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Caps trying to assemble bottom-six forward puzzle

by Adam Vingan

WASHINGTON - Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates has taken to likening his roster to a "puzzle."

Extending that metaphor, while the Capitals' top-six forward group of Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Mikhail Grabovski and Troy Brouwer seems to be firmly in place, the bottom six pieces remain scattered about.

Washington has eight players -- left wings Martin Erat, Jason Chimera and Aaron Volpatti; centers Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle; and right wings Eric Fehr, Joel Ward and Tom Wilson -- competing for six starting spots.

Aaron Volpatti
Aaron Volpatti
Left Wing - WSH
G: 1 | A: 1 | P: 2
SOG: 21 | +/-: -2
Days away from their Oct. 1 season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN), how those players fit into the Capitals' puzzle has yet to be determined.

"I've asked [Capitals general manager] George [McPhee] and Adam, 'What will be our starting lineup opening night?' And they can't tell me," majority owner Ted Leonsis said earlier this week. "This has been the most competitive camp and we have the most depth of any team since we've owned the team."

What is known, however, is that the Capitals plan to use all available time ahead of the 3 p.m. ET deadline Monday to finalize the 23-man roster. Oates does not expect to have a dry run of his complete opening-night roster during the Capitals' final two preseason games, Friday and Saturday, leaving plenty of guesswork to go around.

Throughout training camp, Oates has tried Fehr and Erat out at center in an attempt to dissipate the logjam on the wings. Fehr, who had never previously played the position, has served as Oates' proverbial guinea pig since returning to the organization last season, as his versatility has lent itself well to an increased role.

Erat, on the other hand, has limited experience in the middle, but team brass believes that his strong two-way game creates another new wrinkle for opposing teams to defend against.

"[Oates] thinks that's a real good spot for him and I would agree with that," McPhee said. "He's a real clever player as well, real responsible defensively, and might be a real good fit at center ice. I think we know what he is. We didn't get to see enough last year, but we might actually get more out of him playing him at center."

If either Fehr or Erat become viable center options, then that leaves Perreault in a tenuous position considering they likely would fill the third-line center role that he has become accustomed to playing. Perreault finished strong last season, tying for the team lead with four points during the Capitals' first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series with the New York Rangers. But he now finds himself on the outside looking in as the season approaches.

"You're wondering a little bit if they're trying to find another guy to play in my spot," Perreault told "I don't know what's their mindset, what they're trying to do.

"I've always been in a position to fight for a spot. I've never shown up to a camp knowing that I'm going to be in for sure. I'm trying not to overthink it. I'm trying to stay in control of what I can control. They know what I'm capable of."

The biggest lingering question, however, is whether the 6-foot-4, 217-pound Wilson will make Washington's roster. The 19-year-old has impressed Oates, who has made it clear that Wilson, the 16th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, is beyond junior hockey and ready to contribute at the NHL level. However, because of his age, if Wilson doesn't make the NHL team, he has to be returned to his junior-hockey club, the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League.

McPhee and Oates remain undecided if allowing the multi-faceted forward to dominate his peers back in juniors or testing his mettle in the NHL in a more diminished role would be better for his development. If they decide on the latter, McPhee said Tuesday that the Capitals will "probably have to move one player" to make room for Wilson under the salary cap.

Wilson said he is taking things one day at a time. But then again so is the entire bottom half of Washington's roster.

"That's not an easy part of the game," Wilson told when asked for reaction to McPhee's comments. "That doesn't really make me feel too good. I'm a big team guy and that's unfortunate because it's a close room of guys in here, but it's definitely humbling. It's cool that they're so fond of me that they'd potentially do that, but right now I've just got to worry about the next day and we'll see what happens."

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