Once Their Greatest Weakness, Capitals Center Depth Made Shattenkirk Possible

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Posted March 1, 2017

It doesn’t seem like long ago that the Washington Capitals were desperate for Evgeny Kuznetsov to make the jump across the pond from Russia to the United States. Not only because Kuznetsov was viewed as a top-five prospect in the entire world, but he was long viewed as a potential answer to the gaping hole at second-line center in D.C.

Trial and error was the answer several times prior, utilizing veterans such as Sergei Fedorov or Mike Ribeiro. Alternatively, the Capitals tried several of their own, including current second-line winger Marcus Johansson as well as his former teammate Brooks Laich. It seemed like center depth was what truly ailed the Capitals and played a huge role in their growing list of playoff disappointments.

While Kuznetsov has proven to be what everyone hoped he would be all along behind all-star center Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals now boast an incredibly strong and diverse group of pivots that have given the organization some really important flexibility over recent years.

While the forward group is anchored by elite playmakers in Backstrom and Kuznetsov, they are closely supported by Lars Eller, a puck possession machine who was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens last summer, and Jay Beagle, head coach Barry Trotz’s favorite plug-and-play forward who plays a major role on a strong penalty killing unit (and also chips in his fair share of offense).

The Capitals have also done a much better job of drafting useful depth centers over the past half-decade. While their NHL depth chart at the position is set, they have wingers in Andre Burakovsky and the aforementioned Johansson who can play spot duty down the middle when need be. The organization also has rained praise on several current prospects with the Hershey Bears that would seem to have a future in the NHL, namely 22-year old Chandler Stephenson and his 23-year old teammate Travis Boyd.

Another player that was potentially valued even higher down the middle within the organization than the previous two was Zach Sanford, a rookie who made the Washington Capitals out of training camp this summer after somewhat surprisingly leaving Boston College to turn pro. An awesome sophomore year at BC caught Washington’s attention, and Sanford quickly ascended within the team’s prospect ranks. However, with the current logjam ahead of him at center, he was moved to the wing, which is where he saw his playing time in D.C.

As you clearly know by now, Sanford was the key piece along with a 2017 first-round draft pick and a confusing combination of conditions on another that brought coveted defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to the Capitals on Monday night.

While it is always tough to to move a prospect like Sanford, who offered an attractive combination of size and skill, it was a necessary move in an “all-in” year for Washington – and a risk that the Capitals could afford to take.

Shane Gersich

Shane Gersich, currently with the University of North Dakota, is another rising center with a potential future in the Capitals organization.

Much like Sanford at this time last year, there is an unsigned center in the NCAA whose rights are owned by the Capitals who is in the midst of a breakout sophomore year campaign.

If you haven’t heard of Shane Gersich yet, you soon will. After playing a smaller role on a stacked University of North Dakota men’s hockey team that took home the 2016 National Championship, Gersich is the leading scorer on this year’s squad that features some more familiar names in Tyson Jost and Brock Boeser. His 19 goals and 15 assists in 33 games put him six points ahead of both Boeser and Jost this season. Although the Fighting Hawks (that’s still weird to say) are having a down year with a record of 16-13-3, the former fifth round pick’s rapid development has to be encouraging for the Capitals organization. He was drafted as a center, but has largely played on the wing at UND. However, like with Burakovsky and Sanford previously, he will likely get his shot at center once again this year at the team’s annual development camp as he has in the past.

While it isn’t yet clear if Gersich will jump to the professional ranks at the conclusion of this collegiate season with two years of eligibility remaining, the Capitals will do everything they can to lock up the young forward before a situation similar to Jimmy Vesey’s this past summer repeats itself for Washington in the future. While Gersich won’t hit free agency this summer, so it isn’t do-or-die in terms of signing him this summer, but there should be a sense of urgency there.

The loss of Sanford, who scored two goals with the Capitals before being traded, won’t be felt this year and quite possibly won’t be felt in any kind of major way in the future. His ceiling – which could be anywhere from a third or fourth line tweener to a productive middle-six forward – was expendable with other prospects such as Jakub Vrana and Riley Barber seeing time in the NHL as well, each who have equal or greater upside. However, he was viewed highly within the organization, and he has a great opportunity with the St. Louis Blues

Kevin Shattenkirk is one of the few players who could have truly improved an already great Capitals squad, and while the price was high, the Capitals can move forward knowing that their future at center – and forward in general – is still pretty bright.

 

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