In rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals found themselves a second-line center who can play behind Nicklas Backstrom for the next six or seven years. If the price and term are right, the Caps may also have a third-line center for the next three years in Eric Fehr.
“I really enjoy playing here,” Fehr said when asked about his pending unrestricted free agency. “Obviously, I have a lot of friends here and I’ve been here a lot of years. I think this is a special group. Obviously, I’d love to be back here, but looking at the amount of guys we have unsigned right now you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Fehr, 29, is at the end of his two-year, $3 million contract and after putting up the second-best offensive numbers of his NHL career [19 goals, 33 points] with a career-high 14:51 of average ice time, he could be in line for a contract similar to the four-year, $12 million deal Joel Ward signed with the Caps four summer ago.
But as Fehr acknowledged, the Caps also are negotiating with UFAs Mike Green, Jay Beagle and Ward and need to re-sign RFAs Braden Holtby, Marcus Johansson, Kuznetsov and Nate Schmidt.
With Fehr’s history of shoulder injuries, the Caps might be hesitant to give him a four-year contract, but they may settle on a three-year deal in the $10 million range. Fehr missed 10 of the Caps’ 14 playoff games with a third-degree sprain of the AC joint in his right shoulder, an injury sustained when Islanders forward Kyle Okposo checked him into the boards in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
“It was a very tough finish for me,” Fehr said. “Even in the regular season I wasn’t playing 100 percent down the stretch. I would have liked to have been healthier, obviously, but there are a lot of players that play with injuries throughout the season.
Fehr missed 13 of the Caps’ final 17 games with an elbow injury but said his playoff injury was not a torn labrum and would heal over time.
“Having a lot of shoulder injuries in the past has been an issue and people have shied away from me for this reason,” Fehr said. “But I don’t think there’s any reason now. It’s kind of a fluke injury, more of a hockey injury than some of the other injuries I’ve had in the past.”
Since returning to the Caps after a one-year stint in Winnipeg and a few months in Finland during the 2012 NHL lockout, Fehr has had to prove himself to two coaches – Adam Oates and Barry Trotz – while learning to play center after years as a right wing. Fehr was a healthy scratch three times in late October and early November, but turned into a reliable two-way center midway through the season.
“I definitely had some ups and downs,” Fehr said. “I felt in he middle of the season – December and January – I was playing my best. At the start I didn’t really have a definitive position. It was a pretty slow start for me [2 goals in 10 games], but once I got a position and I knew I was playing center with some consistent linemates [mostly Ward, Beagle and Jason Chimera] I thought I improved quite a bit.
“I want to be a centerman. I think it helps my game. I enjoy playing defensively, being quick on pucks and help the breakout. I can’t really picture myself being a full-time winger anymore, which is a good thing.”
Having spent nine of his 10 NHL seasons in Washington, Fehr said the way this one ended was the most disappointing.
“Because I thought we had the best chance this year,” he said. “Looking back I still believe we were a better team. I think we deserved a little better fate. But I like the way this group is going. I like the way we got better throughout the season and I think this group is going to do some big things.”
He’s hoping he is right in the middle of it as a third-line center behind Backstrom and Kuznetsov.
“Hopefully, they need one more,” Fehr said. “We’ll see what happens. It’s going to be interesting.”