Keith Aucoin battling for spot on big club

ARLINGTON, Va. -- You can hardly blame Washington coach Bruce Boudreau from looking down the bench at Keith Aucoin and seeing the reflection of a younger Bruce Boudreau looking back at him.

"I see a lot of myself in Keith; small guy that dominates the American League," Boudreau said in an interview at the Caps' training facility Wednesday. "He can make plays in the NHL. Why doesn't he get a chance to play?"

It was a question Boudreau asked many times during his own pro playing career that spanned 17 years, but included only 141 NHL games. Now Boudreau is the man who, along with Capitals GM George McPhee, will at some point in the coming days answer the same question for Aucoin.

Ah, life's little ironies. Still, if you expect sentiment to enter into this discussion, you will be disappointed.

Aucoin is in a heated battle with incumbent Tomas Fleischmann and top prospects Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson for what will likely be two center jobs, including who will be the pivot on the team's potent second line with Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin.

Undrafted out of Division III Norwich University, the 31-year-old Aucoin is one of the oldest non-roster players at Caps camp. He has never played in more than 38 NHL games in any one season, yet he has proven himself to be a steady, high-end offensive producer at the AHL level. He's scored 20 goals or more six times. Last season in Hershey, he had 35 goals and added 25 points in the playoffs as the Bears won their second straight Calder Cup.

"His mind is as good as any offensive NHL guy's," Boudreau said.

Aucoin's skill and experience make him a prime candidate to join the Caps roster. Yet his age and, believe it or not, his skill, also conspire to make his chances of making the team out of camp a long shot.

"I'll tell you how it usually works. I don't know if the door is open," Boudreau explained. "This is exactly what happened to me, so I can see this happening --

Oh, we've always got Keith Aucoin. Let's see what the kids can do first.'

"So, I see Keith not getting the first opportunity when you've got the young kids doing it. But we know what he can do and we know he's going to play games up here. If people are getting chances, the Fleischmanns, the Johanssons, the Perreaults, we know we've got Keith who's the best alternative, the best offensive centerman in the American Hockey League, that we've got that in our pocket.

"It's tough. He doesn't want to hear that, I'm just going on a reality thing. That's exactly what I'll tell him probably this week."

On a team that has few flaws, notwithstanding being knocked off in the first round by Montreal last spring, the depth down the middle looms as an interesting subplot.

Last season, Brendan Morrison (now trying to revive his career in Vancouver) wasn't the answer. Fleischmann may or may not be the solution and was rumored to have been on the trade block this offseason. Perreault and Johansson are the future, but are they ready now? And then there's Aucoin.

Spend a few minutes chatting with the 5-foot-8 Aucoin and you can hear the Massachusetts twang reveal itself. He knows the reality of the situation and also knows this might be as good a shot as he's had to find a permanent NHL home.

"It's always tough. You try not to think about it," Aucoin said of the struggles to work his way into an NHL job.

The biggest factor in making the jump from AHL scorer to NHL scorer is confidence, he said. Not just his own, but having the confidence of coaches. That's not an issue with the Capitals. When he gets his chances here, it won't be as a fourth-line plugger.

"It's always nice when a coach puts you in a spot to succeed," Aucoin said.

He also knows Boudreau's history, knows the two are traveling a similar path.

"He talks to me about it all the time. Every shift is pretty much a tryout," Aucoin said. "I'm just trying to make it as hard as possible so he can't send me down."