As has become customary, the Washington Capitals enter a new season with a hole in the middle of their second line.
Since Sergei Fedorov departed at the end of the 2008-2009 season, the Capitals have plugged eight different players into the second-line center position -- including, but not limited to: Brendan Morrison, Tomas Fleischmann, Jason Arnott and Eric Belanger -- only for them to ultimately end up as nothing more than stopgaps.
Washington could not come to terms with its most recent short-term -- and most suitable -- solution, Mike Ribeiro, who opted to leave after just one season to sign a four-year contract with the Phoenix Coyotes, once again leaving the position vacant.
While there were second line-caliber centers available when the free agency market opened Friday afternoon (and still are), general manager George McPhee has elected to fill the position from within, tapping Brooks Laich Monday as RIbeiro's replacement.
"When you look around the league, it's a hard position to fill," McPhee said during the first day of the Capitals' annual development camp. "How many teams in this league have a couple of elite centers? Five or six maybe? Generally, you need a really two-way good player to play there, which is why we're looking for Brooks Laich to play there now.
"We had him there in the playoffs a couple years ago, liked it a lot. He's a natural center, grew up playing center and we think it's time to play him there."
Laich was one of the aforementioned stopgaps, but has primarily been utilized as a second-line winger or third-line center in recent years. The 30-year-old only appeared in nine games last season due to a groin injury, but when he did play, head coach Adam Oates slotted him at second-line left wing alongside Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer.
Laich is far less flashy than the slippery Ribeiro, but McPhee believes that the former's all-around, north-south game will provide an adequate replacement for the latter in Oates's system.
"He gives you the size and the speed you're looking for, the good two-way play you're looking for, good faceoffs," McPhee said. "We want to play a better paced game and we want more speed and we think he's capable of it.
"We don't see any real difference in terms of ability to play between a Brooks and -- if you look around the league -- a Mike Fisher in Nashville or a Mike Richards in L.A. or David Backes in St. Louis. Same kind of players in terms of ability to play. We tried something with [Alex Ovechkin] last summer switching positions and it worked out pretty well, so we'll do this with Brooks."
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