The second-line center position has been the proverbial white whale for the Washington Capitals since Sergei Fedorov left at the conclusion of the 2008-09 season. Since then, the Caps have seen Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger, Tomas Fleischmann, Jason Arnott, Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson try and ultimately fail to provide a long-term solution behind Nicklas Backstrom.
With the Caps holding two picks in the first round of the NHL Draft Friday, free agency looming July 1 and the hopeful long-term fix – Evgeny Kuznetsov – not available for at least two years, the aforementioned white whale has transformed into the elephant in the room: Washington will go another season without a second-line center if they do not trade for one.
Despite having the 11th and 16th overall selections in this weekend’s draft, it is unlikely that either of them will make an impact in Washington for at least two seasons. Meanwhile, the depth of unrestricted free agent centers this summer is incredibly shallow. Phoenix Coyotes center Daymond Langkow ($4.5 million salary cap hit last season) saw time at second-line center last season, but he was pushed down to the fourth line after the team acquired Antoine Vermette from the Columbus Blue Jackets; Los Angeles Kings center Jarret Stoll ($3.6 million) is a solid third-line center that can adequately fill in at 2C, but quite frankly, after winning the Stanley Cup this season, re-signing is the likeliest option.
Calgary Flames center Olli Jokinen ($3 million) is inconsistent at best and is certainly not the scorer that he used to be, while Buffalo Sabres center Jochen Hecht ($3.525 million) is recovering from a concussion. Coincidentally, it looks like Arnott may actually be the best available free agent option at center, which, after a injury-plagued season with the St. Louis Blues, is saying something.
Making a trade is necessary and it should be one that removes General Manager George McPhee from his comfort zone. There might not be a more thrifty general manager in the NHL than McPhee, who has the uncanny ability to turn nothing into something (after all, he acquired Fedorov for Theo Ruth). Yet, if McPhee wants to dramatically improve his club by finally filling a huge hole, he must make a big splash.
The most valuable pieces to do just that are both first-round draft picks and Mike Green’s negotiating rights. Trading away Green, a restricted free agent, might be a risky move because of what looks to be the inevitable departure of Dennis Wideman, but the Caps have puck-moving defensemen in John Carlson, already on the top pairing with Karl Alzner, and Dmitry Orlov, who could step into a larger role (not to mention that there is a shortage of quality unrestricted free agent offensive defensemen). Any combination of the draft picks and Green’s right could fetch the elusive second line center that has disconfigured Washington’s depth chart for three years.
When asked June 14 what he felt were the Caps’ biggest needs, McPhee did not budge, saying that “if I tell you that, then that’s all we’re gonna hear about for the next two months.” Perhaps McPhee had a point, but if he does not make an effort to rip the band-aid off the second-line center position and continues to look for the short-term fix, he is going to be hearing about it for a lot longer than that.