- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2011

For fringe NHL players such as Chris Bourque, Ryan Potulny, Mathieu Perreault and Christian Hanson, this is a valuable time of year.

There’s one spot on the Washington Capitals‘ roster up for grabs — maybe two — and those four are competing with touted centers Cody Eakin and Mattias Sjogren and face an uphill battle because of it.

“Luckily, it’s not a math test, so the odds don’t really matter,” Hanson said.

What matters is performance, and what the Capitals value at the bottom of their roster in terms of fulfilling certain roles. With $4.5 million man Brooks Laich penciled in as likely the second-line left wing, the glaring hole is third-line center — and one of these young players figures to fill it.

It’s not a math test, but it is a difficult puzzle — and coach Bruce Boudreau won’t really reveal what shaped piece he’s looking for.

“It’s just a question of probably the intangibles — size, strength, hockey sense. Those things — winning battles vs. losing battles,” he said. “It’s just not one thing. It’s everything that encompasses. If it was one thing only, then automatically you’d have one guy that would take it.”

That makes it tough to handicap the race, even for the players involved. Among Eakin, Sjogren, Hanson and Perreault, most of their self-assessment was positive, though Hanson conceded he didn’t know how good his chances of making the team were.

All Boudreau will say is that he wants one of those players to make the decision for him on the ice - and it hasn’t happened yet.

“Nobody’s really jumped up and took the bull by the horns or anything, at this stage,” Boudreau said.

Everyone competing for the final spot except Potulny has played in at least one game, and he’ll make his Caps preseason debut Friday night at Chicago. Of course, Eakin and Hanson also will get another chance to prove themselves.

From a third-line center role, it seems Washington could use a big guy to clog the middle, so the 6-foot-1, 209-pound Sjogren or 6-foot-4, 227-pound Hanson would make more sense than Eakin or Perreault. But Boudreau insisted “we got big centers.”

Still, faceoff prowess could be a key to who wins the job — and Sjogren has that edge.

“It’s important. You have to win most of the faceoffs,” Sjogren said. “You have to be strong on faceoffs, especially in your own zone. That’s the thing I really want to work on when I come over here.”

Being able to kill penalties is another important role — something it seems all contenders can do. Eakin specialized in that in junior hockey and could be counted on playing short-handed at the NHL level if he makes it.

Eakin is more offensively gifted than the rest. And Perreault has the advantage of knowing Boudreau’s system — he played 35 games with the Capitals last season. Hanson, on the other hand, is ideal for creating traffic in front of the net — and he hopes that’s what the team was looking for when signing him.

“They have a lot of guys who can score goals and come in and do a lot of the offensive stuff,” he said. “But they said they just need a couple of guys that are big-bodied, bottom-six presence.”

With the exception of Eakin (a draft pick), the rest of the competitors all signed or re-signed with the Caps this summer — Sjogren most notably choosing Washington over Montreal.

Each player cited wanting to win as a reason, but opportunity also was important.

“I just told them, I said, ‘I’m not looking for any handouts. I’m not looking for any guarantees. If you guys can flat-out tell me that I can come in and there’s a spot to earn if I earn it, and you guys tell me, ‘Hey, if you’ve made the team, you’re on the roster,’ that’s what I’m looking for,’ ” Hanson said.

The chance seems to be there. All that’s left is for one of those players to capitalize on it.

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