Hours before his second-period goal at Barclays Center bolstered his case to crack the Washington Capitals’ opening-night roster, forward Sean Collins earned an already strong endorsement from his new bench boss. “You talk about a guy who would be perfect for a 13th forward,” Coach Barry Trotz said, “he can come in and play, he has NHL experience, all that.”
The 26-year-old, a former seventh-round draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, hadn’t actually spent much time at the highest level – 19 games across three seasons – but signed with Washington hoping to thrust himself into the very race of which Trotz spoke.
A depth forward spot remains available, maybe two given the health of center Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals know what Collins can do in the American Hockey League, with three 60-game seasons logged for the Springfield Falcons, and reassignment to Hershey would likely mean a top-six role there for Coach Troy Mann. But one week before the roster deadline, praise from Trotz was a good sign.
“He’s got a lot of Wardo qualities,” Trotz said, referring to former Washington forward Joel Ward. You’ve got to watch him really closely. He’s not going to jump out at you and go, man, that guy is dynamic in his skill level or he does that. You have to watch closely.
“And then if you ever found a little bit of that offensive element that Wardo did, you might have something. He’s not a big body. He’s not going to blow you away with blazing speed or these fantastic hands or anything, but if you watch him closely, he will make you like him as a coach, because he does a lot of those things that are hard to do all the time.”
During the open-contact period before free agency began July 1, the Capitals called Collins’ agent “four or five times,” he said, and no other team was really close in that respect.” They showed interest during his first experience as an unrestricted free agent, and the interest was mutual, and so here he was, leading Washington forwards in shorthanded ice time Monday night, slapping back a rebound to put the Capitals ahead, 1-0, in his third exhibition appearance during a long preseason look.
“Just trying to gain the confidence of the coaching staff,” Collins said Monday morning, before the team flew to New York and topped the Islanders, 3-1. “I think that’s the biggest thing. I was playing a regular shift, penalty killing a little bit, and just I think the fact when you’re in the lineup multiple games in a row shows a confidence from the coaching staff and management.
“Obviously it’s natural to look around and see the forwards you’re competing against, or playing a game, to watch them a little more closely on the ice. It’s my fourth year pro, third NHL camp, my first year was the lockout so there was no camp. I’ve learned to deal with the fact that you can’t worry too much, because you’ll just drive yourself crazy and you end up spending so much energy on others and you don’t spend enough on yourself and your own improvement. Just try to go out and be a positive factor on the ice.”
As a January call-up, the beneficiary of Columbus’ absurd 508 man-games lost to injury last season, Collins only logged fourth-line minutes his eight appearances, notching two assists across a long five-game road trip. He played twice more upon returning to Nationwide Arena, but took another demotion and spent the rest of the calendar with Springfield.
“For me, I’m 26 now, I’ve been trying to carve out a career and hopefully become a full-time NHL player,” he said. “I just needed a new opportunity and a fresh set of eyes looking at my game again. Like I said, it just seemed like a natural fit.”