The Washington Capitals’ Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault are in a unique situation. Despite coming from completely different backgrounds and very different career paths, both are faced with the same problem: proving they are worthy of the Capitals’ second line center job.
With the trade of Mike Fischer to Nashville yesterday and the lack of significant salary cap space, it is becoming clear that Washington’s center of the future is most likely on the current roster. A closer inspection shows Perreault and Johansson are the front-runners for the job. The problem is they just have to play consistently good hockey to earn the job, and young, inexperienced players seldom do that.
From just one conversation with them it is easy to see both players are working on virtually the same things and have had to focus on similar concepts. Following the last home game before the All-Star Break against the New York Rangers, both Perreault and Johansson were presented with the same question; “What are you looking at working on over the break?”
“I don’t know, everything still,” Johansson said, wiping his soaked hair from his face. “It’s a pretty good league.”
Just from the tone of his voice, it was clear the young Swede struggled at times being a little overwhelmed in his new surroundings. It is not surprising, either, as the 20-year-old pivot only played two full years in the Swedish Elite League before moving over to the NHL this year. With so much to learn about North American hockey and the pressure from a fanbase with high expectations partially on his shoulders, Johansson certainly has an excuse for feeling under pressure. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the locker room, Perreault’s much different experience with professional hockey effects how he looked to improve.
“I don’t know, I might go down to Hershey and play some games,” Matty told us of his All-Star break plans, which proved prophetic.
Perreault’s two full years of experience in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears clearly shaped his response to the All-Star break. While it seems he knows he has things to work on, the prospect of going down to the minors presents an opportunity to hone his skills in real-game situations. While many players would be disappointed by the idea of getting sent down, it seemed as if Perreault embraces the opportunity to improve.
Despite both Perreault and Johansson’s struggles with their size disadvantage, NHL inexperience, and ability to play consistently, their post-break play couldn’t be any different. In the four games since the break Perreault has one goal and three assists, while Johansson has just one point — a goal against the Penguins.
Going into the break both Johansson and Perreault were struggling and needed to set themselves up for success in the second half. They were also aware that fans and management have identified the team’s second-line center position as one of ongoing vulnerability. After facing the fact he needed to improve and getting sent down to Hershey, Perreault came back fighting. In fact, he has made a habit of doing just that the last two years.
“It’s not that I play any harder or better when I get called up; bounces are just going my way,” Perreault said with a wide smile upon being asked if going down to Hershey and coming back up energizes his play. “I am just throwing the puck on net and bounces go in.”
What is fascinating about Perreault’s analysis of his play is that by trying to “just put the puck on net,” he is playing infinitely better. Especially with a team like the Caps, who do not crash the net often enough, Perreault’s ability to do that makes him a valuable addition to the team. Putting the puck on net leads to scoring chances, and inevitably goals.
For Perreault, confidence is key. While throwing the puck on net seems like such an insignificant thing to do, it can lead to some solid chances to boost his own opinion of his play. That same confidence is something Johansson believes he needs to build up to play better.
“I’m not playing that well lately, the last three or four games, and you know I got going in the second period and I got some confidence,” Johansson said after Sunday’s game against the Penguins, in which he scored a shortie on a snazzy backhander through traffic. “You always feel better when you are confident.”
Suddenly these two players are yet again faced with the same situation: building durable confidence at the crucial period of the season when management must decide whether or not to shop for its second-line center. Where do they move on from here though? Johansson has seven goals and six assists for a total of 13 points on the season and Perreault has six goals and six assists for a total of 12 points, Johansson’s production achieved in 42 games, Matty’s in just 28. There is less than half the season left and both young players have the opportunity to set themselves apart and take control of their destiny.
With Perreault and Johansson following such different paths on their journey to the NHL, it is almost impossible to know where either one is going to end up when their career is over. We all know these two are going to have games of struggle and of success. If they continue to improve throughout the season, then the problem may become one for the front office: buy at the trade deadline and decide who among the young pivots sits. Without question, though, the center ice position for the Caps — rightly believed to be a position lacking quality depth — is achieving precisely that this season.