When the Washington Capitals held their development camp last summer, a surplus of bodies created a cramped situation inside the locker room, whereby rows of folding chairs were plopped into the middle of the floor as makeshift stalls. Among those transplants was forward Miles Koules, an undrafted free agent whose career began with the U.S. national development team and continued in the Western Hockey League, which made this week’s setup particularly notable. Friday afternoon, Koules parked himself at an actual stall, still fully dressed from practice, a red Capitals baseball cap by his side.
“It’s a great feeling to be sitting in a stall talking to you guys right now instead of a chair,” he said.
The attention was minimal, no cameras shining onto the 21-year-old winger, but another strong summer showing has the Capitals taking notice. Among the free agents invited to Arlington, Koules holds one of the stronger shots of emerging with an entry-level contract, which has always been the goal.
The organization kept in touch after Koules posted career-highs of 26 goals, 32 assists and 58 points with the Portland Winterhawks last season, even inviting him to their practice facility to speak with General Manager Brian MacLellan in late June. Several American Hockey League teams offered him a contract, but he turned those town. He was hunting bigger game, a two-way deal to jump-start a professional career.
“I think it’s a great thing,” he said. “Obviously at this point in my career I would’ve loved to have been signed already, but I can look at the positive in anything. The fact that I’m not, maybe I wake up and push a little harder than that guy who’s signed already. It just keeps motivating me. The end goal is to play in the NHL. However I get to that point is, I guess, part of my journey, and I’m looking forward to every minute of it.”
In a way, Koules’s locker placement felt like kismet, since an old occupant represented everything he hoped to become. He and forward Liam O’Brien are the same age, but Koules admired how O’Brien commanded an opening-day starting spot with the Capitals last fall, despite arriving at rookie camp entirely off the radar, just one more warm body invited to fill out the roster. And once O’Brien outlasted every set of training camp cuts, he settled into the stall which Koules now occupied.
“He didn’t have anything, even when he came to main camp, and he just went out every day with a mission and he accomplished that,” Koules said. “That’s the same thing I’m doing. I guess I just think that if I work as hard as I can, I truly believe I’ll be able to achieve my goals.”
While O’Brien became the biggest surprise of training camp, Koules was on the move. After the Capitals cut him, he and defenseman Tyler Lewington flew to Calgary, where they met their WHL club, the Medicine Hat Tigers, on a road trip. Koules logged two games for them, his third season with the club, then promptly got traded. Another flight beckoned. He was headed to Portland.
Even before his career year with the Winterhawks, though, Koules had impressed Washington’s staff. At the annual rookie game against Philadelphia Flyers prospects, Hershey Coach Troy Mann said O’Brien and Koules were “the two best forwards.”
“We’ll see what the organization decides to do, but he’s certainly got a great skill set coming off a pretty good junior career, there’s probably not much left for him to do,” Mann said.
A surplus of wingers might make stepping into the Bears’ lineup difficult for Koules, but an entry-level deal could place him into the ECHL, one step closer to getting a more permanent place inside the locker room.
“I know the type of person and player he is, and that’s what the Capitals are about,” Lewington said. “Definitely know he can play at that level. It’ll be exciting to see what happens.”
Said Koules: “I talked to the coaching staff and they said to work as hard as I can every day. They think I’m a talented player and my skills show for themselves and the things I need to do to earn a contract is have a hard-nosed grit combined with skill. Hopefully people notice that more and more every time I step on the ice or in the weight room, whatever activity we’re doing, and it gets me that closer to a contract.”