By the end of last season, Dmitrij Jaskin knew it was time for a change of scenery. Drafted early in the second round seven years ago, Jaskin was a well-regarded prospect with the St. Louis Blues. But after he scored 13 goals during the 2014-15 season, he struggled to match that production and then saw his ice time and role diminish, cast as a bottom-six defensive forward. He asked General Manger Doug Armstrong to trade him.
But then Jaskin heard nothing but silence over the summer, and with the Blues having bolstered their forward depth during the offseason, he was waived at the end of training camp, another low for the Russian-born Czech’s career as he seemed poised for the American Hockey League. The Washington Capitals had last priority on the waiver wire after winning the Stanley Cup last season, but every other team passed on Jaskin, allowing him to fall to the Capitals, who claimed him.
“As soon as the news came, I was really happy,” Jaskin said.
Jaskin is the Capitals’ latest 25-year-old reclamation project. First there was Brett Connolly, a top 10 pick in 2010 who hit a career low when the Boston Bruins cut him two years ago. Connolly signed with Washington at a bargain price, and he has posted back-to-back 15-goal seasons. Then last summer, winger Devante Smith-Pelly had his contract bought out by the New Jersey Devils, and the Capitals signed the 2010 second-round pick to a two-way, league-minimum deal. He blossomed in the playoffs, when he scored seven goals, matching his regular season total.
Finally, Washington shrewdly traded a third-round pick for Czech defenseman Michal Kempny, who had been a healthy scratch in Chicago for half the season and was considering returning to Europe. He thrived in a top-pairing role with the Capitals and was the missing piece on the blue line as Washington went on to win the Stanley Cup and then re-sign Kempny to a four-year, $10 million deal.
The Capitals have battled salary cap constraints every season, and those finds have rounded out their lineup on the cheap. With winger Tom Wilson suspended 20 games, pending an appeal, for an illegal check to the head, Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan took another low-risk, low-cost flier on Jaskin, who will make his season debut in Wednesday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights.
“It’s worked out so far,” MacLellan said.
Jaskin is already a proven defensive forward -- the Blues took at least 52.6 percent of the shot attempts when he was on the ice the past three seasons, according to Natural Stat Trick -- but his offensive production was uninspiring during that same stretch. The six goals with 11 assists he scored last year constituted his best statistical season since 2014-15. “With defense comes offense, so it’ll work itself out,” Jaskin said, adding that he is hopeful the Capitals’ faster, more offensive system will suit him better.
“I’d like to see some more offense from him,” Coach Todd Reirden said.
Washington will have Jaskin playing on the left side of fourth-line center Nic Dowd, and that’s in line with a similar process Reirden employed with Kempny. To get a player’s confidence up and incorporate him gradually, Reirden prefers to start by playing them against weaker competition and then gradually increasing the role and responsibility.
“That way it sets him up for success, as opposed to putting him in a certain spot, then having it not go well and then automatically everyone gets down on him,” Reirden said. “We’ll put him in a situation to succeed, and he understands that we’re in this together to make him a better player. He’s still a young guy. I think the track record speaks for itself, and I think that’s what helps the process, too, that players know it’s worked for other players on our team.”
While there might have been a weight of expectation from being a touted prospect in St. Louis, the pressure is off in Washington. That’s been welcome for Connolly, who acknowledged he might have been thrust into an NHL role too soon after Tampa Bay picked him sixth overall in the 2010 draft. Connolly was traded to Boston four years later, where the Bruins tried playing him on their top line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
In Washington, Connolly found a home beside third-line center Lars Eller, and in his third season with the team, things have come full circle. He is now getting a look in the top-six forward corps beside center Evgeny Kuznetsov and captain Alex Ovechkin, temporarily replacing Wilson. When Smith-Pelly was weighing his options a year ago, it was Connolly who told him, “If there’s any organization where you can go in and reinvent yourself, it would be here.”
“This is a different environment, I think,” Connolly said. “It’s way different than the last two organizations I’ve been on. You get to be allowed to just go and play and be yourself. That makes it easier to play when you’re not thinking too much.”
Read more on the Capitals: