Successful teams in the salary cap era typically have balanced lineups, with the lesser-known and lower-paid players offering consistently strong performances and the occasional over-achievement to complement the efforts of the top players.
The Capitals received those types of contributions this season from the bottom six. But in their case the role players were propping up the team at even strength rather than serving as a secondary source of dependable play and offensive production.
No trio was more effective for Washington at even strength this season than the third line, which for the final portion of the season consisted of Joel Ward, Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr. They combined for 42 even-strength goals this season (41 five-on-five), which accounted for more than 29 percent of the team’s total even-strength tallies, and became a positive to take away from a largely disappointing year for the Capitals.
What follows is a look at how they and the rest of the bottom six forwards fared this season. If you’ve missed any of the previous breakdowns check them out here: unrestricted free agents, defensemen, top six forwards, goaltending.
Note: All salary cap figures are from Capgeek.com; the Capitals denied requests to speak to their assistant coaches.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $3 million | Age: 33
2013-14 regular season stats: 82GP, 24G, 25A, +7
Quite possibly the feel-good story of the year for the Capitals, Ward recorded a career high in goals and points in his seventh NHL season and became not just a third-liner with a knack for strong play in his own zone to an active and effective part of the offense. He saw regular time on the second power play unit (average of 1:45 per game) and penalty kill (1:49 per game) but even with steady special teams roles, the bulk of his offensive production (15 goals, 20 assists) came five-on-five.
But the start of the season wasn’t without adversity for Ward. Remember when he was trapped in a hotel bathroom in Dallas before the third game of the season?
“There were a lot of personal bests for me. It’s been a long up and downs from being stuck in the bathroom to scoring 20-plus goals,” Ward said with a chuckle, but quickly turned to the disappointment of having such a year without reaching the playoffs. “It’s kind of bittersweet a little bit. It was a good year for myself personally and some other players too, but you always want to get in and play for that trophy.”
Ward has one year remaining on his current contract and the challenge for him will be to sustain this type of output. When the Capitals signed him as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2011 they hoped he could provide this type of production. Now that he has, it will be tough to accept any back tracking.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $2 million | Age: 34
2013-14 regular season stats: 82GP, 15G, 27A, +4
The other half of the “twins,” as Coach Adam Oates called them, Chimera’s speed provided the perfect counterpart to Ward’s ability to grind and win battles along the boards. Instant chemistry and a straightforward game plan – cycle, work the puck in the corners and down low until an opportunity to create a scoring chance presents itself – made it easy to know what to expect from them every game.
This year marked the fifth season Chimera scored at least 15 goals and he set a career high in assists and points. What’s interesting about this duo, though, is that when they were on the ice together Chimera and Ward saw a Corsi-for of only 47.7 percent. But despite seeing more shots go against the Capitals while they were on the ice, they were able to minimize the actual damage.
While he had a slow year during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, the two most productive offensive seasons of Chimera’s career have come in the last three seasons. If he can sustain that type of showing at even strength next year, in the first season of a new two-year contract worth $2 million annually, it makes that deal well worth the investment.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $1.5 million | Age: 28
2013-14 regular season stats: 73GP, 13G, 18A, even
No other player on the roster underwent the type of change and handled the same type of uncertainty as Fehr did this year. Approached last summer about learning to play center after a lifetime on the wing, Fehr embraced the switch in the hopes it would lead to a regular spot in the lineup. Even after he committed to the change, it wasn’t until after a frustrating 18-day stretch as a healthy scratch in November that Oates began using him on a nightly basis.
While the transition certainly had its rough patches and there’s plenty for him to continue learning about the position (faceoffs come to mind), Fehr became a more savvy player in the neutral and defensive zones using his reach to derail passes or knock the puck away from opponents. He also was one of the better forwards at driving possession with a 49 percent Corsi-for. And playing center forced him to grow more comfortable carrying the puck and making plays on his own.
So where will Fehr play next year? He doesn’t know. If the Capitals still have an abundance of right-handed wingers next year, he could stay at center and at the moment he’s proceeding as if that will be the case.
“I think it went pretty well, better than I expected definitely,” Fehr said. “I’m not exactly sure what to expect for years to come, but as of right now I guess I’m a centerman. So, I’ll continue working on it and trying to get better.”
2014-15 salary cap hit: $894,167 | Age: 20
2013-14 regular season stats: 82GP, 3G, 7A, +1
Only time will show whether having Wilson, the 16th overall pick in the 2012 draft, play a fourth-line grinder role as a rookie was the right decision. He led the team and finished seventh in the league in penalty minutes (151) and was tied with the likes of Ottawa’s Chris Neil and Edmonton’s Luke Gazdic with the third most major penalties (15) this year while averaging just 7:56 per game.
Wilson reaffirmed the notion that he was physically ready for the NHL with his heavy, sometimes crushing checks – just ask Brayden Schenn – and held his own with fighters around the league. But while he spent this year as a bottom-six pugilist, the Capitals have always said they hope Wilson evolves into a top-six power forward.
While Wilson showed a greater understanding of game situations and realizing the impact of any fight or altercation as the year progressed and even began turning down invitations to scrap, he didn’t get much opportunity to showcase the other skills even once Washington had been eliminated from the playoffs.
It’s all but impossible to gauge where Wilson’s development will go from here because it will be predicated on what type of role he’s placed in over the next few years.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $900,000 | Age: 28
2013-14 regular season stats: 62GP, 4G, 5A, -9
The most unassuming and arguably hardest working player on the roster, Beagle saw time on all four lines this season. While Oates’s decision to have Beagle work on a line with Ovechkin was extremely unorthodox and drew criticism, given that the two of them had a 42.6 percent Corsi-for when on the ice together, it gave the grinding pivot a chance to play against tougher competition and different scenarios than he has been accustomed to.
“It was fun, because it’s an opportunity that not many people get to have – playing with one of the greatest goal-scorers in the league,” Beagle said. “It was an opportunity that I wanted to run with and wanted to absorb and play my hardest and just make sure I don’t let an opportunity go to waste because you don’t get many opportunities to play – especially when I’m a fourth- or third-line centerman – to play a top-six role.”
But Beagle faced a similar situation to Fehr at the beginning of the year when he was a healthy scratch 20 of the first 25 games before earning a regular spot in the lineup the rest of the way. While his possession numbers weren’t strong – 44.8 percent Corsi-for five-on-five – Beagle was Washington’s third best at faceoffs among those who took at least 400 draws at 51.7 percent.
Even with the stints on the second and third line, Beagle is best suited to his bottom-six role. Oates always talks about wanting to have a fourth line that is effective and he trusts in any situation. So can Beagle anchor the type of unit that is dependable enough to earn a steady shift rotation?
2014-15 salary cap hit: $575,000 | Age: 28
2013-14 regular season stats: 41GP, 2G, 0A, -2
While he appeared in the most games in a single season of his career, Volpatti only appeared in the lineup twice after Jan. 25 partly because he had become the odd man out and also because he injured his left shoulder on Feb. 2 against Detroit.
Volpatti had the dubious distinction of finishing with one of the worst (563 of 570) Corsi-for percentages (39.5) among players who appeared in at least half of the season. He’s rarely been a steady part of the lineup since the Capitals picked him up off waivers from Vancouver last year, but will likely continue on in the same capacity next season in the final year of his current two-year deal.
2014-15 salary: UFA | Age: 31
2013-14 regular season stats: 67GP, 14G, 21A, +22 | Caps stats: 18GP, 1G, 2A, +3
A low-risk trade that didn’t seem to work out for either side, Penner wasn’t especially noticeable in his 18 games with the Capitals. Given that his performance with Washington did little discredit his reputation of having a lackluster work ethic, it doesn’t seem likely that he will be back in the fold next year.