DENVER – This was not how he expected the season would unfold, because who forecasts such unpredictability? “Definitely isn’t the way I drew the year up,” Eric Fehr said, “but that’s the way things go.”
Which perhaps made Tuesday so welcome for the Capitals forward, who scored the winning goal in a 2-1 overtime victory over Arizona. With less than two minutes until a shootout, Fehr positioned himself just outside the crease. He read the angle off defenseman Brooks Orpik’s shot perfectly, and when the puck caromed off Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith’s pads, Fehr slapped it into the net.
He was a fourth-liner that night, a right-winger beside Evgeny Kuznetsov and Chris Brown. This season, his 10th in the NHL, Fehr has also been a top-line winger, a puck-cycling center, among the Capitals’ best possession-based forwards, an anti-bullying children’s author, scratched three times, challenged by Coach Barry Trotz to offer more and now, on at least one occasion, a hero.
“I definitely wanted to contribute and when you’re playing less minutes, it’s more difficult to contribute, but you have to find a way,” Fehr said. “I was obviously real happy with the end result.”
The route, however, had proved twisting. This season, no Washington forward has skated with more than two other forwards for longer than 70 minutes at even strength, except Fehr, who has skated with four: Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. In this regard, this season has unfolded similar to last season, with Fehr deployed in varying, unfamiliar circumstances.
“I think it’s been a little difficult for him, but at the same time I want Eric to be going through some of those difficulties,” Trotz said. “I think there’s a level of ability in his game that he hasn’t tapped into yet and by moving him around and making it a little difficult at times, I think it forces him to find other ways to contribute, and when you do that you become a more complete player, you become a very valuable piece to all that.
“I think his game needs sometimes, the fourth line, they play with a bit more urgency, sometimes you’re on the checking line, sometimes you’re on the scoring line, and you have to figure out that role, how you’re going to be able to figure it out. I think he’s a very intelligent player. By putting him in different roles and having him try to figure it out, it’ll help him in the long haul. Now, it’s probably difficult for him, but I think in the long haul it’s going to help him a lot.”
Trotz brought up Fehr’s reputation when he entered the NHL as a “slick-hand goal-scorer,” one season removed from 111 points in the Western Hockey League, including 59 goals. And with the Capitals, Trotz seemed content serving as Fehr’s agent of chaos, trying to tap into different styles, seemingly part of his mission to make the team “comfortable when it’s uncomfortable.”
“He’s got good hockey IQ, he’s got a big body, I think he can be able to play almost every style that you want,” Trotz said. “I think instead of settling on one style, and just using one asset, I think he can use more of his toolbox to be more effective. He’s learning that on the fly a bit.”
During the preseason, Fehr found himself studying video of all three forward positions in Washington’s new system, though once games began, he needed to dial it back. He may scroll through assignments and routes in his head during warm-ups, but once the puck drops, he wants to rely on reactions. The most difficult part of switching positions, he said, is the lack of routine and the increased risk of thinking too much on the ice.
“It’s definitely a good asset to have,” Fehr said of his versatility. “It makes it easier to put you into different positions and into the lineup. At the same time you do get moved around a lot, so it’s tough to get consistency. It’s just something I’ve had for the last year or two, and I’ve kind of grown into that role. As I continue with that role, I get more comfortable with it, find more ways to be effective.”
And if Trotz envisions rolling four-deep with his forward lines, building a group around Kuznetsov, having Fehr anchor the forecheck might not be a poor place to start. In an extremely limited sample size (19 minutes, 14 seconds), Kuznetsov and Fehr have posted a 68.4 percent Corsi-for, which measures all shot attempts, including blocked ones, according to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. Granted, Fehr has also topped the 60 percent mark with Backstrom and Ovechkin so, as if Trotz didn’t already know this, he has options.
“It’s a long season,” Fehr said. “You just got to try to maintain the course and don’t’ get too down on yourself when things aren’t going well and don’t get too high when things are going really well. I’m trying to keep that even keel right now.”