This article was originally published in May, 2012.
The Washington Capitals have had excellent talent at center since their inception in 1974. Some were drafted, some came in trades and one was truly home-grown. In compiling and ranking this list I took into consideration each player’s tenure, their offensive prowess, their defensive prowess and intangibles such as leadership and the amount of love and support showed by fans. With no further ado, let us begin.
Washington Capitals Centers #10- Joe Juneau
Joe (pronounced jho-A) was a talented French-Canadian player who lined up at center for the Caps during the mid-nineties. He stormed into the league with the Boston Bruins in the 92-93 season, scoring 32 goals and tallying 70 assists in 84 games. In the midst of the 93-94 season the Caps traded Al Iafrate for the promising prospect. The deal turned out was one of the most lopsided in Washington history. Iafrate only played in twelve games for Boston due to ongoing injury problems. Juneau in turn became a key member of the Caps offense.
Always known as a playmaker, Joe sought to pass before considering a shot. And he was an excellent passer and puck handler. I recall a moment where he and Adam Oates were on a two-on-none breakaway. They deftly passed the puck so many times that the unfortunate goalie was comically faked out of position. Juneau looked almost ashamed to net the thing. When he did decide to shoot he chose well. Although he went on to play for a few more teams before his career was over, his best years came as a Cap. In Washington he played 312 games, scored 62 goals and compiled 172 assists.
His most memorable goal:
Washington Capitals Centers #9- Jeff Halpern
Jeff’s tale is an example of boyhood aspirations coming true. He grew up in Potomac, MD. His parents were avid Caps fans and he played for the Little Caps, a major youth hockey organization in the D.C. area. As a child he watched and admired the play of Dale Hunter and Rod
Langway. This was during the bad old days when the team played in Landover, MD and they achieved little positive press. To be a Caps fan then was much more difficult than today, with the arena in a hip section of China Town and hot young stars to watch on the ice. Jeff matriculated to Princeton and played Ivy League hockey. There he led the ECAC in goals during both his Junior and Senior campaigns. He turned pro to little fanfare: he was an undrafted free agent. But he didn’t let that get him down.
Halpern signed a contract with the Caps based on his success in the Ivy League and muscled his way onto the playing roster by busting his butt during the 99 camp. He scored 18 goals as a rookie, tying the team record. Jeff most notably played on a secondary line with Steve Konowalchuck and Ulf Dahlen, a line that seemingly mastered the cycle game. Their transcendence in that aspect of play appeared to be the product of voodoo at times, weaving in and out of the defense on extra long shifts. Halpern was named team captain for the 05-06 season. In his first go-round as a Cap he scored 87 goals, tallied 127 assists and earned 351 PIMs in 438 games. I was terribly happy to see him return to D.C. this year. He is one of my favorites. I don’t know how you can be from the area and not love Halpern’s story.
A nifty goal:
Washington Capitals Centers #8- Brooks Laich
This hard-nosed Saskatchewan native came to the Caps via the trade that sent Peter Bondra to the Ottawa Senators. Washington supporters take great solace in the fact that losing Banzai meant bringing in this fan favorite. Still in the peak of his career, Laich makes the list based on past performance and hopes for the future. He is an every situation center that plays both ways with the same comfort and ease.
Laich will take a cross check in the back while screening just as well as he will take the shot. Fans and players alike respect his style of play and passion. So far, he has scored 116 goals and stacked up 162 assists in 556 games. I predict he will wear the C before his time in Washington is over.
Hanging out in the slot:
Washington Capitals Centers #7- Nicklas Backstrom
Nic Backstrom is another entry who is in the midst of his playing career. But if he went away tomorrow he’d still be in the top ten. He’s just that good. And he has a lot more to do. A Swedish import, Backstrom began play in the 07-08 season and finished just behind Patrick Kane for the Calder Trophy. He scored 69 points as a rookie and would have been a lock if not for the stellar seasons of Kane and Toews in Chicago.
Nic is as physically formidable as his contemporaries, however, he uses his strength to shield the puck and create opportunities as opposed to delivering crushing hits. He has vision and playmaking skills that seem almost extra sensory. Soft spoken and calm of demeanor, he delivers perfect saucer passes to his teammates on a consistent basis. Oh, and he pots the odd goal now and again. In his career so far he has scored 101 goals and tallied 266 assists in 365 games. I look forward to watching him continue to develop and score, as he is only 24. Think about that. He may well be number one on this list before it is all said and done.
When he chooses to shoot:
Washington Capitals Centers #6- Adam Oates
Washington had Oates during the last third of his career. He had already established himself as one of the leagues premiere playmakers before being traded to D.C. by the Bruins. His initial years came in the Red Wings organization, yet his most productive were in St. Louis. For three consecutive seasons in the early nineties, Brett Hull scored seventy or more goals. Oates delivered him passes on silver platters and piled up points. In Boston he scored more goals than before, but after a few years, became disgruntled. He came to the Caps as part of a six player deal. His presence and offensive acumen were instrumental in the Cup run of 98. He was team captain for the 99-00 and 00-01 seasons.
As a Cap he scored 73 goals and tallied 290 assists in 387 games.
This is a little grainy but it really shows off his soft hands:
Washington Capitals Centers #5- Guy Charron
Guy has a story similar to many other journeyman NHL forwards. Undrafted, he fought his way into the Canadian junior system where he was noticed by Montreal. He eventually signed with Detroit and played his first full season as a defensive forward. After a few seasons he was taken in an expansion draft by the Kansas City Scouts. When that two-year commitment was done, he signed with the fledgling Caps. He played in D.C. from the 76-77 season until the 80-81 campaign. For whatever reason, his best offensive years came last. He was a self admitted late bloomer. He was team captain for the 78-79 season. Guy scored 118 goals and racked up 156 assists in 320 games as a Capital.
Here he is today as a coach:
Washington Capitals Centers #4- Bobby Carpenter
What can you say about a guy with a nickname like “the Can’t Miss Kid?” Bobby Carpenter was a player of firsts. He was the first American born NHL player to go directly into the league from high school. He was also the first American born player to ever be selected in the first round of the NHL draft. He had a lot of expectations to live up to. He didn’t disappoint. He scored 32 goals and tallied 35 assists his rookie year. His best season was 84-85 when he netted 53 goals. Friction with then coach Bryan Murray saw him shipped off to the Rangers in a deal that brought Cap mainstays Mike Ridley and Kelly Miller into the fold. Like many of the Capitals stars of the 80s (Gartner, Stevens, Murphy), Carpenter left under less than ideal circumstances. It has made it difficult for the Washington organization to present a unified legacy. In his tenure wearing the red, white and blue, Bobby scored 188 goals and tallied 207 assists in 490 games.
Watch him beat Hextall:
Washington Capitals Centers #3- Mike Ridley
Mike was a quiet star for the Caps. The Winnipeg native was an undrafted free agent like others on this list. He managed to work his way onto the Rangers roster before coming to D.C. in a trade, as mentioned in the previous section. For some years he was the Caps number one center and best offensive weapon. In the late 80s and early 90s the storied defensive core made up a disproportionate amount of the offensive output. Players such as Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate and Sylvain Cote were firing away from the blue line and scoring in record numbers for D men. Ridley made up much of the rest. But he was more than that. He was an excellent two-way player. Ridley and Kelly Miller teamed up on the penalty kill and made opponents look foolish with their game of keep away. Once Peter Bondra came into his own Ridley left town, but never had the same touch. I remember him as the first Caps star that I knew, the number one forward on a dismal team. He scored 218 goals and racked up an impressive 329 assists in 588 games in Washington.
Washington Capitals Centers #2- Michal Pivonka
When I think of Michal Pivonka I think of a massive ship’s rudder: firmly mounted in the center and guiding a behemoth with gentle nudges. Michal played his entire 13 year career with the Washington Capitals. He was born in the Czech Republic, but not exactly. It was called Czechoslovakia and was behind the Iron Curtain. Pivonka defected to the West, unlike most of the Eastern European players of his generation who waited another five years for the whole show to melt down. What is important to understand is that the crumbling of the Communist Bloc was not seen as inevitable when Pivonka left. His actions were very brave and should be lauded.
In D.C. Michal found a kindred spirit in a young Slovak named Peter Bondra. They formed a keen alliance on the ice. At this time a talented Russian by the name of Dmitri Kristich was on the team as well. With these comrades on hand he became a key member of the offense, dishing passes to men eager to snipe. Over the course of his career he adapted and changed as was needed. His solid, stabilizing presence and responsible play was not lauded by the national press, but fans knew and loved him. When he finally retired he held the all time Capitals lead in assists. Pivonka scored 181 goals and tallied an incredible 417 assists in 825 games in a Caps sweater.
Pivo gving some tips on sticks, along with some other familiar faces:
Washington Capitals Centers #1- Dale Hunter
Mr. Cap, Dale Hunter. His number was retired and his face hangs on a banner in the rafters. Was there any question he would be number one? The greatest thing about Dale’s story is that he played the second half of his career in D.C. Hardly anyone mentions his years with the Quebec Nordiques, where he earned a chunk of his penalty minutes and the nickname “the Nuisance.” I can only compare it to a hypothetical situation wherein the Red Wings trade Steve Yzerman to the Rangers in 1992 and he goes on to lead the Blue Shirts in career categories. You’ll notice the Nordiques are no longer a team.
As was normal for the better players of his era, he regularly scored twice as many assists as goals. In Quebec he averaged about fifty points per season. Dale arrived in D.C. in 1987 and went on to have the best seasons of his career. I’d feel bad for the Nordiques, except they eventually took Joe Sakic with a draft pick that was part of the deal. Dale took over the captaincy in 94 and did not relinquish the role until he departed in 99. While many remember him for his penalties, his rough housing, his cheap shots and the like, I will remember him for his important goals and spot on passes. He made the big plays in the big moments. As the Washington Capitals all-time greatest center, Dale scored 181 goals, racked up a healthy 375 assists and sat for an astounding 2003 PIM. He is the only player in NHL history to have scored 1,000 points in his career and also 1,000 PIM. Of course, he tripled that last number, but who’s counting.
Joe Wilson is a published writer and an avid Capitals fan. He has been following the team since 1993. When not writing and working he is studying to complete his history degree.