Monday, September 20, 2010

Centers of Attention

The math is simple for the Washington Capitals. They have five players competing for three center spots.

Breaking it down even further, you have two players competing for the second-line center position, with Tomas Fleischmann being given a long early look and the inside edge by Coach Bruce Boudreau, two players competing for the third-line pivot slot and two players competing to be the fourth-line centerman.

Two plus two plus two … that’s five right? Wait, maybe the math’s not so simple, especially for this state school journalism major.

One of the main concerns among the Caps’ fanbase and media contingent this offseason was, along with solidifying the defense, adding a second-line center. And Washington’s failure to resign Eric Belanger also leaves the third-line pivot in question. Finally, the fourth-line, which figures to feature of rotation of grinding veterans David Steckel, Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, D.J. King and possibly Jason Chimera on occasion, also is in need of a regular center.

As training camp opens it appears as though the second-line spot is Tomas Fleischmann’s to lose. If “Flash” plays they way he did as a pivot during the team’s 14-game win streak last year and looks like he will improve upon his career-best 51 points in 69 games, the job is his, and he will likely start the season between Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich. But if Fleischmann more resembles the player who went scoreless in last season’s playoffs, earning a seat in the pressbox for Game 7, 2009 first-round draftee Marcus Johansson seems poised to give him a run for his money.

Johansson was cited by Boudreau as the best player in Washington’s rookie camp on a daily basis and recorded two assists vs. the Flyers rookies. Much like Nicklas Backstrom a few seasons ago, the young Swede is poised beyond his years and possesses an impressive skill set that includes good hands, vision and speed. While many among the Caps’ media are clamoring for Johansson to spend the year in Hershey, how much risk would it be to keep him at the NHL level surrounded by so many young, talented veterans?

If Fleischmann holds onto the second-line job, expect Johansson to compete with gritty, creative forechecking machine Matthieu Perreault for the third-line spot. Perreault recorded 50 points in 56 games for Hershey last year, appeared in 21 contests for Washington, and helped the Bears capture the Calder cup with seven goals and 19 points in the playoffs. A smallish player with good speed, he has added almost 15 pounds to his frame in the offseason, which should keep him from getting pushed around.

So, when you reexamine the math, Johansson is really in the running at two positions. With Gordon and Steckel competing for fourth-line minutes at center. In reality there are five players fighting for three spots.

Another possibility, maybe the best-case scenario for the Caps, would be for Johansson and Perrault to be so impressive that Fleischmann, who says he prefers center and has come to camp determined to impress, can be returned to second- or third-line wing, with Chimera being dropped from his current third-line wing spot to the fourth line – at least on occasion.

Chimera has come to camp in tip-top condition and has looked good thus far, so he may be difficult to move. A rare combination of speed and size, he currently is playing with Perreault and talented winger Eric Fehr on the third line. Boudreau said that Chimera looks to be “in mid-season form,” and that trio dominated the team’s first scrimmage yesterday, with each netting a goal in the second period to lead Group C to a 5-0 victory over a team that featured a young defense and probable Caps backup netminder Michael Neuvirth (two goals allowed).

“Both Matty and Eric are great players,” said Chimera, who scored on a breakaway and feels like he can score 20-plus goals if placed in the right situation. “It’s nice to play with them, especially Matty. He’s a pretty gifted offensive guy.”

Tremendous organizational depth, along with a slew of former first-round draft picks in the system, has allowed the Capitals the luxury of trying to build from within and created a high level of competition on a regular basis. The players have to compete on an NHL level every day, which helps ease the transition when they are inserted into the Washington lineup. It also has allowed Washington to save salary cap space in case this plan of action doesn’t work out for General Manager George McPhee and the Caps have to make a move during the season.

All of this makes for an interesting training camp, with spirited workouts and friendly – yet intense – competition, all of which points to a team that should be able to fly out the gates when the puck drops for real in October. While it’s certainly entertaining for the fans, it also bodes well for the team’s future both in the short and long term.

Other Camp Notes
It looks like former No. 1 picks Karl Alzner and John Carlson, who were paired together on the blueline for much of last season in Hershey and with the Caps for Game 7 vs. Montreal, will open preseason tomorrow in Columbus paired together. “You could tell in the {AHL} playoffs and even when they were up here that they are two really good defensemen who have confidence in each other,” Boudreau said …

Washington has six Calgary natives, including four defensemen, on its camp roster … Five of Washington’s six Russians attending camp are on the same team for the intra-squad scrimmages. That team, which features Alex Ovechkin, Semyon Varlamov, Nikita Kashirsky, Stanislav Galiev and Dmitri Kugryshev, is in action today, vying for an opportunity to face the Group C team that was victorious yesterday for the “Duchesne Cup.”

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