At long last, it appears the Washington Capitals have a second line center, but are they missing one on the third line?
When you crunch the numbers, it's not a surprise that Eric Fehr will not be returning to Washington next season. With about $5 million left under the salary cap, much of which will likely go to Marcus Johansson, there was simply no cap room left for Fehr.
Fehr's departure, however, leaves a hole at center on the third line. Assuming the Caps do re-sign Johansson, there will be essentially no room to sign anyone else meaning the Caps will have to find a replacement for Fehr from within their roster.
The most likely candidate is Jay Beagle. Beagle set career highs last season in goals (10) and points (20) which led to a three-year contract extension. He also had a strong season in the face-off circle with a 56.5 win percentage.
Beagle saw some time at right wing the past few seasons, most notably playing on the right side of the top line, but he is a natural center. If head coach Barry Trotz trusts him enough to try him on the top line, it's not a stretch to think he would feel comfortable with Beagle at center on the third.
For what it's worth, Beagle certainly seems amenable to the idea:
Beagle says his goal/dream has always been to be a third-line center. #CapitalsTalk
— Chuck Gormley (@ChuckGormleyCSN) June 29, 2015
With Nicklas Backstrom's status for the start of the season still in question, however, Trotz may have to have a few other candidates in mind. With Kuznetsov most likely moving to the top line, the Caps will need both a second and a third line center until Backstrom can return.
Last season, Trotz ambitiously played both Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky at center. Trying to teach two young players to be an NHL center, however, made the team weak down the middle and Burakovsky was moved to wing. If Backstrom is not ready for the start of the season, it would not be shocking to see Burakovsky moved back to the middle.
While Johansson has been used primarily as a winger the past few seasons, he also came into the NHL as a center. Some may feel it is hard to justify paying Johansson around $4 million per year to be a third line wing, but his versatility to play center when needed may make that an easier pill for the team to swallow, especially if he starts the season in the middle of the second line.
While Fehr's move to center was one made out of necessity, the Caps finally seem to have depth at the position. Backstrom's availability to start the season may put a strain on that depth, but the Caps still have enough short-term options to survive.