For years, Capitals fans have been clamoring for General Manager George McPhee to do something about that pesky second-line center problem. For a while, it seemed like Marcus Johansson was being groomed for that spot, until Mike Ribiero was signed during the summer of 2012. Ribiero looked like the answer, and for a few short months, he was.
He found chemistry with Alex Ovechkin, served admirably with Troy Brouwer on the second line, and greatly contributed to the success on the Capitals’ power play. He was crafty, he was smart – a playmaker. He also wanted a long-term contract, but McPhee and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis weren’t willing to offer that.
Back to square one, right? No, back to Brooks Laich. “He’s our guy,” said McPhee in July, expressing confidence in his current roster. Several weeks later, Toronto Maple Leafs casualty Mikhail Grabovski signed with the Capitals.
Bought out by Toronto, Grabovski is the frontrunner for the second-line center spot this season, and the answer for a problem that seems to crop up every summer, though not necessarily a long-term solution, since his contract is only for one year. His 2013 season was less than stellar (9g, 7a), but that was more a product of less ice time and not being properly utilized by Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle and less a reflection of his ability. Adam Oates has plans for him to play alongside Troy Brouwer, and he will skate for the first time at Kettler Tuesday morning, after visa issues stranded him in Toronto for most of Capitals training camp. It would be interesting to see what he’s able to contribute to the power play, too.
Backstrom is a mainstay on the Capitals’ top line, and is arguably the best player on the team at any given time. Ovechkin’s goal-scoring streak in the last part of the 2013 season was, in part, fed by Backstrom’s deft hands. Backstrom’s role will probably not differ much from what’s been expected of him in the past. He’s pretty good at what he does. He had a bit of a quiet year in 2013, but look for him to bounce back to his old numbers. He’s due for a comeback this season, and playing with Ovechkin never did any harm to anyone, either. Just as Marcus Johansson.
The spunky Quebecois center, who finished with a career-high 16 goals in 2011-12 (his first career hat trick that season didn’t hurt) and 6 goals last season, is a player who always works a little bit harder than everyone else, and it shows. He’s not a top-line player, but holds his own on the Capitals fourth “energy” line (a term Oates would like to steer away from), with guys like Joel Ward and Aaron Volpatti. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see more of his wacky victory celebrations from the bench this season.
During the 2013 lockout, Beagle worked with skating coach Wendy Marco to improve his skating prowess – and it showed. He was quicker and more agile for a player of his skill level. Typically a fourth-line grinder, Beagle’s role evolved to a shutdown center over the last few years, toughing it out with Matt Hendricks and Joel Ward. Things might look a little different on the bottom-six once the season starts, though. Oates is experimenting with Eric Fehr centering the third line in preseason, and if that project works, it could certainly change Beagle’s role in the long run.