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Japers' Rink Mailbag

Lineup questions abound in our sixth installment of "you ask, we answer"

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor

Our first question this week is about how the Caps' potential lack of depth up the middle:

This is an interesting question, in part because even the advanced stats used to evaluate players don't do a very good job of capturing coach- and system-effects. Does Player X look like a good player because he's really a good player? Or does he look like a good player because he's benefiting from a favorable system? We don't really have a handle on those issues, which means that the answer to this question will be up for debate. The reality is that most teams that succeed in the playoffs have strong depth down the middle, usually with a second-line center that could step up and play on the top line if needed. There are some counterexamples, of course... and that's where we'll look to try to answer this question.

This past season, three of the final four teams had 2Cs that could easily step into a top-line role. Of course, the one team that didn't was the team that won the Cup, so one could say that the lack of a stud 2C isn't all that fatal.

I'd caution against that conclusion, however, because Michal Handzus, the 2C on the Cup winning 'Hawks team, was likely able to look as credible as he did on the second line because he had Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa on his wings. If a team has two elite wings on the second line, then the threshold for a competent 2C comes down quite a bit (and if Dave Bolland got demoted from 2C with Sharp and Hossa on his wings... well, have fun, Toronto). The Caps are not going to have the luxury of playing two studs on the second-line wings, so they'll need to get more from their 2C than Chicago got from Handzus.

Then again, the 2011-2012 Final Four featured a couple of teams that didn't have a whole lot of talent down the middle, either. The Phoenix Coyotes went to the Western Conference Finals with Martin Hanzal and Antoine Vermette as their top centers. Neither player would inspire much excitement if they were to join the Caps as a 2C, much less a 1C. The Devils went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals with Travis Zajac, Dainius Zubrus, and Adam Henrique as their top three centers. Again, that's not the most impressive crew of centers to build a team around. Both teams got more out of their centers than you would expect, though a statistical analysis could lead you to conclude that these players are simply underrated.

My personal belief is that the Devils' coaching and system (and the same for Phoenix) helped to hide the deficiencies in their center corps, getting more out of the second line than you'd expect given the personnel. If Brooks Laich is to anchor the second line this season, the Caps will probably need some similar coaching magic to get more than seven playoff wins (and probably even to get to that point). As we noted a few weeks back, putting Laich at second-line center isn't so far-fetched, but neither is it promising... although again, it's hard to separate the player from the system. (And let's not forget that the guy whose spot Laich will be taking wasn't a particularly good second-line center at even-strength either.)

The bad news for the Caps is that very few teams seem to be able to have the same kind of success as Phoenix and New Jersey had in 2012 without bona fide 2Cs. The good news is that the Caps have a coach who has already shown the ability to turn around a team's/player's performance through coaching, and he had a front row seat during the Devils' 2012 run - so if anybody knows how to do it, Adam Oates does.

Next up, a question about the two main contenders for second-line center:

Laich and Mathieu Perreault seem like the two most obvious candidates to play second line center for the Caps this season (pending any other moves), but the two players find themselves in very different situations. Ultimately, the answer to this question depends on through whose eyes you are viewing it: the front office's or those of the media and the fans.

Laich is coming into the season as George McPhee's declared second-line center, but is also recovering from an injury that kept him out of all but nine games last year. He's been used as a wing on the top three lines, a center on the top three lines, and even an emergency defenseman. He may be an underwhelming option at 2C, but it's unlikely that he has anything left to prove (at least to the front office) because it's clear that the front office views Laich as a core part of this team.

As for those outside of the organization, Laich already enjoys a lot of support as a jack-of-all-trades player who shows emotion, gives great quotes, and seems to bring the kind of attitude fans want to see throughout the team. However, he was also the team's worst performer in both Corsi On and Corsi Rel during his most-recent audition at center - the 2012 playoffs. Laich makes a good bit of money (which heightens expectations), plays more minutes, has essentially been anointed the 2C (without competition), and is coming off an injury-riddled season. While Laich's status is secure with the front office, he still has several questions to answer for those outside of it.

Perreault, on the other hand, only became a regular NHL player over the last two seasons (after Laich had already signed his current long-term contract), and has rarely played above the third line for the Capitals, save for a stretch as the second-line center when Nicklas Backstrom was sidelined during the 2011-12 campaign. He is also a restricted free agent after this season.

Perreault has won over some fans (including us) with his play, but despite his great possession stats (on a team that has not been among the league leaders in those metrics) and scoring rates (leading the team in assists/60), it still requires a leap of faith to believe that he could provide the kind of 2C play that this team has desperately needed for years.

With Mike Ribeiro out of the picture, and nobody brought in to replace him, it looks like Perreault should have the opportunity to battle for the second-line center spot, despite McPhee's public backing of Laich. Unless Laich's game has changed substantially since the last time we saw him play center in a top-six role, I'd expect to see Perreault get a taste of 2C duties by Thanksgiving. His skill set seems like a natural fit to replace Ribeiro, but his possession numbers are far better than Ribeiro has shown for years. If Perreault can continue to maintain his strong possession numbers and scoring rate stats at the 2C position (including the corresponding increased competition), he could well end up making that roster spot his own. But until he actually goes out there and does it, he's got something to prove, to, well, everyone.

So while Laich has yet to prove he can be a second-line center on a team with serious aspirations, he's already proven he's a solid NHLer who can play up and down the lineup on the wing and slide into the middle of a checking line. As such, the team has locked him up with a contract that will last for four more seasons. Perreault... he has just finally proven he can be an everyday NHL player, but with his distinctly finesse skill set, it's still unclear exactly where he fits in, long-term. Until he clears that up, he'll be the guy with the question marks, and, at times, the guy playing for his next contract.


Finally, let's pump the brakes on talk about Tom Wilson's chances at making the Caps, and who the odd man out would be in that scenario:

Wilson has gotten a lot of attention from Caps fans this summer, and deservedly so. After all, he's one of the top-three prospects in the Caps' system right now (and the highest ranked prospect playing in North America) and he just got a cup of coffee in the NHL playoffs not a year after being drafted. He's been compared to Milan Lucic, the kind of power-forward with edge the Caps have lacked for the entire Ovechkin era (well, other than the captain himself).

Fans are excited about him, but let's take a step back and see what makes sense from the team's perspective. Wilson isn't cheap - he'll cost quite a bit more than a league-minimum replacement player - so he's not just any fourth-line player, and right now the Caps have just over $5.5M in cap space, with only Marcus Johansson to sign. At just a shade under $1.3M, the Caps could fit Wilson and his contract onto the roster without moving anybody out. So the money works without any other major moves (such as a trade), but what about the lineup?

As a right-handed winger (and with the Caps' coaching staff pretty focused on handedness), Wilson is likely looking at one of the four right wing roster spots... and as the roster currently stands, right wing is the deepest position for the Caps, so Wilson looks like a long-shot. The top-line right wing is spoken for, the second-line right wing is Troy Brouwer's to lose, and there's some pretty fierce competition on the third line right wing between Eric Fehr and Joel Ward. That means Wilson is likely looking at the fourth-line right wing spot, if he's going to make the team. It's hard to imagine Wilson out-performing a healthy Fehr or Ward, and it's equally hard to really see anyone being healthy-scratched to get him in the lineup. However, one injury to a right wing opens a spot, and it's conceivable that Wilson could be next in line for that position.

But does it make sense to carry Wilson on the roster, taking up over twice the League-minimum and burning a year of his entry level contract, just for the option to play him on the fourth line in the case of injury? The Caps have not been shy with pushing their promising prospects through the system, with mixed results, so you can't rule Wilson out. That said, at his stage in his development he needs to be playing, and preferably a lot. This roster just doesn't look to afford that opportunity - between the salary cap hit and the lack of available playing time on the right wing, the current team structure doesn't justify keeping Wilson on the team.

Of course, a trade is always a wild card in this kind of scenario. Theoretically, anybody can be traded, and that could (again, theoretically) open a spot for Wilson to jump in to. There has been a lot of discussion about the Caps moving out salary to make it easier (or possible) to sign Mikhail Grabovski, but those scenarios look like fan fantasy more than reality.

However, to indulge in the possibility of a trade, two guys with contracts that look like they could open up enough cap space for George McPhee to make some significant upgrades at second-line center or fourth top-four defenseman are Brouwer and Ward. Both of them play right wing. If McPhee does decide to make a move to free up some cap space and aggressively upgrade the team, there is a chance that a spot on right wing would be opened up, but it's unlikely that McPhee would trade out a right wing just to open a spot for Wilson, even if he has a great training camp (by which time it'll be too late to aggressively upgrade the roster, anyway). So, if a right wing spot is opened up via trade the opportunity for Wilson to take that open spot is going to be ancillary to other roster concerns.

In short, barring something unforeseen and relatively out of character for George McPhee, there isn't really a roster spot for Wilson on the current team. Given Wilson's cost and development status, that's ok. It's probably better for Wilson, and the Caps, in the long run if he spends another year in juniors, devouring minutes and opponents alike. We'll see Wilson soon enough, there's no need to rush it.


Agree? Disagree?

If you've got something on your mind, go ahead and ask it here on the site, on Twitter (use #JapersMailbag), via email or on Facebook, and we'll try to get to them. It's a long summer and there are a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.

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