Since 2009, the position of second-line center for the Capitals has been a Bermuda Triangle of sorts.
The list of players that have assumed the role of playing behind Nicklas Backstrom for the past six seasons is as long as it is varied.
Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger [briefly], Tomas Fleischmann, Jason Arnott, Mathieu Perreault, Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Mike Ribeiro and Mikhail Grabovski all have taken turns at one time or another. None has lasted.
Judging from the comments made by Caps general manager Brian MacLellan, the Capitals’ list of priorities begins with upgrading their blue line with a left-handed defenseman who can play alongside Mike Green and stabilizing their goaltending with a reliable backup for Braden Holtby.
Once those spots have been filled, MacLellan will see how much of the roughly $14 million in cap space is remaining to determine whether the Caps re-sign Grabovski, who is believed to be seeking at least four years at about $5 million per season.
“We’re working through that right now,” MacLellan said. “We’ve been in contact with [Grabovski’s] agent a few times. We like the job Grabovski did for us last year [13 goals, 22 assists in 58 games], but we’re also balancing what we’re going to do with the dollars we’re spending on our roster.
“I think one of the priorities is to upgrade our defense. Depending on the cost of that and overall cap room we’ll make a decision on Grabovski.”
MacLellan said he would like to explore the possibility of using rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov as the Caps’ second-line center. In 17 games with the Caps last season the 22-year-old Russian showed incredible poise and creativity with the puck while picking up three goals and six assists, mostly on a fourth line.
MacLellan also mentioned Marcus Johansson, who spent most of last season as a top-line left wing with Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, as a possibility at second-line center, as well as Brooks Laich.
There has been speculation the Caps should make a pitch for Ottawa Senators center Jason Spezza, who has one year and $4 million remaining on his deal with the Sens, but that would mimic what they’ve attempted in the past two seasons with one-year rentals Ribiero and Grabovski.
Perhaps that’s a reason MacLellan is leaning toward giving Kuznetsov the job no one before him has been able to hold.
“I guess my overall philosophy is we’re going to have to develop one of our young guys to play second-line center,” MacLellan said. “I think it’s hard to add in free agency. If the cost of Grabovski makes sense to our overall structure I think we would consider bringing him back and playing him in that role.”
And if the price to sign Grabovski is too high …
“I’d like to see Kuznetsov try center,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to see if he can handle it and I’d like to see with a little coaching how much he’ll improve. Until we get to training camp and try things there won’t be any certainty to it.”
As for differentiating himself from former Capitals general manager George McPhee, MacLellan says that’s far less important to him than making the right decisions in his new role.
“I guess the truth is I don’t think it’s about me,” he said. “It’s about improving our team. If I really thought there was a guy who would be a lot better than Kuznetsov, Johansson or Laich I would pursue it. I just think there are limited possibilities. It’s a position that needs to be developed within in general.”