Centers of Attention

During the Washington Capitals incredible regular season run and the subsequent postseason collapse this past year, the consensus amongst the fans and media was that the Caps needed to make an upgrade at center in order to truly solidify the lineup.

Obviously, Washington had Nicklas Backstrom to lock down the first line. But behind him, there was some uncertainty.

Brendan Morrison, brought in last year at center, started strong, scoring 10 of his 12 goals and 25 of his 42 points before January. However, he faded down the stretch and had just one point in five play-off games, posting a +/- of -1. Morrison is now a free agent as he only signed a one-year deal with the Capitals.

While Morrison was struggling through the second half of the season, Tomas Fleischmann saw some time as the team’s second line center. Fleischmann isn’t a traditional center, but Bruce Boudreau used him to jumpstart the offense when it struggled.

Fleischmann is headed for the courtroom this Wednesday for an arbitration hearing, which will determine how much money the Caps must pay to re-sign him. It is uncertain as to whether Fleischmann will rejoin the team.

Fleischmann isn’t cut out to be a full-time center for a variety of reasons. He is below average in the face-off circle, tends to be a shoot-first player and has never really shown himself to be a terrific passer. Fleischmann is a talented, albeit streaky, sniper, but he isn’t consistent enough to anchor the second line.

The Capitals obviously felt uncomfortable with their situation last year, so they traded a second round pick for Minnesota Wild C Eric Belanger at the deadline. Belanger was a solid pick-up, but not a savior by any means.

Belanger won 49.6% of his face-offs in 17 regular season games with the Caps. On the season, he was 9th in the NHL in face-off percentage, winning 56.4% of his draws. So he didn’t fare nearly as well in the dot after departing from Minnesota. However, in seven play-off games, Belanger won a whopping 64.9% of his face-offs.

From a points perspective, Belanger didn’t contribute much. He had just two goals and four assists in the regular season, shooting the puck just 31 times over 17 games. In the postseason, Belanger had just one assist and shot the puck just three times. He is currently a free agent.

Belanger and Fleischmann proved to be polar opposites. Fleischmann isn’t a great candidate for center because he lacks play-making skills, while Belanger is far too one-dimensional in the sense that he

With the Wild last year, Belanger’s shooting percentage was 10.8%, while in DC, he shot just 6.5%. The fact that Belanger’s shot couldn’t command any respect from opponents took away from Alex Semin’s effectiveness.

Coming into 2010, questions again circle around who will be the second line center. The Caps have several options, but none of them seem to be a sure thing.

1. Re-sign Fleischmann and bring back Morrison to split time at center.

Fleischmann’s arbitration hearing is this Wednesday. The Caps can’t make any additional moves until they decide whether to re-sign him since they want to see how much cap space Flash will require.

Washington is $8,555,704 under the cap right now. Using the mock arbitration hearing from Japers’ Rink, it is estimated Fleischmann will command between $1.9 million to $3.15 million a season. Should Washington choose to re-sign him within that range, that would leave Washington with between $6,655,704 and $5,405,704 in cap space.

The Capitals currently have 20 players on their roster (though I doubt Brian Fahey will remain on the roster). They need 23 to round out the roster, meaning three to four new faces will join the team by October from either the free agent market or the minor league system.

Morrison is still a free agent and won’t be much of a salary cap hit. If the Caps have to shell out big bucks for Flash, then they might add Morrison even though George McPhee previously announced the Caps were not going to re-sign him.

After his poor second-half, Morrison won’t even cost the $1.5 million the Caps signed him for last season. Morrison has drawn some interest from other teams and he turned down an offer earlier in the offseason so he remains available.

2. Re-sign Belanger and keep Fleischmann at Wing.

Belanger is looking for a bigger paycheck than Morrison, but with another year in Washington, he might improve on an already stellar half-season with the Caps.

As long as Belanger asserts himself more by shooting the puck, he will open things up for Semin on the second line. There’s no question Belanger possesses solid vision and excellent face-off skills.

He’s also tough. No one forgets how he didn’t miss a game after losing 6-8 teeth in a play-off game against Montreal. Belanger is a guy who excelled in the play-offs (in most aspects) when several of the Capitals faded.

3. Bring up either Mathieu Perreault or Marcus Johansson from the minors.

Johansson is the future at 2C, but for now he has yet to play in North America and is only 19. He has to learn the intricacies of the North American game and throwing him right into the fire might not be such a good idea.

Training camp in September will be a great indicator as to whether Johansson is ready for the NHL. Should he impress, he will likely see at least some time with the Capitals this year. I would expect to see him in Hershey for the majority of the season.

Perreault played 21 games with the Capitals last year, posting 4-5-9 while playing at wing on the third and fourth lines. He is an energy guy with great positioning. The puck seems to just find him.

However, Perreault is only a short-term option as a second-line center at best. He is much more suited to be a third-line player.

Analysis: Johansson is the future, but can he make the transition to the NHL this year?

The Capitals have a couple extra roster spots and adding a free agent familiar with the team like Belanger or Morrison wouldn’t hurt. I’d say the Caps would prefer Belanger, but they will have to hold off on any signing until they resolve the Fleischmann case.

After Wednesday we’ll see if McPhee was serious when he told Capitals Insider that Washington was done with free agency.

If McPhee wasn’t bluffing, then the Capitals will likely use Fleischmann primarily at center until Johansson is ready to come up. Perreault would then be a candidate to fill the wing slot left vacant by Flash.

Stay tuned.

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Filed under Capitals, NHL, NHL Offseason, Preview

One response to “Centers of Attention

  1. Pingback: Hit The Links: Thursday « Kings Of Leonsis

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