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Centers of Attention

Washington's deep group of pivots might be its best bunch ever

Tuesday, 08.26.2008 / 4:11 PM / Features
By Mike Vogel  - WashingtonCaps.com Senior Writer
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Centers of Attention
Back in the dismal early days, there were Nelson Pyatt and (briefly) Bill Clement. Guy Charron followed soon thereafter, and then Dennis Maruk and Ryan Walter. Rolf Edberg put together a couple of good seasons, and then Bengt Gustafsson followed in his Swedish skate steps.

The Caps drafted Bobby Carpenter in 1981. Alan Haworth and Doug Jarvis helped usher in the playoff era teams of the 1980s. Later in that same decade, Michal Pivonka and Mike Ridley came along, soon to be joined by Dale Hunter.

Several other stalwarts came along in the 1990s, namely Joé Juneau, Andrei Nikolishin Adam Oates and Jeff Halpern.

The trio of Ridley, Pivonka and Hunter remained intact for several seasons, and probably stands as the best threesome of centers the Capitals have had concurrently in their three-and-a-half decade history in the NHL.

In 1992-93, Ridley, Pivonka and Hunter each totaled 20 or more goals and 70 or more points in what was a much different offensive climate in the NHL at the time. The trio had two other seasons in which each member had at least 20 goals and 60 points.

While that level of offensive competence will be tough to counter, the 2008-09 Caps boast a deep and diverse group of centers. There are lefties, righties, youngsters, experienced hands, crafty playmakers, checking wizards, face-off specialists, shutdown guys, assist machines, penalty killers and power play pivots.

Nicklas Backstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov, Brooks Laich, David Steckel, Boyd Gordon and Keith Aucoin are all listed as centers in the NHL’s Official Guide and Record Book.

The top trio of Backstrom, Fedorov and Nylander won’t stay together as long as Ridley, Pivonka and Hunter did. But the former group could give the latter threesome a run for its money in 2008-09. Backstrom, Fedorov and Nylander are all creative playmakers, and all three are capable of performing on both special teams. They probably won’t approach the offensive production that Ridley, Pivonka and Hunter provided in ’92-93, but their all-around ability – and that of the rest of the centers on the Washington roster – should give the Caps the best depth they’ve had up the middle in ages, and maybe ever.

Although he is a 20-year-old entering his sophomore season in the NHL, Backstrom is the top center on the depth chart in the minds of most. He has great chemistry with Alex Ovechkin, and is mature beyond his years, especially defensively.

Fedorov and Nylander are established stars who have forged stellar careers. Fedorov is a future Hall of Famer; one of the best skaters and most gifted playmakers of his era. Nylander is athletic, wily and skilled. He has been a point-per-game player in the NHL over the last three seasons.

Steckel and Gordon both finished the ’08-09 season with face-off winning percentages above 55% (as did Fedorov). Steckel and Gordon are both proven penalty killers and shutdown centers.

Kozlov is better suited for the wing, but is capable of playing center. Laich can play anywhere and Aucoin has been one of the best players in the AHL for the last few seasons.

National Hockey League teams generally play with four lines, so there are those who think the Caps have too many centers. Don’t count coach Bruce Boudreau among them.

“As far as centermen go,” begins Boudreau, “I think if you look at any sport, strength up the middle is the most important thing. I know that’s an often used cliché, but hockey is no different. I’ve found that when you have five centermen playing, you’re so much more valuable because it’s so much easier for a centerman to play wing than for a wing to play center. It’s a natural, easier thing.”

Boudreau learned to embrace the concept of more than four centers long ago. One of his last stops as a player and earliest coaching gigs was with the IHL’s Fort Wayne Komets. The Komets advanced to the Turner Cup finals in 1991 with Boudreau serving as a player/assistant coach and again in 1994 when he was the team’s head coach.

“When we won in Fort Wayne,” recalls Boudreau, “we had five centermen and we moved one to play left wing and he could always take face-offs if someone got kicked out and that goes back to the importance of face-offs.

“If you look at our Hershey [Calder Cup title] run [in 2006], our centermen were the best; big and strong. We had Joey Tenute – who had 50 points – as our fourth line centerman. We had Stecks and Gordon on the same line; we had five centermen again.

“And if you look at our team now, you go from Nick [Backstrom] to Fedorov to Nylander to Steckel to Gordon to Laich to Keith Aucoin as No. 7, and Viktor [Kozlov] can play there, too. And Kyle Wilson has scored 30 goals the last two years in the American League, and he’s still a young guy learning.”

It’s astonishing to note how swiftly the Caps went from being “have-not” to “have” up the middle. Two years ago, Washington was set to start the season with Dainius Zubrus – a natural winger – as its No. 1 center. Kris Beech and Jakub Klepis were vying for the No. 2 slot on the team; neither Beech nor Klepis is likely to play regularly (if at all) in the NHL in 2008-09.

Beech and Klepis combined for 11 goals and 36 points in 2008-09. Nylander alone had 11 goals and 37 points in just 40 games last season, and Washington had five centers that matched or exceeded those modest goal and point totals in 2007-08.

“The depth is so good,” says Boudreau. “And it’s so great when Brooks can play all three positions, as I’m sure Sergei can play all three positions if you needed him. Well, Sergei can play four positions. I don’t know if we want to try him in goal but he can play them all. That gives you such an added boost because everything I’ve heard this year is that everybody is looking for a centerman.

“Even in Keith Aucoin, over 80 games Keith is probably right there with Jason Krog as the MVP of the Ameican Hockey League. When we played against Albany in the playoffs two years ago, I went up to him afterwards and shook his hand and said, ‘I never realized how good a player you are.’ He’s just a highly competitive small guy from Division III that has had to work for everything he’s gotten. That’s great depth.”

Not only are the Capitals deep quantity-wise up the middle, they’re deep in versatility and diversity. The Caps have four or five (or more) centers who can play on the power play, and four or five (or more) who can kill penalties. They’ve got plenty of offensively gifted centers, but if there’s one attribute Boudreau wants all his centers to have, it’s defensive diligence.

“Center is like any other position,” he says, “but the biggest responsibility is how they play in their own zone because they’ve got the added responsibility of playing down low for the most part. They have to be responsible defensively. That goes for Nick or Keith Aucoin or anybody in between.

“You have to know what you’re doing without the puck, and that’s the hardest thing to learn as a centerman. People change systems [as they change teams] and they have to change, too. They have to be adaptable. That why as a former centerman I always think they’re the smartest guys on the ice.”

Being smart usually alludes to a degree of hockey sense, too. That’s never a bad thing.

“For the coaching staff, it’s fantastic,” says Laich of the team’s riches in the middle. “Generally speaking, centers are more reliable in their own zone. The more people you can put on the ice that are reliable defensively, it can only help your hockey club.

“It’s nice for a coach because if a centerman goes down with an injury you can slide somebody right in there and not miss a beat. I think from a coaching standpoint, they enjoy having that many centers.”

The classically constructed NHL team has two scoring lines, a checking line and an energy line. Because of its depth at center, Washington is in a position to break that mold and run out three scoring lines.

“People say you have a top six [group of forwards] and then you have a bottom six,” says Boudreau. “We think the game should be [played with] a top nine with the nine being a transition line almost where they can all score and defend, where you can play any line against any other line.

“If you had to play Laich, Fedorov and Alexander Semin against any other line, we’ll sit there and say, ‘Hey, listen. We’ll take our chances that they’ll outscore you, but when we don’t have the puck we’ll still be able to defend.’ And then you have maybe Nylander, Clark and Fleischmann or Fehr [on another line]. Then you’ve got your first line. Your fourth line might have Eric Fehr on it, who is capable of scoring more than 10 goals I think, watching him play. Or it might have Chris Clark on it.”

Less than a month from now, a slew of centermen will take the ice at Kettler when the Capitals open training camp in preparation for the 2008-09 season. It’s easy to see a half a dozen or more centers cracking Washington’s opening night roster. The Caps arguably have the deepest platoon of centers they’ve had in their NHL history, and the 82-game regular season will determine whether this bunch is the best crop of middlemen ever to skate at the same time here in the District.
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