Centers of Attention

Posted by Dave Nichols | Friday, October 22, 2010 | , , , , , , | 0 comments »

The Washington Capitals are struggling offensively right now.  They sit exactly middle-of-the-pack (15th) in the NHL in goals per game at 2.71, and if you factor out a seven-goal outburst in the home opener, well, the struggles are even more amplified.

One of the Caps biggest off-season concerns has now turned into a regular season nightmare:  center play.  Nicklas Backstrom is off to a fairly terrible start.  With one goal (credited when an Alex Ovechkin slapshot hit him and went into the net) and three assists, his production is well short of what is expected out of the Super Swede, coming off his career year last season of 101 points.

It's easy to look at Backstrom's slump and say "It's only seven games."  But it's worrisome that his minus-2 rating and woefully inadequate 6.3 shooting percentage isn't better just by accident.  Nicky is still winning his share of draws (57.1 percent), and Coach Bruce Boudreau can do nothing but hope that Backstrom will break out of his doldrums in a big way and in a big hurry.

Still, it's curious that he signed a huge contract this past off-season and then gets off to the worst start of his NHL career.

As for the others?

Currently, the center on the second line between The Enigma (Alexnader Semin) and Iron Man (Brooks Laich) is just-turned 20-year old Marcus Johansson.  The younger Swede has had moments of brilliance and is a slick puck handler and terrific skater.  But he is not strong enough physically right now to really compete on a daily basis with veterans in the NHL.  He is literally a boy among men.

He is also -- despite his obvious skills -- not producing.  One goal, no assists, and just 34.0 percent in the dot isn't getting it done.  He's only put six shots on net.  He's getting beaten physically and positionally on defense.  Is giving on-the-job training to a 20-year old -- on the second line -- a luxury the Capitals can afford right now?

Next, we come to everyone's favorite whipping boy, Tomas Fleischmann.  I'm going to say this one more time: He is out of position at center.  He's got two goals and two assists and is tied for the team lead at plus-4.  But his faceoff percentage is as bad as Johansson's at 36.1.  Boudreau doesn't trust him, evidenced by his TOI/G at just 15:15 and the fact that Boudreau isn't giving Flash any defensive zone draws.

Fleischmann also is a bad defender.  He is pushed off the puck much too easily for a guy that's been around a while now.  He is constantly losing physical battles and seems indifferent to back-checking.

Further down the roster is David Steckel and Boyd Gordon.  Both have the reputation for being good faceoff men and stout penalty killers.  But Steckel hasn't really made much difference on the ice this season after not getting a sweater for opening night, and Gordon hasn't even been on the ice the last three games with an undisclosed injury, after at one point Boudreau calling him a "healthy" scratch.

In the last couple of game recaps I've alluded to the possibility of a roster shake-up if the Caps offensive woes continue.  It's not a stretch to think that the center position is the first place a roster tweak could happen, should GM George McPhee and Boudreau think that's necessary.