With Belanger Out, Who Will Step in at Center for Washington Capitals?
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Now that the confusion surrounding Eric Belanger's contract situation has been cleared up, the Capitals enter training camp with jobs up for grabs at the center position. Belanger was best suited as a third line center, and a penalty kill specialist, so two of the top three lines seem to be without a solidified centerman.
The Capitals seem to be counting on 2009 first rounder Marcus Johansson to slide in between Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin on the second line, but it's not guaranteed that he is ready to make the jump to the NHL.
Johansson notched 20 points in the Swedish Elite League last season, but compared to the 40 points that Nicklas Backstrom put up in his last campaign in Sweden, it may be better that he start the year in the AHL, or on the third line. However, if Johansson fails to make the Capitals opening night roster, he has an exit clause in his contract to return to Sweden for the season.
Johansson projects to be a good two-way centerman, but with less offensive flair than Backstrom. If he struggles to keep up with the pace of the NHL, Tomas Fleischmann may be forced back into the second line center spot, which is not an ideal situation for the 'Caps.
Fleischmann, aptly nicknamed 'Flash for his open-ice speed and creativity with the puck, is a skilled forward, but can be knocked off the puck relatively easily, and is prone to slumps (3 goals in his last 28 postseason games).
His lack of toughness and defensive awareness as a center leave a lot to be desired for the team down the middle. Mathieu Perreault was a spark plug for the team during his stint with the Capitals, posting nine points in 21 games while being called up from Hershey, but stands just 5'9".
The decision to let Belanger sign with Phoenix leaves a gaping hole in Washington's lineup, as beyond Backstrom, their only other regular centermen are Boyd Gordon and David Steckel. Unless Johansson can make the jump this season, a trade or late signing will need to materialize, because as Chicago, Pittsburgh and Detroit have shown, strength up this middle is a key component in building a championship team.
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