There are 68 days to go until the season opener, and though it’s been a bit of a quiet summer for the Washington Capitals, there are still questions to address. One of course is the situation down the middle.
With Evgeny Kuznetsov’s future still uncertain and the trade and free agency markets still open, Washington’s depth at center presents a bit of uncertainty. But is it a concern?
It shouldn’t be.
First off, Nicklas Backstrom’s showing no signs of slowing down and continues to be a constant for the Capitals. The 33-year-old was the team’s leading scorer in 2020-21 with 15 goals and 53 points in 55 games. It was his eighth-straight season with 50-plus points, and his playmaking ability and vision continue to carry the Capitals’ offense.
Of course, the biggest elephant in the room is Kuznetsov. As discussed, he’s still capable of producing elite numbers at the NHL level; he just needs the right mindset. “Off-ice issues,” including testing positive for COVID-19 twice in 2020-21, limited his ice time and in turn, his production. This led to speculation and a report from Frank Seravalli that Washington was “tired of his antics” and that the time may be right for a trade.
In his exit interview, he owned up to his mistakes, saying that he wants to stay in D.C. Washington and that he would learn from his mistakes. Brian MacLellan also took a step back on trade talks, saying that the Capitals never said they’d trade him away but would consider options for most players. That being said, the right deal hasn’t presented itself — and even then, they should be wary of a gamble.
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Last season was an unprecedented year, and before that, Kuznetsov’s numbers are solid. Like Backstrom, he’s shown he can be a constant 50-plus point player. Prior to the pause in 2019-20, he had 52 points in 63 games, which is good for .82 points per game). And before that, he had back-to-back seasons of 20-plus goals and 70-plus points, including an 83-point regular season in 2017-18. He followed up on that performance with 32 points in 24 playoff games en route to Washington’s first Stanley Cup.
In a regular 82-game season, the Capitals will be able to see if Kuznetsov can bounce back, and should give him the chance to do so instead of going for the first deal they see. Plus, a “last chance” approach could work wonders for the 29-year-old.
Beyond their top pivots, Washington’s in a good place down the middle. Lars Eller struggled with injuries and some inconsistency last season, but has proven to be a strong third-line center who can play with just about anyone and generate several chances. Plus, he’s a solid penalty killer and plays several different roles, and he’s also capable of logging top-6 minutes.
Then, there’s Nic Dowd, who centers perhaps one of the most dangerous fourth-line combinations in the league. He ranked 13th in face-off percentage in 2020-21 (56.3 percent), and also registered a career-high 11 goals. His work ethic, grit and offensive acumen have improved, and he’s also a strong utility player.
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Beyond the NHL roster, Washington has Connor McMichael, Brian Pinho, Hendrix Lapierre and several others in waiting in the wings. McMichael led the Hershey Bears with 27 points in 33 games in his first AHL season and with that, showed that he can easily adjust and transition to the speed of the pros (though the NHL will be a much bigger jump). He possesses strong skating ability, a wicked shot and quick hands, and he has a tremendous hockey IQ.
Pinho had eight goals and 12 points in just 10 games with the Bears last season. He’s known for his two-way play and playmaking ability but has also gotten more confident in shooting. Washington also just inked minor-league forward Mike Vecchione to a one-year, two-way deal, which gives the Bears a versatile forward who can play pivot or wing.
Overall, Washington has built a lot of depth down the middle. Trading Kuznetsov would leave a major void, but even then, they still have options in their arsenal. Unless the return is a top-6 center capable of the same production, the Capitals should stick with their current depth chart.