By Jack Anderson
A look at the Capitals’ forwards heading into free agency.
The Capitals made some big moves leading up to the start of free agency on Friday. Not only did they lock up Brooks Laich before he hit the open market, they also added Troy Brouwer in exchange for their first round pick in last week’s NHL entry draft.
Brouwer could finally be the missing link on the first line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Last year, the Caps shuffled through a number of different right wings, trying to find the right complement for two of the league’s biggest stars.
Brouwer indicated in a conference call he prefers left wing, but acknowledged he can play all three positions. He also has experience playing with superstars. In Chicago he played alongside Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews more than any other Blackhawk forwards (17.99% of his shifts according to Dobber Hockey).
Even if he fails to mesh with Ovechkin and Backstrom, Brouwer will be a valuable contributor. He had as many power-play goals as Ovechkin last season (seven) and his 262 hits would have led the team.
Meanwhile the Capitals’ biggest concern is once again at center. Boyd Gordon and Jason Arnott are unrestricted free agents, leaving Washington with Backstrom, Marcus Johansson and little else.
Gordon can be re-signed on the cheap, but Arnott will test the free agent market and there’s a good chance he won’t be back in a Capitals uniform next season. Gordon is the team’s defensive-zone specialist (42.7% starts in the O-zone during the season, and a staggering 15.5% in the playoffs) and a player of his ilk is needed to give Backstrom more offensive zone starts. But Gordon’s lack of offensive production (nine points in 2010-11) throws added pressure on the other centers to contribute.
Washington will need to retain Gordon or sign a similar player to eat up those defensive zone draws for Backstrom and whoever else plays center. And the Caps shouldn’t feel comfortable without at least kicking the tires on another center in free agency. Johansson and Cody Eakin anchoring the second and third lines isn’t a recipe for success.
Johansson is expected to compete for the second line center role and Laich could play on the same line to help him in the faceoff circle. However, putting Johansson on the second line is asking a lot from a second-year player. Johansson improved drastically by the end of the year, but he had 27 points in 2010-11. That’s not enough to play with the big guns. Maybe he breaks out in a big way, but the Caps are running a serious risk if they play him on the second line this season.
So signing an affordable two-way center such as Marty Reasoner would be a wise move unless the Capitals are confident in giving either Eakin or Mattias Sjogren a roster spot as the third line center—both have zero NHL experience.
Rounding out the remaining forwards, Matt Bradley is not expected to return and Marco Sturm has not been offered a contract. Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr, Mike Knuble, Alex Semin, and Matt Hendricks will all return in their respective roles (barring trades). Jay Beagle, Mathieu Perreault and DJ King will compete for time as well.
Final Thoughts: After they ink Brouwer and Karl Alzner, the Capitals top priority in free agency will be, as previously stated, the center position. Question marks have plagued the Caps up the middle for past few seasons and this offseason it’s been no different.
Yet George McPhee is limited by a poor free agent class and the salary cap. He may choose to make a trade or squeeze a contract in under the cap, but as of now there aren’t many quick fixes out there.
The Capitals appear to be very strong on the wings. No doubt there will be plenty of mixing and matching from Bruce Boudreau, which is why McPhee covets versatile players such as Laich and Brouwer who have experience playing multiple positions.
It might take time for Boudreau to establish his ideal line combinations, but there are some very intriguing pieces on this roster.