Six months ago, Taylor Chorney was beginning to wonder if he would be perpetually stuck in the minor leagues. A 27-year-old defenseman with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, he had played 400 of his 461 pro games in the AHL and had reached what Capitals coach Barry Trotz called a “tipping point.”
“I don’t want to say you lose the dream, but you probably do a little bit,” Trotz said. “And he didn’t.”
On April 4, injuries to Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen Olli Maatta, Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff forced the Penguins to recall Chorney from the Baby Pens, in part because his contract came at the NHL minimum, and he never came out of the lineup.
“We were fighting for a playoff spot and a few of those games we only had five defensemen and I was forced to play more minutes than I normally would,” recalled Chorney, who will make his Capitals preseason debut tonight in Montreal against the Canadiens.
Chorney played in the Penguins’ final five games of the regular season and averaged more than 14 minutes a game. He followed with a strong playoff performance against the New York Rangers, averaging more than 17 minutes while finishing the post-season even on the plus-minus ledger.
“Getting a chance to play in the playoffs was awesome and I kind of hoped there were enough people watching where maybe I would get a new opportunity,” Chorney said.
The Caps were one of those teams and on July 1 they raised a few eyebrows by signing Chorney to a one-year contract worth $700,000. It was the first one-way contract of Chorney’s career, meaning he will be paid $700,000 whether he plays for the Capitals or the Bears.
“His tipping point came at a very key moment,” Trotz said. “I think he said, ‘I can play here. I played in the playoffs and didn’t feel out of place. I can play in this league every day.’ You can just tell. A player can be reborn a little bit. Joel Ward got that second shot and has played pretty good hockey for the last couple years. Taylor Chorney could be one of those guys.”
Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the second round of the 2005 NHL draft, Chorney played his college hockey at his parents’ alma mater, the University of North Dakota, where he established a strong relationship with newly acquired Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie, his Sioux teammate from 2005-08.
But while Oshie’s NHL career skyrocketed after leaving UND, Chorney has spent most of his past five seasons in the AHL.
“Chorns is one of the best teammates you’ll find,” Oshie said. “He’s a great locker room guy. He’s a little more educated about the league than I am. He’s friends with everyone.
“On the ice he battles hard, he’s a great skater and he does a very good job of getting the puck out of our end quick. I know there’s a fight at the back end of our D corps and I think he’s going to make a good run. But there are some good players here. We’ll see. I’m definitely excited to have him here. He’s a guy you want going down the stretch to have on your team.”
Trotz has identified 26-year-old Ryan Stanton, who played 54 games for the Vancouver Canucks last season, and 21-year-old Connor Carrick, who played last season in Hershey, as two of the other blue liners competing for the role of seventh defenseman.
“I like (Chorney),” Terotz said. “I like the way he moves, I like his personality. I like the way he practices. There’s a lot of good things to like about Taylor. Stanton’s been pretty solid, to, and Carrick is playing with a lot of confidence right now. I’m going to let them fight that out.”
Chorney said he realizes that having a one-way contract guarantees him nothing more than an increase in pay, especially at a time when established NHL veterans like Derek Roy, Brad Boyes and Curtis Glencross are on tryout contracts.
“I’m so thankful it worked out the way it did,” he said. “You see guys that have had unbelievable careers and have proven a lot more at this level than I have. For me to have the opportunity I’ve got, I couldn’t be more thankful for it.
“I’ve been grinding for a while and I’ve been on two-ways forever now. But to get a chance to get a one-way is pretty cool for me. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything. I’ve still got to come in and make the team. Now I’ve got to make good on the investment.”