Who Will Take Center Stage?

Posted October 8, 2021

McMichael time? (Caps Outsider)

With top center Nicklas Backstrom out indefinitely with a hip injury, Head Coach Peter Laviolette has several decisions about filling out the heart of his order. Three of the four spots are set, but two youngsters are auditioning to replace Backstrom for the final center role.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

Perhaps no player will be as pivotal to the Washington Capitals’ success this season as Kuznetsov. With Backstrom out, Kuznetsov instantly becomes the most talented forward of this group. Last season, however, the 29-year-old was more of a distraction than a boon to the organization. Two trips to the COVID-list limited the Russian to 41 games in a shortened season. Typically one of the most dynamic players on the ice, Kuznetsov logged a disappointing nine goals and 20 assists. For the Capitals to excel this season, Kuznetsov needs to put last season’s struggles behind him and rediscover the form he found during the team’s cup run, when he put up 32 points in 24 games. Early results are encouraging, as in three preseason games, Kuznetsov has averaged 21:43 minutes, scored one goal and two assists with eight shots on frame.

Lars Eller

Back in the summer of 2016, the Caps parted ways with two second-round picks to land Eller from the Montreal Canadiens in what proved to be a bit of general manager wizardry from Brian MacLellan. In five seasons with Washington, the Dane has appeared in 356 games with 67 goals and 94 assists. The 32-year-old also scored one of the biggest goals in Washington postseason history — punching in the game-winning marker in game five of the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals. Also of note during the 2018 postseason, Eller spent time as the second-line center when Backstrom was out with a broken hand. Eller will reprise his role as the second-line maestro this season with Backstrom out yet again.

Nic Dowd

For the past couple of years, the Caps have had one of the league’s most productive fourth lines, and Dowd is a big reason the unit has been so successful. Dowd scored 26 goals and 26 assists in three seasons with Washington while conducting the fearsome fourth line. Dowd’s strengths come from his physicality and quick-draw abilities from the faceoff circle; last season, Dowd won 56.3% of his faceoff matchups. With a cap hit of $725,000, the 31-year-old also represents one of the best bargains in the association.

Connor McMichael/Hendrix Lapierre

McMichael and Lapierre have been sparring for the final spot in the middle of the ice throughout training camp. A comparison of the two shows how intense the contest for the final spot has been.

McMichael – First-round pick (25) in 2019. GP: 4; G: 1; A: 0; SOG: 9; TOI: 14:10

Lapierre – First-round pick (22) in 2020. GP: 3; G: 0; A: 4; SOG: 4; TOI: 14:58

McMichael has played in one more fixture than Lapierre, but the 2020 first-rounder should get the chance to prove himself in Friday’s preseason finale against Philadelphia. Laviolette has been reticent to reveal which player he favors for the final spot, but Lapierre seems to have an edge from a playmaking standpoint. However, if Backstrom lands on the long-term injured reserve, both McMichael and Lapierre could see time in a red sweater this season.