LAS VEGAS — Just a year ago, Chandler Stephenson was toiling in the Washington Capitals’ minor league system, working on his game during the American Hockey League playoffs with the Hershey Bears. He rotated between center and wing, hoping he was making enough of an impression with versatility to lay the foundation for an NHL future. But when the Bears lost three defensemen to injury in a crucial postseason game, the organization simply plugged Stephenson in on the blue line for a period.
A year later, it’s that kind of flexibility in Stephenson’s skill-set that has made him a mainstay in the Capitals’ charge toward their first Stanley Cup, which can become a reality with a win over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 on Thursday night. That Stephenson has played a key role in helping Washington to a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series offers a window into just how far he has come in a year.
The path from Hershey to this point was arduous. Stephenson didn’t even make Washington’s roster in training camp last fall. When the Capitals placed Stephenson on waivers, a move the team never intended to make but was forced to after he struggled in the preseason, all of the other 30 NHL teams passed on picking him up. He was sent back to Hershey, and only an early-season injury to Andre Burakovsky earned him a call back up to Washington.
“Ever since the call-up, I’ve just been enjoying it,” he said.
Stephenson, 24, never returned to the Bears. His 18 points in 67 games during the regular season was respectable enough, but he has entrenched himself as a legitimate NHL player during this postseason run. And he has done it with a rare ability to adapt to pressure-packed situations. In the first round, he flashed his deft scoring ability with a breakaway goal to help eliminate the Columbus Blue Jackets. In the second round, he helped fortify an injury-plagued lineup by starting on the top line in the clinching Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was again a staple in a Game 6 win, using his speed to negate an icing call in the third period and set up a goal that helped Washington tie the series.
And in the Stanley Cup finals against Vegas, the Saskatchewan native’s versatility has been crucial. In Game 2, he moved to center for a string of shifts after Evgeny Kuznetsov left the game with an injury. And in Game 3, the elasticity of his role may not have been more apparent than in the first period, when he appeared to score a goal that was eventually called off because of interference by teammate Devante Smith-Pelly. Stephenson then went on the penalty kill a few seconds later.
“I never had a distinct position that I liked or preferred. That’s just been something, growing up, playing those positions, just became a habit,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys that can step out of that comfort zone.”
Stephenson is one of them, and his versatility has long been his best asset. He was drafted in 2012 as a winger but often manned the center position in Hershey. He started as a defenseman when he began playing hockey as a child, he said, and he has toggled between center and wing for much of his professional career. He does not mind playing on the left or right side, nor does he mind making the in-game adjustment to center if need be, as he did in Game 2.
“He’s a smart player, and he can play wherever the coach needs him,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said.
Stephenson has logged two goals and five assists in these playoffs — as well as 13 blocks — but what has been more impressive has been his ability to thrive up and down the lineup. He has played alongside Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin on the top line; he has looked equally adept working in the corners and playing the grind-it-out style on the fourth line. And his speed has helped bolster his defensive ability, which he showed in that emergency role in Hershey last spring. That ability has become a crucial part of the penalty kill. Collectively, all of his attributes have appeared to secure a future for Stephenson in the NHL, something that was not a foregone conclusion just eight months ago.
“Those are the things that everyone can see,” Washington’s Jay Beagle said. “He’s got a lot more to give, and we’re going to see that over the next couple of years, how good he can really be.”
Read more on the Capitals: