From now until the start of rookie camp in early September Capitals coach Barry Trotz will be kicking around line combinations in his head, trying to figure out who complements each other best. But when he gets to the top-line center spot, there is a pause.
With Nicklas Backstrom’s offseason hip surgery threatening to delay his start to the regular season, Trotz already has begun some mental musical chairs.
“If we do nothing right now, we can put some people in the middle,” Trotz said. “T.J. (Oshie) has even played center. We can put (Andre) Burakovsky there. (Brooks) Laich could go there.
“We’ve got some options, but at the same time I know we’re not done looking. We don’t have a lot of (cap) room, that’s more of a thing for Mac (general manager Brian MacLellan). I’m probably looking internally more. Can a Chandler Stephenson come up and play in one of the roles? We’ll look internally in our own group first but if something is the right fit, I know Mac will go out and do an excellent job like he has and fill a hole if we have one.”
With the Capitals’ salary cap space of $11 million about to be eaten up by contracts for restricted free agents Braden Holtby and Marcus Johansson, the Caps’ options of signing a third-line center to replace unsigned free agent Eric Fehr appear limited.
Which brings us to Stephenson, a hard-working, versatile, 21-year-old center who grinded his way through his first pro season last year with the AHL Hershey Bears.
“You can’t help but be nervous,” Stephenson responded when told of Trotz’s comments at the conclusion of last week’s development camp. “It’s obviously a huge honor that he could see myself in a center spot. That’s unbelievable. I just have to take that in, try to be myself, and run with it.”
After netting a goal on his first shot as a pro, Stephenson went on to record seven goals and seven assists in 54 games for Bears coach Troy Mann, who used him as a fourth-line center between Liam O’Brien and Garrett Mitchell, as well as a penalty killer. Stephenson added one goal and four assists in 10 playoff games.
“Playing last year in Hershey gives me a lot of confidence and experience knowing what that’s like, how big the guys are and the speed,” Stephenson said.
Taken by the Capitals in the third round of the 2012 NHL draft (77th overall) Stephenson put up big numbers in his fourth and final year with the Regina Pats of the Western League, netting a career-high 30 goals and 89 points in 69 games.
He said adapting to a defensive role in his first season as a pro was not as significant as adapting to the hard-hitting style of play.
“You almost have to run with whatever position a coach gives you,” he said. “I had a lot of great veterans around me who helped guide me and show me the way. If I was having an off day or feeling down they were always there to pick me up.”
Stephenson’s development camp was his fourth with the Capitals and it ended with a two broken teeth and cuts to both lips, thanks to an accidental high stick by free-agent invitee Marcus Basara.
“I went wide and I didn’t see the stick and felt my head go back,” Stephenson said. “My front four (teeth) are already fake, so it will be interesting to see what Mom says. He apologized a whole bunch, but I said it’s not a big deal, they’re already fake. At least now I look the part.”
When training camp rolls around Stephenson is hoping to push centers Michael Latta and Zach Sill for ice time and a spot as a fourth-line center, even if it is a short-term stint that allows Backstrom more time to recover.
Trotz said he’s looking forward to the competition.
“I’ll do my ghost lineups so we know how many games each guy will play,” Trotz said. “When we break camp, what numbers do we want to get down to when Hershey starts? I’m trying to formulate some of those, but they’re hypothetical sometimes because there’s always a surprise every year.”
Last year, Liam O’Brien was that surprise. This fall, Stephenson is hoping it’s him.