Photo: NBC5 Chicago
For the second consecutive season, the Washington Capitals fell in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Once again, part of the reason why was due to their lack of center depth as Evgeny Kuznetsov missed two games of the series with COVID-19.
In 2020, it was Nicklas Backstrom that went down and missed three games of the first round, which the Capitals fell in five games partly due to their inability to replace Backstrom. With teams set to put the final touches on their roster before training camp opens in around four weeks, should the Capitals look at signing another center? NoVa Caps looks at three free-agent centers that could help the Capitals should any injuries to any of their four centers occur.
The Capitals have one of the best four-center units in the NHL with Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, and Nic Dowd. However, when one gets hurt, the team is forced to shift right-wing T.J. Oshie or another non-center forward to the middle (right-wing Richard Panik got some looks at center last season when there was an injury before he got traded to the Detroit Red Wings on April 12). The Capitals acquired Michael Raffl from the Philadelphia Flyers at the NHL Trade Deadline because of his versatility and his ability to play center if needed but he is a natural left-wing and signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Stars this offseason.
GM Brian MacLellan told the media after the season that the team was about to acquire a center at the trade deadline but decided against it at the last minute.
The team also needs to address a need of a second-pairing left-handed defenseman after trading Brenden Dillon to the Winnipeg Jets, which should be their top priority at the moment. However, once they find a replacement, there could be a few options that appeal to them regarding centers.
While none of these players might blow anyone away, keep in mind that there is a reason why they are still available and they would likely not be regulars in the Capitals’ lineup when the roster is fully healthy. In fact, they were not tendered qualifying offers as restricted free agents by their previous club this offseason. These centers would likely be 13th or 14th forwards or might even be behind some prospects in the system in line but would provide the Capitals some insurance at the position if the team does not feel comfortable with their internal options at the moment.
Here are three free-agent options should the Capitals look to improve their center depth, who would all likely cost to league-minimum:
The soon-to-be 26-year-old tallied just three assists and a -4 rating in 20 games with the Chicago Blackhawks and Florida Panthers last season but scored 10 goals and 28 points in 81 games with the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2018-19 season and 12 goals and 25 points in 67 games with the Hurricanes and Panthers in 2019-20.
Wallmark did not get a ton of responsibility from either team he played for last season as he averaged just 11:23 per game, including 14 seconds on the power play and 1:01 on the penalty kill. He also tallied a 46.41% Corsi-for percentage, a 46.63% expected goals-for percentage, and a 45.99% scoring chances-for percentage at five-on-five.
In 187 career NHL games with the Hurricanes, Blackhawks, and Panthers, Wallmark has posted 23 goals and 64 points.
The soon-to-be 27-year-old earned four goals, 11 points, a 44.22% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 41.76% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 46.56% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 45 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. Jankowski has shown some offensive potential in the past as he tallied a career-high 17 goals and 25 points in 72 games in 2017-18 and 14 goals and a career-best 32 points in 79 games during the 2018-19 season with the Calgary Flames.
He did not get a ton of trust in Pittsburgh in 2020-21 as he averaged just 10:43 per game, 1:48 of which came on the penalty kill.
In 253 career NHL games with the Penguins and Flames, Jankowski has put up 40 goals (including seven shorthanded) and 75 points (10 shorthanded).
The 25-year-old has tallied at least 20 points in each of his first three NHL seasons and hit that number on the mark (including six goals) in 50 games with the San Jose Sharks last season. He earned 10 and 14 goals, respectively, in his first two full NHL seasons with the Boston Bruins and Minnesota Wild.
Donato earned a 46.65% Corsi-for percentage, a 49.33% expected goals-for percentage, and a 48.62% scoring chances-for percentage last season, when he averaged 12:36 per game (including 1:43 on the power play).
Donato has posted 35 goals and 77 points in 180 career NHL games with the Bruins, Wild, and Sharks.
There are other options in free agency too like 37-year-old Valteri Filpulla and 33-year-old Artem Anisimov available but the Capitals have to get younger after having the oldest roster last season. Besides, their statistics both offensively and defensively do not make them worth cutting younger players’ chances with the NHL club this season.
While none of these players scream “must sign,” they have been everyday NHL players in the last few seasons and any one of them would give the Capitals more comfort at center should injuries occur this season. The team needs to clear cap space and sign a top-four left-handed defenseman first but with the amount of options at center available for league-minimum most likely, it may be a possibility worth exploring after center depth has plagued them in the past two postseasons.
By Harrison Brown