or are) truly impressive centers – the type you need to win Stanley Cups – when they played for the Caps (since 1995): Oates, Lang and Backstrom.  The Caps have received about nine collective years of service from those three players across the past 14 seasons, with none of them overlapping. (Make it 11 if you want to throw in Pivonka’s stellar 1995-96 and 1996-97 campaigns.) In that same timeframe, the Detroit Red Wings received 33 collective seasons at center from Steve Yzerman, an in-his-prime Fedorov, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. It’s no coincidence the Wings won four Stanley Cups in 15 seasons while the Caps have only won four series. As the hockey adage goes, you need to be strong down the middle to win championships. That hasn’t defined the Caps.

The story gets uglier. If you look at the Caps draft history from 1990-2007 the team has only drafted five centers that have stuck in the league for more than 250 games: Allison, Bulis, Gordon, Backstrom and Sutherby. Only one of those panned out into a top-line center for Washington – Backstrom. Put another way, in a 17-year window the Caps have only received three full seasons of 1C- or 2C-caliber play from a drafted center (Backstrom). Ouch!

I’ve given praise to McPhee’s overall drafting results from 2002-08, but the one huge whiff has been at the center position. The Anton Gustafson bust is certainly affecting the team, but laying the blame on one failed draft pick is an easy out for what’s been a chronic roster mis-management issue since the David Poile era. It’s not like this concern crept up on them overnight. The team has known since 2008 that they have a deficiency at 2C, going through Nylander, Fedorov, Morrison, Laich, Perreault and Fleischmann with none of them offering a permanent solution to a team with Stanley Cup dreams. To put it bluntly, the failure to draft, develop or acquire adequate centers sits squarely on the Caps management team.

The issue is certainly being addressed as the Caps have strong talent in the pipeline. Johansson and Perreault are still maturing, Cody Eakin may be a year away from debuting with the Caps and Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov looks like a potential game-breaker someday (although he may slide to wing). None, however, are the answers this year.

It’s a testament to the talent of the Caps that they’re still a top-10 regular season team despite below-average play from their 2C. But it’s unsustainable come playoff time. In my opinion having a strong 2C on the roster is paramount to becoming a true contender for the Cup. The solution to the Caps center issue now depends on going with an undersized sixth rounder (Perreault) or a 20-year old rookie (Johansson) who’s playing on North American ice for the first time. Or, the Caps can ply the trade waters for a capable center knowing that teams will gouge them for a combination of players, prospects and/or picks. There is no quick and inexpensive way out of this mess but that shouldn’t be a surprise - this predicament was years in the making.

By Kareem El-Alaily  | January 26, 2011; 11:48 AM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  
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Next: Shaking things up offensively: part two


Cutta was a defenseman, I think.

Posted by: GFisher1 | January 26, 2011 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Hey Kareem El-Alaily last time I checked Jacub Cutta was a defenseman so because of your lack of knowledge your argument is worthless. When you know the facts then feel free to open your mouth. Another person in the "media" who doesn't know the history of a team they write about.

Posted by: brandon5272lee | January 26, 2011 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Also Kareem El-Alaily like to know how Dale Hunter was past his prime, when in a Capitals uniform recorded 556 career points.

Posted by: brandon5272lee | January 26, 2011 2:05 PM | Report abuse

@GFisher, you're right about "Jacub Cutta". It should ave read "Jakub Klepis". Got my Jacobs confused. I'll make the fix.

Dale Hunter in 95-96 was a third-liner. A bad-ass one no doubt, but past his earlier prime when he was a solid 1C/2C. Of course you know that since you have the team's history memorized.

Posted by: topshelf_22304 | January 26, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse

@brandon5272lee - why so bitter towards the author? he made simple mistake (which let's be honest it was a minor mistake that doesn't disprove his argument) on an otherwise pretty damn good blog entry and now you want to write off the entire post? I'd like to see you write something half as good.

Kareem - nice post. GMGM needs to do a better job drafting some C's in the system.

Posted by: goskinsgo | January 26, 2011 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Actually, I thought Morrison could have been worth another year. He was okay.

Posted by: orson72 | January 27, 2011 4:33 PM | Report abuse

Hey Kareem El-Alaily last time I checked Jacub Cutta was a defenseman so because of your lack of knowledge your argument is worthless. When you know the facts then feel free to open your mouth. Another person in the "media" who doesn't know the history of a team they write about.

Posted by: brandon5272lee | January 26, 2011 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Ease up there Champ. Yes that was a notable mistake, but the argument stands, the Caps are, and have been, weak down the middle. What are you saying, that because Cutta was a defenseman Beech was a good center?

Just think Backstrom makes one misstep and gets hurt, the where are we? No where good. The Capitals do need an upgrade on second line center if they want to do well in the playoffs. That's not to say that we CAN'T win with the team we have now, but that our odds are definitely increased if we add a legitimate second line pivot. The Caps have weaknesses just like every other team, no need to be so rude about having them pointed out.

Posted by: dcfury | January 27, 2011 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Good analysis, Kareem. We don't get much Caps coverage down here in Australia, but they did broadcast the Caps-Rangers game this week, and I'm just not seeing the merit in Perrault as a 2nd-line anything other than a wave-off-the-icing chaser. Maybe he's got a bit of Cliff Ronning in him, but I'm not seeing him find the empty space he needs to get away from the bulking d-men.

Posted by: jamieg00 | January 27, 2011 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Almost since the beginning of Mr. El-Alaily's blog posts, there has been a consistent venomous tone in roughly half of the comments. Quite frankly, I don't get it.

As a life-long Washingtonian (and sports fan), I've come to understand that the typical Washington sports fan is living a fantasy world. Let's face it folks...our professional sports teams have been a miserable failure for nearly two decades. The average DC sports fan believes winning the NFL free-agent sweepstakes each year is a positive...that winning the NHL regular season title is an accomplishment...that during the Butler, Jamison, Arenas glory days, the Wizards were actually building to a championship.

Well...we've all witnesses how many championships these "accomplishments" have resulted in. We're not exactly title-town.

Considering all of this, it is not surprising to see the frequent negative (often times ludicrous or idiotic) comments posted in response to Mr. El-Alaily's posts. That said, while not surprising, it is disappointing. The thing we need most in this town, from a sports perspective, is a fan base that actually holds our professional sports teams (players and management) accountable for delivering championships. We may think we do...but the simple fact is that we don't.

Mr. El-Alaily is providing the type of critical analysis (not simply criticism...there is a difference folks) that is needed to understand what we have in the Caps. While it is perfectly reasonable to have a different opinion, or come to a different conclusion than Mr. El-Alaily, it is ignorant to not appreciate the consistent depth and thoughtfulness of his analysis. The last think we need is another "blind-homer"....or another Mike Wise (please

Mr. El-Alaily's arguments consistently analyze the Caps from the perspective of their championship capability. He does not waste our time with pointless paragraphs dissecting useless minutiae. Fans who focus on the minutiae are missing the point...the goal is The Cup.

We would all be better served by remembering this...and appreciating the critical voices in our sports culture that stay focused on the ultimate goal for the professional sports teams we love.

While I don't always agree with Mr. El-Alaily, he is providing a valuable service that appears to be lost on many who consume it.

Keep up the good work.

Posted by: goskins2883 | January 27, 2011 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Thanks everyone for the compliments! It was an unexpected surprise this morning.


Posted by: topshelf_22304 | January 28, 2011 2:20 PM | Report abuse

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