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Caps have talented young centers in pipeline

by Corey Masisak /
WASHINGTON -- For most of the past two seasons, Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau has been in search of a No. 2 center to slot behind Nicklas Backstrom.

After the trade earlier this season for Scott Hannan to sure up the defense corps, finding a solution in the middle of the second line -- internally or through another addition -- is considered the team's biggest need for a potentially long playoff run.

If teams are able to take advantage of Washington's weakness in the middle now, though, they'd better not get used to it. The Capitals have a bevy of young center prospects and the position could be a great strength in the near future.

"We're really pleased with it," Washington General Manager George McPhee said of his future depth at center. "It looks we could set up pretty nicely for about the next 10 years there. The great thing about centers is, if you have depth at that position you can always play them on the wing. It is really hard for a winger to learn to play center but to move a center to the wing isn't that hard. It is nice to have that kind of depth with guys like Beagle or Brooks Laich -- if we need help in the middle we can throw then in there for a game or two and you don't take a step back.

"We're in pretty good shape. You've got to be good at center if you want to win championships."

Rookies Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault are currently the team's No. 2 and 3 centers, but they could be pushed in the coming seasons by a pair of standouts from the 2011 World Junior Championships.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team's first-round pick in the 2010 Draft, dazzled throughout the competition and earned all-tournament honors. Cody Eakin, a third-round pick in 2009, earned plenty of plaudits for his speed, versatility and work rate for Canada and was named the team's top player in the gold-medal game, a 5-3 loss to Russia.

"It sure is nice as a manager to go to a tournament like that and see talent that you know will be playing for you in a year or so. Especially where we've been picking these days; it is usually late in the first round and getting some of these guys in later rounds. It is nice that we're going to have another wave of good young players coming into the team because that's what keeps you good and makes you good for a long time."

The Canadians went home from Buffalo with silver medals, in part because of Kuznetsov's three assists during an incredible comeback win. His whirling tape-to-tape feed to Vladimir Tarasenko for the game-tying goal was a thing of beauty, but it paled compared to the incredible move he made that led to the tying goal against Finland in the quarterfinals.

Kuznetsov looks like a steal from the 2010 Draft already, and he likely would have gone higher than No. 26 if it were not for the country on his birth certificate. Teams have shied away from taking Russian players because of the competition from the Kontinental Hockey League to keep their young native stars, but the Capitals have Alex Ovechkin and McPhee feels he is the ultimate bargaining chip -- Russian kids want to come play with Ovechkin.

The Washington captain texted Nikita Duvrechensky, a member of the Russian WJC team, and said "Good job and say hi to everyone."

"I am very impressed [with Kuznetsov]," Ovechkin said. "He scored the game-winning goal against Finland, played great against Sweden and he was unbelievable in all three periods against Canada. I am very happy for him and for [defenseman and fellow Washington draft pick Dmiti] Orlov too."

Added Johansson, who played in the WJC last year for Sweden: "Kuznetsov is a very, very skilled Russian -- like all the other Russians around here. It is good for the Capitals to have these guys here."

Eakin was one of the last cuts at Washington's preseason camp -- a surprise star of the exhibition season, he was returned to Swift Current of the Western Hockey League. He had also been one of the final omissions from the Canadian entry at the WJC last December but became a key role player this time in Buffalo.

He played all three forward positions for Canada and on both special-teams units. Eakin impressed enough at the end of last season to play for Hershey during the Bears' march to a second-straight Calder Cup in the American Hockey League, and he could be back there after his junior season ends this spring as well.

"I've played with (and) against Cody Eakin for a while now and kind of know what he brings to the table," Washington defenseman Karl Alzner said. "He showed it [Wednesday] night. That guy can skate, he works hard and he has a lot of skill."

Added Boudreau: "He's an offensive player that can play defense. There's not a lot of guys that can do that. I think he's a real Grade-A prospect. I think the Caps did a great job of getting him in the third round."

The question could eventually become where to fit all of these talented centers in Washington. If they are all on the roster in a couple of seasons, Eakin might be the most likely to move to the wing because of his speed and versatility. He could have a jack-of-all-trades role like what Laich performs for the current Capitals.

Kuznetsov's potential appears to be tantalizingly great. He could be the long-term answer to Washington's No. 2 center quandary, but when that will happen remains to be seen. He has one more year left on his KHL contract, and doesn't turn 19 until May.

Both Kuznetsov and Eakin have quality players in front of them, particularly the team's first-round pick in 2009 in Johansson, but both could be a big part of Washington's future.

"I think it is good because it makes it competitive," Johansson said. "As a center you can often play wing too because you're all over the ice. It is better to have too many centers than too few. I think it is good."

Added McPhee: "I'm not sure. We'll see. The NHL isn't a development (league). You'd like them to develop someplace else and be ready when they get here. That said, we have five or six rookies in our lineup now and we're playing as good as anybody. If this next wave can come in and give us that kind of performance then they might be here sooner rather than later."
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