|Perreault after scoring his first NHL goal|
The debate between rookie Swede Marcus Johansson and his French Canadian counterpart Mathieu Perreault has been ongoing since training camp. The battle between the two for the role as 2nd line center on the Caps was a blast to watch, and when the decision was ultimately made to start Johansson with the big club there seemed to be more outrage from the fan base than cheers.
That is understandable, as the Washington Capitals organization is a tight-knit one, and most Caps fans are also Hershey Bears fans. They have watched Perreault develop and tear up the AHL, and when they see performances like Sunday’s 6 assist effort from 85, they feel attached and utterly confused that he is not playing in the NHL. It is a natural progression; and it is also wrong.
It is an aspect of the position that doesn’t get a lot of thought when we think of centers like Nicklas Backstrom and Sidney Crosby who put up 100 points every year, but defense is as much their duty as offense is. And it is a part of the game in which Perreault lacks severely. Both the youngsters have incredibly soft hands, as demonstrated here by Marcus Johansson:
He was a mere plus-4 in 21 games with the Capitals last year. That isn’t terrible, however his offensive production took a hard drop after the first few games of his call-up. Again, that would be about as expected from a rookie, but he was only able to tally 9 points over that span, something that does not compensate for his lack of defense.
There were regular instances where his mistakes would lead to goals against. While Johansson has certainly made some of those same mistakes, they are few and far between. Not only that, but he has been able to correct those mistakes to prevent them from leading to goals with his powerful skating and sound positioning. He plays a safer game, and that makes him much less of a defensive liability.
Perreault has the stronger offensive upside at this point in their careers. However, the most important thing a rookie must do is limit his liability. If they can’t be trusted on the ice in several situations, they aren’t going to develop.
Perreault and Johansson need to develop different aspects of their games. Johansson mainly needs to adjust to the speed and physicality of the game, while Perreault needs to firm up his defensive positioning. They are in the best leagues to help each of their deficiencies. With bigger and faster bodies in the NHL, Johansson will get more experience and improve faster at that level. The NHL is too fast for Perreault to be able to tighten up his defense, and he will be able to create his foundational positioning more productively in the AHL.
It’s remarkable in and of itself that the Caps community is able to have this debate. These are two young, NHL-quality centers that the organization has at its disposal. Unfortunately for Perreault, patience is the price you pay for being drafted into a strong franchise. It is safe to say that as long as we are having this debate, we can be grateful for the seasons to come in which these two talents will play together in the best league in the world.