The Washington Capitals went out and addressed their defensive depth during the summer adding Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen; however, rookie general manager Brian MacLellan was left without enough cap space to address his second line center role.
As a result, the Capitals are looking within their organizational depth chart to fill the void.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson and Andre Burakovsky are battling for the vacant spot during preseason action.
Following the Capitals 2-0 Wednesday night loss to the Boston Bruins, coach Barry Trotz told The Washington Post neither player has really cemented their name in the role as of yet.
“You look at Marcus hasn’t played center for quite a while,” Trotz said. “He’s just re-engaging to that position. Burakovsky is a total new position for him and a young guy. And Kuzy is back at center but playing over in North America in that position is a lot different. They’re all going through their own little issues, but they’re all pretty talented.”
Kuznetsov, 22, made his NHL debut last season scoring three goals and nine points in 17 games with the Capitals after five seasons in the KHL.
Johansson has four NHL seasons under his belt with the Capitals, but has struggled scoring consistently with just 41 goals in 263 games.
“The last couple years I haven’t gotten as much out of my game as I usually do, so I think it’s a good thing,” Johnasson said. “Just keep working on it and when you get to that level where you’re not really thinking anymore, and just doing it, that’s when you’re going to see some progress.”
The Capitals decided to transition Burakovsky, 19, from the left side to the middle this summer. After a full offseason working as a center, Burakovsky scored the team’s game-winning goal in the preseason opener.
“I feel quite comfortable actually,” Burakovsky said. “It’s coming every day.It’s my second game on this level. It’s kind of new.”
On Wednesday Trotz had a chance to watch all three players in the same game.
“They all had their moments tonight,” Trotz said following the loss. “I thought you can take pieces of the game, stretches where they had three or four good shifts and then looked really fine, then have a shift where they struggled a little bit, turnovers and little puck battles that you want them to win. The draws are going to be a concern. We’re going to have to work on that in the short period of time here.”
Prior to Wednesday’s game, Trotz highlighted the importance of his second line center’s ability in the faceoff circle.
Kuznetsov was the most successful of the three going 6-for-8 in the circle winning 75 percent of the draws he took. Johannson (4-of-16) and Burakovsky (3-of-11) finished well behind.
With Mikhail Grabovski, the Capitals best faceoff man from a year ago, ironically auditioning for a left wing role with the Islanders, Trotz is hoping one of the three emerge.
Johansson seems like the obvious choice with four NHL seasons under his belt, but his performance has been rather underwhelming. Starting a rookie with either Kuznetsov or Burakovsky (who has never played center) in the middle will certainly have its’ share of growing pains.
With no name really jumping off the page in terms of second line centers currently available on the free agent market, Washington will likely start with one of the three aforementioned players in the middle.
It’ll be interesting to see how Trotz manages the position in his first year behind the Capitals’ bench.