Centers of Attention, Centers of InventionPosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
Since he started his NHL career in 2007-08, Caps center Nicklas Backstrom has piled up 365 points (100 goals, 265 assists) in just 361 games for an average of 1.01 points per game. Over that span, only six NHL pivots have averaged more points per game than Backstrom: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Henrik Sedin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ryan Getzlaf and Joe Thornton. Futhermore, until last month, Backstrom had been one of the league’s most durable players. In his first four and a half seasons in the league, he had missed just five games, all of them consecutively last March because of a thumb injury. Rene Bourque, then playing with the Calgary Flames, changed all that on Jan. 3 when he egregiously errant elbow flapped Backstrom on the jaw, knocking him out of the Washington lineup since. Backstrom’s absence has left a serious void in the middle of the Capitals’ forward depth chart. Despite missing a dozen games since the injury, Backstrom is still Washington’s leading scorer on the season with 42 points (13 goals, 29 assists) in 38 games. Washington won that game against Calgary, 3-1, outshooting the Flames 21-19 in the process. The win ran Washington’s winning streak to four in a row, its longest run since starting the season with seven straight victories. In Backstrom’s absence, the team has barely treaded water, going 5-5-2. The Caps have been outshot in each of those dozen games, and they’re 14-15-4 on the season when they get outshot. When they outshoot the opposition, the Caps are 12-5. Backstrom averages 3:22 per game in power play ice time for the Caps. When you consider that Alex Ovechkin (3:42 per game in power play ice time) usually mans the point on the power play, it’s fair to say that Backstrom is Washington’s most frequently deployed power play forward. He leads the Capitals with 18 power play points (three goals, 15 assists) this season. Washington’s power play has been a moribund 4-for-31 (12.9%) without Backstrom in the lineup. Backstrom also averages 1:06 per game in shorthanded ice time, and Washington’s penalty killing outfit has allowed 11 goals in the dozen games Backstrom has missed (32-for-43, 74.4%). In each of his five seasons in the NHL, Backstrom has been second on the Capitals only to Ovechkin in terms of average even-strength ice time among forwards. Clearly, the Caps miss Backstrom. And since he has skated for a total of about five minutes in the last month or so, the Caps can’t count on him being back in their lineup anytime soon. What, then? The Caps recalled 33-year-old center Keith Aucoin from AHL Hershey on Thursday. Aucoin is the AHL’s leading scorer thus far this season with 70 poinst (11 goals, 59 assists), and he will go down as one of the greatest players in AHL history. But Aucoin’s NHL résumé consists of 75 games spread out over six seasons in which he has totaled eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points. Five of those points (one goal, four assists) have come on the power play. Among other centers currently on the Washington roster are: Jeff Halpern (841 NHL games), Brooks Laich (525), Matt Hendricks (183), Marcus Johansson (117), Mathieu Perreault (88), and Jay Beagle (54). Aucoin, Hendricks, Johansson, Perreault and Beagle have combined for fewer NHL games (517) than Laich alone. Hendricks is a winger by trade; he began playing some center in the minors by has been used mainly as a winger during his NHL career. Laich has averaged .50 points per game over his NHL career, or about half of Backstrom’s production. Johansson (.47), Perreault (.42) and Halpern (.42) have all seen top-two-line pivot duty for Washington this season. Aucoin could find himself on one of the top two units at some point as well. The point here is that quality trumps quantity as far as depth up the middle, particularly when you’re missing your go-to guy. It is nearly impossible for any NHL team to replace the production of a player of Backstrom’s caliber over a lengthy period of time. If Backstrom is out for the long haul – and at this point we have to assume he is – the Caps will have to find a way to make do or make a deal. Making do seems more likely; making a deal will be tough because the Capitals are up against the salary cap. Any player coming in will likely need to be offset by a player of similar salary and stature heading in the other direction. In adding Aucoin, the Caps appear to be trying to spread their depth and scoring out among the four forward lines. At Friday’s practice prior to weekend games on Saturday at Montreal and Sunday against Boston, coach Dale Hunter had Johansson, Laich, Perreault and Aucoin centering his four lines. The hope is that one or two of those units can click every night, and the four pivots and their linemates can take pressure off each other. With Washington now trying to chase its way into a playoff spot and with 32 games remaining, there is a great opportunity here for young players like Johansson and Perreault. Aucoin has played well in previous short trials with the Caps, but has played just one NHL game here since the start of last season. He could see some power play duty. One thing to keep in mind on Aucoin: if he plays in 10 or more games or is on the Washington roster for 30 or more days, he will need to clear waivers in order to be reassigned to Hershey. Get well soon, Nicklas.
When the Caps set out for Montreal in the immediate aftermath of a 3-0 home ice loss to the New York Islanders on Jan. 17, they began a daunting stretch in which they were to play six of their next seven games on the road. The word “daunting” applies only because the Caps have struggled so mightily