Eric Fehr has played more defense than center over the course of his lifetime, but when Coach Adam Oates called him this summer to suggest trying out the pivot spot in training camp, the winger didn’t see any downside.
“I said sure, and if it doesn’t work I’ll go back to the right side and just keep going from there,” Fehr said. “It’s been fun so far. It’s been a pretty easy transition, but it’s practice. Once games come it will be a lot different — you’ve got to learn the routes and get everything figured out that way.”
Since the Capitals signed Fehr at the start of last season to bolster forward depth, he’s been the subject of several Oates projects. Fehr, who historically played right wing, suited up on the left side when injuries left the lineup imbalanced and added penalty killing to his repertoire.
With an abundance of right wings – Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Tom Wilson and Fehr – Oates wanted to experiment and see if the Winkler, Manitoba, native might fit at center. If it works, it would lessen the backlog of players on the right side and provide additional options if injuries occur. If not, no harm done.
“We have a lot of good players there and he was our most versatile guy there last year,” Oates said. “I asked him to do other things and I just want to see what it looks like. We’ve got some tough decisions ahead of us and giving guys opportunities to maybe broaden their skills, that’s all.”
Fehr, 28, has been skating between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward in the early stages of training camp and he’s expected to line up there Monday when the Capitals visit Philadelphia for their second preseason game. That will be the first opportunity for an evaluation of this project, which requires Fehr reprogram some of the habits he’s spent a lifetime developing as a winger.
Centers play the full length of the ice, are involved in the play low in the defensive zone and are typically the last in the zone when the team is in transition. Wingers do the opposite with assignments high in their own zone and then lead the attack.
“I’m used to chipping pucks and forechecking and now I’ll be a little bit more behind the play. So [it’s] definitely something I need to get used to. Even in practice you get a lot less shots coming in late,” Fehr said. “Right now it’s a lot of thinking. When you play a position long enough you don’t have to think you can just react and right now I’m back to thinking, making sure I’m in the right spot, doing the right things.”
Then there are faceoffs, which Fehr long avoided because of the lack of strength in his injury-plagued shoulders. Even when the usual center was tossed out of a draw, Fehr would defer to any other teammate than step in to the circle himself.
Healthy and with more than two years since his last shoulder surgery, Fehr has rebuilt his upper-body strength and isn’t concerned about injuring himself on a draw – only learning how to execute them.
“I think faceoffs will be a big challenge for me just because guys have been taking it their whole life and I’ve never played center before,” Fehr said. “I think that’s going to be a big problem but I’ve been working on it with a lot of guys and I feel surprisingly comfortable taking draws.”
It’s a gradual process. Even if the preseason trial is a success, prompting a larger run of Fehr at center, growing pains should be expected. But the possibility of finding a hidden ability to be a center in Fehr could better serve both him and the team.
“He was out of the league until last year and he proved to the league he can play but we do have a tough decision as a team,” Oates said. “So for him, I want to enhance his career. That’s really the goal and if he can get better, good for him and obviously good for us because he obviously wants to play in this league and contribute and we’re just trying to see if we can get more out [of him].”