The Capitals' center conundrum


With both Nicklas Backstrom and Nic Dowd unavailable for Monday's game against the Ottawa Senators, the Capitals iced a lineup that featured both rookies Hendrix Lapierre and Connor McMichael. For one of the oldest teams in the league and one with a limited prospect pool to pull from, seeing two prominent prospects step into the lineup this season, inject some youth and find some success is an exciting and promising sign for the future.

"They both had their good moments inside the games where they did some good things and there's some things that we show them to teach them," head coach Peter Laviolette said Friday. "But the fact that they've gone in and both have handled themselves really well is a positive for our team."

But before you declare that the future is now, the reality is one or maybe even both players may not stick around in Washington much longer.

Having both players on the NHL roster this year was not supposed to happen and is something that has only been made possible by Backstrom's absence. With him out, the team has a hole at center which is why the team elected to carry both young centers on the roster to plug into the lineup.

"We obviously have a void that we need to fill for a little bit and those two guys are natural centermen, they're both here, they're both young," Laviolette said. 


Having Lapierre and McMichael on the roster is also possible because Backstrom is on long-term injured reserve. If he were not, Washington would not have enough cap room. In fact, if Backstrom was healthy and in the lineup, the team would only have enough cap room for one extra player, offense or defense.

Teams cannot bank cap space when using LTIR so when Backstrom returns, it will take a lot of roster shuffling to get back under the cap. Backstrom's return will also give the Caps four centers not including Lapierre and McMichael. When that happens, it is likely we see Lapierre and/or McMichael sent down to juniors and the AHL, respectively, if they have not been already.

But a decision could be coming even before that for Lapierre because of his age.

A player on his entry-level contract who is 18 or 19 years old can have the first year of his contract slide to the next year if he plays in fewer than 10 NHL games in a season. McMichael is 20 so this rule does not apply to him. He is already playing in the first year of his contract whether he plays 10 games or 10 minutes. For the 19-year-old Lapierre however, the slide rule applies.

Lapierre has played in three games meaning, at the most, he can play another six games before the first year of his contract kicks in. Obviously, teams want their best players under contract for as long as possible at cap-friendly deals. With a cap hit of less than $895,000, you want that contract to last as long as possible.

So what? You may be thinking. If Lapierre is good enough to play in the NHL, it shouldn't matter if it means his contract starts this year or next. Just get him into the lineup!

Absolutely. If Lapierre proves he is completely ready for the NHL and he has nothing left to prove or learn at the junior level, then of course you keep him. But he's not there yet. His game is still developing and so other factors have to be considered such as usage. Losing a year of Lapierre's contract is something you accept if he is ready and the team has no other choice, but to burn a year of his contract when there is only one player out and there is another prospect more NHL ready on the roster with Lapierre does not make sense.

Likely, Lapierre's short-term fate will depend on the timeline for Backstrom.

"We want to take a look at both [Lapierre and McMichael] and get an evaluation on where they're both at just for moving forward as a push to the point where hopefully Nick joins us back and we'll have a better read on them," Laviolette said.


Backstrom's return will mean the team will have him, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Dowd down the middle, plus McMichael who is also a center and has been the better of the two rookies thus far. With five other centers, Lapierre is not going to get much playing time and if he is not going to play, it does not make sense to keep him in the NHL rather than in juniors.

Backstrom is eligible to return Nov. 6. Since he is not yet skating with the team, it seems doubtful that he will be able to return by then. Only the team knows what Backstrom's real timetable is, if he has one, but if he is anywhere close to returning, the team needs to consider sending Lapierre back to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. It makes zero sense for Lapierre to play in 10 games and burn the first year of his contract only to be sent back to juniors soon after when Backstrom returns.

As of now, there is no reason to think Dowd will be out long-term. If he is not, then the Caps really only have one hole at center they need to plug in and they already have another center on the roster in McMichael.

But what happens if you send Lapierre down and another center gets injured? That's the same risk every team deals with every year. That's sports. That's why the Caps also have players like Garrett Pilon and Mike Sgarbossa in Hershey. You certainly do not keep a player like Lapierre around as a 13th forward to play only occasionally and in case of injury. He is 19 years old and needs to play.

It's great that Lapierre scored in his NHL debut. It's great that his celebration may be one of the highlights of the season. It's great that he has a bright NHL future ahead of him. But those reasons alone are not enough to justify burning a year of his contract when the Caps have one hole at center and another highly-touted rookie playing the same position who is more NHL-ready.

"If I leave I am happy with what I’ve done and if I make the team I will be super happy too," Lapierre said in the preseason, "So I really got no regrets and if I look back at it I am kind of happy with the way I was here.”