In an off-season full of change for the Washington Capitals, one thing has remained constant, giving fans a sense of familiarity in the face of uncertainty. That constant? The need to find a second-line center to solidify the top-six forwards.
The last time the Capitals entered an offseason knowing who the second-line center would be for the upcoming season was 2008, and Sergei Fedorov was playing for the Caps. Fedorov retired from the NHL after that 2008-09 season, and in each of the ensuing four and a half seasons the Capitals have had to find a new player to handle the second-line center spot.
They've gone the aging veteran route in free agency. They've gone the aging veteran route via trade. They've tried to fill the position with internal options, only to realize the internal options couldn't cut it, forcing the team to eventually try the aging veteran route via trade. Again. And then they tried to fill the position with internal options (the same guy as the previous year...) only to watch their internal option post historically bad (probably...) possession numbers in the postseason (after merely bad possession numbers in the regular season). They've even tried semantic tricks to solve the problem (no, Dale Hunter and Adam Oates, moving Jay Beagle to the top line and bumping Nicklas Backstrom to the second line does not do the trick).
Finally, last season, Caps' fans' prayers seemed to be answered when the team signed a center who was both productive and an actual center, and reasonably close to his prime. Mikhail Grabovski seemed to be a perfect fit for the Caps. Unfortunately, between coaching and injuries, the promise we all saw when Grabovski signed was hardly realized (if at all), and now his one-year contract is about to expire. It seems likely at this point that he will test free agency, and the search for a second-line center is on, once again (as is, apparently, the organization's willingness to try to fill the position internally, including using an unproven young player with no track record of NHL success... at any position).
Unlike in years past, however, there seem to be some viable options available this summer to address the team's weakness down the middle. Some older, some younger. Some could be acquired via trade, some signed via free agency. Whether the Caps can land the best option or merely the fifth best option, they have an opportunity to bolster the second line.
Rory Boylen of The Hockey News recently posted a quick rundown of the centers available this offseason, along with his predictions of where they'll land. The seven centers he identified are Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton, Ryan Kesler, Paul Stastny, Sam Gagner, Mike Richards, and Brad Richards. We'll add a few more names to the list: Patrick Marleau (as a shake up in San Jose seems inevitable), Ryan O'Reilly (given that the already contentious history with Colorado management is only getting worse), Nazem Kadri, Patrik Berglund, and Grabovski, who somehow isn't on anybody's radar (which is fine by us).
Several of these guys are obviously not truly second-line centers, but neither is Evgeni Malkin, and Jeff Carter could be a good first-line center on teams all across the league. Teams that win (especially in the postseason) generally have a second-line center that has the capability to play on the first line. And if you need more confirmation of the need for two first-line caliber centers, just look at the Capitals in 2012 when Nicklas Backstrom missed half of the season... so yes, feel free to call a guy like Thornton a second top center instead of a second-line center.
Last week we looked at how Alex Ovechkin handled power-versus-power assignments, and we'll build off of that analysis. Whomever the Caps add needs to be able to handle difficult competition - so no Mike Ribeiros who needto be sheltered and limit the team's options. Teams that win don't have top-six players that need sheltering (though certainly a concerted effort to feed top offensive players offensive-zone starts isn't a bad idea). With that in mind, how do the available centers stack up, power-versus-power?
For a little bit of context, here's the usage chart for the this group of pivots (Brad is the Richards to the right and Kesler is hiding behind O'Reilly, and if you're curious as to the boxcar stats for the group, here you go):
We've already seen that Thornton is a stud against tough competition, and he still looks like the best option of the lot. He'd be the biggest improvement to the Capitals' roster, and it's not really that close. Thornton is still an elite playmaker (who happens to love playing with right-handed shooters, something the Caps have plenty of) and his ability to face any opposition would be a huge addition and immediately raise the Capitals to contender status in the Eastern Conference.
The next closest option for a power-versus-power center is Marleau, Thornton's teammate in San Jose. He hasn't played center for a few years, but he's a natural center (a true natural center, one that has played and succeeded at the position in the NHL, unlike some other guys the Caps have declared "natural centers"...). He's got speed and goal-scoring ability, which would bring balance to the lineup (someone on this team not named Ovechkin has to shoot a puck).
There are two downsides to trying to acquire Thornton or Marleau, one logistical and one practical. As a logistical matter, each player is about to enter the first year of a three-year deal, complete with a no-trade clause. They would have to agree to go to the Capitals, and it seems as if both guys are more of the west coast type of personality than the northeast; even if they'd agree to a trade, it would cost the Caps a ton to get them. But you have to give value to get value, and if you want to add an elite player at the center position, it's most certainly going to cost. That's just the nature of the League.
As a practical matter, the Sharks are discussing moving the two players who have been the backbone of the franchise for nearly a decade, primarily because they've disappointed in the playoffs far too many times. Do the Capitals need to add players who kill it in the regular season but come up short in the playoffs? We've seen that story a time or two in our own right. Now, as a Caps fan who's had to defend Ovechkin from these claims a time or two, I've got this handy page bookmarked. You can see that Thornton and Marleau are both represented on the list of active points per game playoff leaders, and none of their teammates are ahead of them (and both are ahead of some noted clutch playoff performers, including the guy that just won the Conn Smythe). So maybe they, like Ovechkin, just haven't gotten the support from their teammates... but it's at least a concern to consider.
The Capitals' Top Line: Power (Outage) vs. Power
One of the themes from the recently-concluded NHL playoffs was top teams using their top players head-to-head, power-versus-power. So that got us thinking...
Sticking with the trade market for elite centers, Spezza is going to get a lot of attention from teams around the league. Unlike Marleau and Thornton, Spezza doesn't handily beat tough competition. He hovers right around 50% possession against the top three lines, only clearly beating the fourth line. For a guy that has one year left on his $7 million deal (meaning we'd get to do this exercise again next year or the Caps would have to pay him a lot more money), the Caps need better production against top competition. If we're going to talk about playoff performance, Spezza has definitely produced, but in the context of his performance against top-line competition it's hard to shake this image. Like the Sharks above, Spezza won't be cheap to acquire, though he has requested a trade so it won't be tough to get him to board a flight out of Ottawa.
Kesler is another player on the trade market (though he seems to want to limit that market) with a reputation for tough two-way play against top competition. His numbers against the top lines are just under 50%, but he does handle the rest of the opposition's lineup pretty handily in possession. What's troubling is that for a guy with a reputation for shutting down top opposition his Goals-For percentage against the top two lines are both well under 50% (and his 99.6 PDO doesn't scream "bad luck"). He's had a bunch of injuries over the last few years and his offense has been on the decline. At this point he looks like his Selke candidate days are behind him and he may be a better option for third-line center than second. It doesn't really make sense for the Caps to give up the assets that it would take to pry him away from Vancouver via trade if he's not a strong second-line center anymore.
It's a bit unclear what it would take to acquire Brad or Mike Richards (no relation). Both guys entered the off-season on long-term deals, and both guys had been rumored to be options for a compliance buyout. The Rangers went ahead and made that rumor a reality with respect to Brad Richards, while Kings GM Dean Lombardi has said that Mike Richards will not be bought out, but that doesn't mean he couldn't be available. Both guys put up strong possession numbers against all four lines, but they also played on two of the best possession teams in the league (the best in Mike's case). It's hard to imagine these guys being buyout candidates if they were huge drivers of that possession, and both guys saw fourth-line time in the playoffs over the last two seasons.
Of the two, Mike Richards is the better option for the Caps, for a couple of reasons. First, Mike's demotion was as much a product of LA's crazy depth as his declining play. Second, when you look at special teams, Brad was exclusively a power-play player while Mike got over a minute-and-a-half on each special teams unit during the playoffs. The Caps have plenty of guys that can play on a power play unit; they need some quality penalty killers. Mike fits that bill, and he's five years younger. Neither is the top option, but Mike would still be a substantial upgrade on whomever would be penciled into the second-line center spot if Grabovski walks via free agency. But Brad Richards is also an upgrade over the internal options for the Caps, if only for a year or two.
While we're talking trade options, let's just get this out of the way now: just say no to Sam Gagner. Even granting the fact that his team was a possession disaster, he wasn't even close to breaking even against any line. Fourth-line players had him 5.5% below break-even. We're also looking for a power-versus-power center, so when Boylen has to use "given his defensive deficiencies" it's time to move on. Gagner is the only guy on this list that isn't an upgrade over the internal options at all, even for one season.
Sticking with trade candidates, it seems like everyone on the Toronto Maple Leafs is up for sale, except for maybe Phil Kessel. For whatever reason, Kadri can't seem to find acceptance in Toronto, but there will be no shortage of suitors should the Leafs make him available. One name mentioned in return has been Berglund of the St. Louis Blues. They are both legitimate second-line centers, though their games are a bit different. Even considering the dramatic differences in quality of coaching, Kadri experienced a substantial possession boost as his opposition dropped; he increased by 4% moving from the first line to the second line, and another 4% going from the second to the third. It's clear that he can create offense, but it's not clear that he'd help the Caps go power-versus-power.
Berglund, on the other hand, brings a little less offense to his line, but was extremely consistent across lines, with negligible increase in possession from the first to second line and only a 1.5% boost from the second to the third. It seems Berglund is able to bring the same game no matter who he faces (and that's not a surprise with as much time as he's spent with Ken Hitchcock), so he'd be a better choice in a power-versus-power situation. If you're weighing your options between Berglund and Kadri, a lot of the decision will come down to whether you value Kadri's offensive upside (and, remember, Kadri is three years younger than Berglund), or Berglund's defensive ability to handle top competition. Either one would be a huge addition for the Caps, and the cost for either is likely to be steep.
O'Reilly is another young center who has already accomplished a lot in his career. Unlike the other (palatable) options on this list, O'Reilly isn't even UFA age yet, and he's currently negotiating (or trying to negotiate) his final restricted free agent (RFA) contract, one that will pay him quite handsomely (since he's already coming off a two-year, $10-million contract). He's a responsible two-way player that manages to stay out of the penalty box, as evidenced by his 2013-14 Lady Byng nomination (breathe through your nose, it's not a bad thing). He also led the Avalanche in goals - no small feat on a team loaded with young talent. There's little doubt that Colorado would rather not get rid of him, but after ham-fisting two straight negotiations they may not have a choice.
His possession numbers are a not quite as good as Stastny's despite enjoying a little bit more favorable usage than teammate Stastny. He also doesn't have the offensive track record Stastny has, but he's younger so he'll likely have more good-to-great seasons left in him than Stastny does and Stastny's past performance won't help the Caps anyhow. You have to think that if the Avalanche are going to trade a young player who could be part of the core of any team they'll want a lot back. Factor in his contract negotiation history (at least some of the contentious nature of the negotiation has to be attributable to his camp, you'd think) and it may not make sense for the Caps to pursue him. He'd be an upgrade, for sure, but if the Caps are going to ship out significant assets and pay top dollar to add a center, several guys on the list above would be better options.
And, speaking of Stastny, that brings us to the two best free agent options: Stastny and Grabovski. Stastny is younger, has a better pedigree, has better historic offensive output, and a better reputation for two-way play. No surprise, he's also a higher-paid player. Given the reputations of the players, it makes sense to pay Stastny a healthy premium over Grabovski.
When you look at the numbers, however, Grabovski put up better possession numbers than Stastny against the top two lines. Both played on teams that were bottom-third in possession (the Caps were a whole 0.3% better than Colorado in Corsi as a team) so there's no reason to think that either player benefited from systems (now... how Colorado finished first in the loaded west and the Capitals managed to miss the playoffs is a whole other discussion). It's likely that usage was a factor that made Stastny's possession numbers look worse, but if we are talking about the ability to play against difficult competition and succeed, Grabovski showed he's no slouch. If the premium the Caps would have to pay to land Stastny over Grabovski is more than 10% (and it almost surely will be, if Stastny hits the market), the Caps would probably be better off keeping Grabovski and spending the money elsewhere.
So there you have it. For the first time in a long time, there are numerous quality second-line center options for the Capitals to pursue, many of whom could realistically be first-line centers. It's been a position of need for a long time, and when you look at most of the successful teams in the League, they have two centers who can play on a top line. The Caps can address the position through free agency or trade, but they need to address it. Otherwise they'll be in for another short spring and we'll be having this talk next year. Again.