Capitals

How will the Caps address their thin center depth?

Capitals
Lars Eller

Believe it or not, summer is winding down and it is time to think about the 2021-22 hockey season. Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan will discuss the biggest questions surrounding the Caps heading into the new season.

Today's topic: How will the Caps address their thin center depth?

Andrew: I would have to disagree with the premise that the Capitals have thin center depth. In fact, I think their center depth is quite good at the moment. 

Nicklas Backstrom will be 34 during this season, but he also scored 53 points in 55 games last season — albeit with a higher than normal shooting percentage. For as much as Evgeny Kuznetsov is maligned, he scored 29 points in 41 games (a 58-point pace over 82 games) in a COVID-stricken season. Lars Eller, the team’s third-line center, had 23 points in 44 games and was one of the team’s best possession players throughout the season. Nic Dowd, the team’s fourth-line center, scored 11 goals on the Capitals’ key shutdown line.

Connor McMichael, a center, is the team’s most pro-ready prospect and will certainly get NHL looks (if not become a full-time player sooner rather than later) this season. 

Are there issues? Absolutely. Backstrom is aging, and the age drop-off will come eventually. It’s unclear how consistent Kuznetsov can ever be. Eller is sneakily getting older. Dowd is also 30 and likely can’t produce offensively like a third line would need. McMichael, for as much as he’s been hyped up, is still an unknown quantity. 

But, absent a few select teams like the Oilers, Leafs and a few others, most teams would kill for the Capitals’ center situation at the moment. 

Can we say the same in two years when the current group is older (and likely broken up), and McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre have shown themselves at the NHL level? Who’s to say. But in the wise words of Ted Mosby, that is, “future Ted’s problem.”

The Capitals have two top-six centers that can put points up, a reliable third-line center that is a strong two-way/special teams player, a solid fourth-line center that plays a good penalty kill and a talented prospect on the way. Unless that group is stricken by horrific injury luck this season, they’re just fine for the moment.

JJ: Andrew is right in that the Caps are very strong down the middle with their first four centers. The reason why this is an issue, however, is that if any one of those players is injured, it creates utter chaos for the lineup. We saw that in the 2020 postseason when Nicklas Backstrom was injured and Brian Pinho played literally less than four minutes. We saw this last year when T.J. Oshie had to play games at center. You can't have a position that will force you into such dire moves if even your fourth-line center suffers an injury, but that's where the Caps are.

 

This was the year the Capitals' salary cap constraints finally caught up to them as we saw very little offseason activity. Michael Raffl walked in free agency and the Caps signed no one to replace him as a possible depth center. I won't rule out a late summer signing or a PTO for training camp, but most likely I do not think we are going to see any more additions to the NHL roster this summer.

So what do they do?

Last season, whenever the team needed a center, Oshie was called upon. That's not a sustainable solution. Maybe you can get away with that for a game or two in the regular season, but, again, the Caps are one injury away from being in serious trouble down the middle.

I see two likely scenarios for Brian MacLellan to address the center depth. First is the trade deadline. Bank what cap space you can during the season, then when the trade deadline approaches make another Raffl-like move in acquiring a player who can plug in at center when needed just as playoff insurance.

The other scenario is the internal replacement. Prospects Connor McMichael and Garrett Pilon are two players the team is high on and I would not be surprised to see either get a call-up at some point this season. The ceiling is much, much higher for McMichael than Pilon, but I think because of that, the team would prefer McMichael stay in Hershey and develop his game with more playing time. For Pilon, I could see him being a frequent call-up this season whenever the team has any sort of injury concern with one of its centers.

A lengthy injury of course changes how the team approaches this, but for now I would pencil in Pilon as the No. 5 center heading into the season and expect MacLellan to be scouting for a possible center he can pick up at the trade deadline.