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Options for Capitals’ Second-Line Center

If the Capitals were to explore options outside the organization to fill Backstrom’s spot at 2C, there are several free agent and trade target centers for them to consider.

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After the Washington Capitals announced that Nicklas Backstrom underwent successful hip resurfacing surgery last month, several questions arose. Many of those questions focused on the long-term future of Backstrom’s career, but there is one question that the Capitals must address this summer: who is going to fill the 2C role on Washington’s roster while Backstrom tries to work his way back? Bumping Lars Eller up to the second line for an extended period of time seems like an unsustainable long-term solution, and the Caps’ overall depth at center is not great. Connor McMichael seems like the most likely option for an internal center solution, and GM Brian MacLellan said last week that the organization would like to focus on filling the gap from within.

However, it might be wise for the team to keep tabs on options outside of Washington just in case. With free agency beginning this week and the summer trade market heating up, there are several good options for Washington to keep an eye on.

Free Agents

This offseason’s free agency market is deep, with several high-profile players becoming available come July 13. A free agent signing to fill the gap at center would be great for the Caps, particularly if they are also looking at winger and goalie options that might require trading assets away. Here are four options the Capitals should consider signing, if the price is right.

Nazem Kadri

via The Athletic
via @JFresh Hockey

Fresh off a Stanley Cup win with the Colorado Avalanche, Nazem Kadri is one of the best centers hitting the market this summer and could be an excellent fit in Washington. He set new career highs in points (87), goals (28), and assists (59), all while averaging 19:14 of ice-time per game, a full minute more than his previous highest ATOI. He was also a vital piece of Colorado’s strong power play this season, and that skill will be important for whoever takes over for Backstrom.

Kadri has great scoring instincts that can drive offensive plays but he can also play in a shutdown role when needed, not unlike Tom Wilson. Also not unlike Wilson, Kadri is not afraid to agitate and initiate contact and sometimes does push things too far. This has improved a bit, especially as his offensive responsibility has grown, but it is definitely still an issue to keep in mind. Regardless, Kadri could be a great addition to the Capitals lineup. Slotting in as the second line center could see him skating with Anthony Mantha, T.J. Oshie, Conor Sheary, or whoever the Caps decide on as a temporary replacement for Wilson. In particular, the possibility of Kadri and Mantha on the same line is enough to get anyone excited about a potential signing.

Nazem Kadri will almost certainly be too expensive for the Capitals. He is coming off a 6-year contract with an AAV of $4.5 million, and both his regular season and playoff performances have (rightfully) earned him a hefty raise. Kadri’s current contract talks are starting at a minimum of $8 million, according to Nick Kypreos, and he is most likely looking for a decent amount of term as well. It seems unlikely that the Capitals would be able to make a competitive offer, but they would be foolish to not at least explore Kadri as an option.

Vincent Trocheck

via The Athletic
via @JFresh Hockey

Vincent Trochek is an excellent second line center who just wrapped up a solid stint with the Carolina Hurricanes. His expiring 6-year, $4.75 million AAV contract was signed in Florida, but the Panthers traded him up to Raleigh at the 2020 deadline. While his performance this season took a dip from his 2020-2021 production, his 21 goals and 30 assists are nothing to sneeze at. He was a major part of the Hurricanes’ power play, centering their top unit and recording 12 PP points (6G, 6A). He was also excellent at the faceoff dot this season, winning 54.62% of his matchups. For a team like the Capitals that has a history of struggling at the dot, this is certainly an appealing number. Overall, Trocheck is a great playmaker with an excellent awareness of everything around him on the ice, and he can play a two-way game as well.

While there are certainly bigger name centers on the market this summer, Trocheck might be one of the better options out there for the Capitals. Because he is not one of the flashier centers out there, he could fly a bit more under the radar. He is also one of the more affordable available options this summer while still bringing a lot of proven talent to the lineup. His contract that just expired, which was his first deal after his ELC, had an AAV of $4.75 million. He has certainly earned a raise, probably somewhere in the $5.5-6.5 million range (DobberHockey is projecting $5,815,900) but that could work for the Caps and would definitely be worth it.

Ryan Strome

via The Athletic
via @JFresh Hockey

Ryan Strome is a versatile and speedy forward coming off one of the best seasons of his career. He recorded 54 points with the New York Rangers in the 2021-2022 season, setting a career high in goals with 21 and averaging 2.39 points per 60 minutes. He often centered New York’s second line most often, but he spent some time on the third line as well. There were also some games where he shifted to right wing; this versatility could be a valuable asset to the Caps if/when Backstrom does return this season. Strome does have a history of struggling at the dot, winning just 44.25% of his faceoffs this season and never exceeding 48.8% in his nine-year career.

Strome will most likely be seeking a contract similar to what Vincent Trocheck will look for in free agency, with an AAV in the $5.5-$7 million range. His expiring deal, which he signed with the Rangers, was a 2-year, $4.5 million AAV contract. It was his third 2-year contract in a row, so it would not be a surprise if he was looking for some stability with a bit more term on his first UFA deal. With his versatility at both center and right wing, offering him something like three or four years could make sense. Strome has said that he wants to stay in New York as he hits free agency, but a cap crunch could force the Rangers to make difficult decisions. If staying with the Rangers becomes a non-option, the Capitals could absolutely make a competitive offer.

Andrew Copp

via The Athletic
via @JFresh Hockey

The New York Rangers acquired Andrew Copp at the 2022 trade deadline, and he made an immediate positive impact on the team. He averaged 2.3 points per 60 minutes on the whole season, but in his 16 games in New York he was averaging 4. Sure, 16 games is a relatively small sample size, but that scoring pace cannot be ignored. He set new career highs in goals (21), assists (32), and points through 72 games this season, and he did so while only taking eight minor penalties and winning 53.17% of his faceoffs. Both of those last two numbers should be very appealing to the Caps. He did get some power play time last season, both in Winnipeg and New York, and could fit well on Washington’s second unit, but he was particularly effective on the penalty kill. If he can be a reliable center on the Caps’ PK and get out there and win those key faceoffs, that should be enough to outweigh his weaker power play performance compared to other options. Additionally, Copp jumping in on the PK might allow Lars Eller to devote more time to the power play to balance things out.

Like Ryan Strome, Copp can play both center and right wing and did a bit of both last season. Before his trade to the Rangers, he often skated on Winnipeg’s third or even fourth line because the Jets’ lineup was so full of talented forwards. He was immediately given more responsibility when he was traded to New York, centering the Rangers’ third line most often but also appearing on the second line. He and Strome tended to flip-flop on the second and third lines, sometimes even playing together with one of them on the wing.

Copp is coming off a 1-year, $3.64 million deal that he signed in Winnipeg and is, like Strome, probably looking for a bit more stability with his next contract. The longest contract of his career was his ELC, and he has since signed two two-year deals followed by this most recent one-year deal. His salary has increased slowly but steadily since his first standard contract so he will command more money this summer, but not by much. He is projected to earn just over $4 million next season, which would definitely be feasible for the Caps. He also has the potential to outperform the value of his next contract because of his talent level compared to his salary trajectory, making him even more appealing.

Trade Market

With the Capitals looking like the favorites to land free agent goalie Darcy Kuemper, perhaps they want to go the trade route for a center instead of another free agent signing. If that is the case, there are a few viable options out there on the trade market. Plenty of trade bait rumors have been swirling since the end of the 2021-2022 season, so here are two centers that might make sense for Washington.

J.T. Miller

via The Athletic
via @JFresh Hockey

J.T. Miller and the Capitals have been linked via trade rumors since this offseason began, and it is not hard to see why the Caps might be looking into him. Miller’s offensive stats from this past season with the Vancouver Canucks are incredible: new career highs in goals (32), assists (67), and points (99), a 15.53 SH%, 38 power play points (8G, 30A), and 3.53 points per 60 minutes. His 67 assists put him second among all centers in the league, behind some guy named Connor McDavid, and his total points ranked fifth. He also won 667 of his 1,233 faceoffs through 80 games for a 54.1% win rate. The only substantial thing lacking from his overall game is stronger defensive play, but that did improve last season compared to the year before.

The price for Miller will be high because of his career year last season, but the Capitals need to at least inquire about Vancouver’s asking price. The base is likely a “first-round pick and top prospect” combo, not unusual for players of Miller’s caliber, and will go from there. His age and lack of team control after next season will probably knock the final cost down a bit, but comparable recent trades include Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles, Jack Eichel to Vegas, and possibly Taylor Hall to Arizona. The Caps will also have to plan on the future cap hit when his current contract expires at the end of this upcoming season, and it will be high. The overall cost for J.T. Miller will be high, but he showed last season that he is worth it. The question is, are the Caps willing to pay?

William Karlsson

via The Athletic
via @JFresh Hockey

William Karlsson is one of the more intriguing names in the trade rumor mill this summer. Selected by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 expansion draft, he had a breakout year with the Golden Knights in their inaugural season with a career-high 78 points (43G, 35A). Unfortunately, he has not been able to find the same success since and his performance has petered off. Last season he recorded 35 points with 12 goals and 23 assists in 67 games, averaging 1.71 points per 60 minutes. His shooting percentage (8.9%) dipped below double digits for the first time since he left Columbus for Vegas. However, last season was not all lows for Karlsson. His defensive play remained excellent, improving a bit from the previous season, and he won 51.68% of his faceoffs. He was also a very important piece of the Golden Knights’ power play, not necessarily scoring a ton of PP points but driving offense nonetheless.

Karlsson is entering the fourth year of an 8-year, $5.9 million AAV contract. This is definitely a pricey option in terms of cap space for the Caps, especially given his age, but he does have proven past performance to balance it out. His trade cost, however, might not be so high. With the addition of Jack Eichel last season, Karlsson became the third-line center in Vegas after Eichel and Chandler Stephenson. The Golden Knights badly need to clear some cap space before October rolls around, and paying their third-line center $5.9 million does not help. This seems like a trade Vegas would like to make, which could work in Washington’s favor in terms of what they would need to send to Vegas in return.

These six options at center are by no means the only ones out there for the Capitals, but they are options the team should explore. Even if MacLellan was indeed telling the truth and the team does fill the spot on the second line internally, it does not hurt to kick the tires on these talented players.

Who on this list would you like to see the Capitals bring in? Are there any other options you think GMBM should consider? Do you think this is all an exercise in futility because an internal replacement is the best way to go? Sound off in the comments!

Data courtesy of NatStatTrick, Hockey Reference, and CapFriendly.