Handicapping the Capitals’ 3rd Line Center Competition

The Washington Capitals will open training camp on Saturday at 9:15am.  There the race for the one open roster spot will begin, ostensibly the 3rd line center spot.  Some people are peggin Brooks Laich for that spot, or for the #2 spot, but Laich has played winger for most of his NHL career and figures to keep plying his trade there on the second line once again this season.  The three players most talked about for the position other than Laich are Mathieu Perreault, Cody Eakin, and Mattias Sjogren

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The speedy 23-year old Perreault is the only one of the three with NHL experience, but he is also the smallest at 5’10, 175.  Perreault has shown flashes of tremendous offensive brilliance at the NHL level, but has not been nearly as consistent in the big show as he is in the AHL.  He has posted 11 goals and 23 points in 56 NHL games along with a penchant for losing faceoffs and spotty defensive play.  He has found his stride in the AHL, though, with excellent numbers (135 points in 167 games) after a sterling junior career that included a Quebec league scoring title.  Considering the 3rd-line center spot is usually reserved for defensive players and Perreault was unimpressive in the NHL most last season, he will have to show marked improvement in his defensive game and faceoffs to stand a chance.

The youngest candidate is 20-year old Cody Eakin.  Eakin, standing 5’11 and 187 pounds is not much bigger than Perreault and has the least amount of experience, with just 9 professional games under his belt.  Eakin just missed the cut-off for playing the AHL last season, but made the most of his return to juniors, captaining the Swift Current Broncos for the first half of the season, winning the Silver Medal at the World Junior Championships, and then capping off the season with a WHL championship and trip to the Memorial Cup tournament with the Kootenay Ice.  Eakin has all the makings of an excellent scoring forward and leader in the NHL, but George McPhee isn’t known for rushing players into the NHL.  Watching Cody Eakin in person at rookie camps over the past 14 months, he looks like a player who would do well as an NHL rookie, as he is cool under pressure.  He looked a little nervous and eager to impress on Monday during Caps rookie camp, as he has to know he has a legitimate chance at cracking the roster.  His stick skills and speed are obvious, and he has a true nose for the net.  While he could certainly put together a solid rookie season this year, he would likely be a bottom 6 forward on this team.  While he has excelled both in a checking role and as a winger before, Eakin would be best served getting experience and lots of ice time centering a scoring line in Hershey, not buried on the depth chart in DC.  It would seem that unless Coach Bruce Boudreau sees Eakin as a top-6 forward, he is likely to start the season in Hershey and get a few games in the NHL as a call-up.

The most likely candidate for the 3rd-line center spot is newly acquired Swede Mattias Sjogren.  The oldest of the three, Sjogren turns 24 in November, and he has been a full-time professional for 6 seasons in Sweden, the last 3 in the Swedish Elite League.  Sjogren is also the largest of the 3 centers, standing 6’2, 214, and is known for his physical play.  It would be deceiving to say that Sjogren has the least amount of offensive ability of the three, but he is not a natural stickhandler or shooter.  He has a deceptively heavy wrist-shot that he is not afraid to use, but his best offensive skill is his passing ability.  The big question mark with Sjogren will be his faceoff ability, as he will still be a rookie this season and the Swedish system isn’t known for emphasizing faceoffs.  Sjogren’s main advantage over the other two in this race is his size and ability to use his body.  In rookie camp, Sjogren very effectively used his body to close off opponents and he also used his frame to shield the puck and mask his stickhandling weaknesses, a la Dainius Zubrus. Sjogren also played 96 games last season, more than Perreault’s 75 and Eakin’s 82, though all three had very strong playoffs, a good sign that they peaked at the end of the season.  Sjogren finished the season strong with 9 points in 13 playoff games helping Farjestads win the Swedish Championship, before posting 4 points in 9 World Championship games as Sweden won silver.  Like Eakin, Sjogren can also play on the wing, but his development wouldn’t be hurt by playing a checking role.  On the contrary, Sjogren’s game seems best suited to clog the middle of the ice for opposing scoring lines and keep them pinned in their own end with his offensive ability. 

It would appear that the more skilled Perreault and Eakin will spend the autumn battling for Hershey’s #2 center spot behind veteran ace Keith Aucoin while Mattias Sjogren seems destined for the NHL.