At various points this season, Trotz has played Stephenson on both the power play and the penalty kill. He’s played him in the top-six forward corps with center Nicklas Backstrom and right wing T.J. Oshie. Stephenson can play at center or on the wing. A player who couldn’t win a job in the lineup during training camp can now occupy pretty much any role for the Capitals, a big reason why Trotz has continued to play him as the team has gotten healthier and competition for playing time has ramped up.
“Teams on the bottom half of their lineup, there’s still some heavy forwards there, but I think the game has gone to a little more speed,” Trotz said. “I think what Stevey does, he’s an easy player to move up and down the lineup because of his skill set. He was drafted as a winger and played a lot of wing, and then he’s also played a lot of center in the minors. He’s a very useful player, almost a bit of a Swiss Army knife for me actually.
“I like his game, I like his intelligence and I like his consistency right now. That’s maybe been a little knock against Stevey in the past, but I think he’s gotten through that glass ceiling. He’s seeing the benefits of being there every night and how important he can be to our team.”
Stephenson underwhelmed in training camp, and though the Capitals had planned for him to be on the roster this season, he was beat out by other forwards and waived before the start of the season. The league’s 30 other teams had a chance to claim him, but after they all passed, he was sent down to the American Hockey League. Injuries in late October cleared a way for him to be recalled, and since then, he’s been the player the Capitals had hoped for. Stephenson has two goals and seven assists through 25 games, and the team told him to get an apartment in the area. Washington won’t risk losing him to waivers again.
“You get comfortable just in the sense that you feel more like yourself,” Stephenson said. “Just kind of a little bit more vocal and a little more friendly around the guys. Things like that on a personal level, guys always including you. It’s just getting over that hump of feeling more like yourself and just being more like yourself every day.”
Trotz said he used Stephenson in overtime because he’s had a lot of experience with three-on-three play in the AHL, but if Kuznetsov loses the opening faceoff of the overtime, Trotz trusts Stephenson to defend well. Stephenson has also won 53.9 percent of draws in his NHL career, so if Kuznetsov gets kicked out of the draw, then Stephenson can easily step in. With Oshie back in the lineup on Tuesday night in Dallas, Trotz went back to a pair of Kuznetsov and Oshie on the first shift, but that Stephenson is in that rotation at all says a lot about how the coach views him.
“I like his speed and I like his intelligence,” Trotz said. “I’ve got a lot of trust in his game. He can make plays, and he understands the overtime pretty well. With Kuzy — I always start him — I think he’s a good complement with Kuzy. I usually have gone with Osh there in the past, and I felt he was a real good complement. And then what it does allow us to do is to then come with Backy and Ovi, and sometimes you get a little lesser pair or whatever. I always like that combination.”
Said Stephenson: “You try not to think about that too much. But obviously, it’s something that’s kind of a feel-good thing going out there, having that trust that you are in the three-on-three. You just try to make sure you’ve got your guy, but you’re also watching out for your linemates and just try to keep as much possession as you can.”