In the PNC Arena visiting locker room after the game, Siegenthaler held up that puck as a photographer snapped a photo to commemorate the 21-year-old’s first NHL point. This year has already been a whirlwind for him, from nearly cracking the Capitals' roster out of training camp to making his NHL debut a month later to that commemorative puck on Friday night, which seems to symbolize another new chapter. Siegenthaler had been an extra defenseman for the past five weeks, but with Christian Djoos out indefinitely after getting surgery on his left thigh on Thursday night, Siegenthaler has the opportunity to establish himself as a lineup regular sooner than expected.
Veteran blue-liner Brooks Orpik has missed the past 22 games after getting arthroscopic surgery on his right knee nearly a month ago, and while he’s started skating again and is expected to be back in the lineup by Christmas, Siegenthaler will be on the left side of Washington’s third pairing in the meantime. The Capitals aren’t ready to declare Djoos’s injury to be season-ending, but he will be out “a substantial number of weeks,” Coach Todd Reirden said. As the organization considers if it should acquire another defenseman by the trade deadline, how well Siegenthaler has acquitted himself in his first seven games has reassured the Capitals that he’s absolutely in their plans, and he could be in their current ones, too.
“He’s got a pretty calm mentality, and I think he’s found ways to ramp it up a bit to play at the NHL level,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “It’s a good quality to have. He doesn’t panic or anything, and he’s making quicker plays now, too. He’s got NHL talent, that’s for sure, and he’s still extremely young. The way he’s playing, he’s going to be a really good teammate. He’s already there.”
Had forward Tom Wilson not gotten suspended to start the season, Siegenthaler would have been on Washington’s opening-night roster. Instead, the Capitals claimed Dmitrij Jaskin off waivers to boost their forward depth, and because of salary-cap constraints, Siegenthaler was the last player cut from training camp. But he had already made an impression, especially since he was an underwhelming prospect just two years ago. Washington’s second-round pick in 2015, Siegenthaler’s body fat was north of 13 percent when he came to training camp the summer after he was drafted. Reirden had hoped to play Siegenthaler in some exhibition games that preseason, but Siegenthaler’s conditioning was so poor that the coach had to scratch him. Washington had expected Siegenthaler to play his first season in the American Hockey League that year, but “family issues” forced him to return to Switzerland for another year.
It all could have derailed his development, but it instead motivated Siegenthaler. He came to training camp the next summer 24 pounds lighter than he had been at the end of the previous season, which helped him to be more mobile on the ice. He cut his body-fat percentage in half by eating more quinoa and less of his mother’s Thai cooking. Siegenthaler was born in Switzerland, and he’s already played more games than any other Swiss player in Capitals franchise history, but his mother was born in Thailand. The NHL doesn’t do DNA testing on its players, so the league can’t be sure if there have been other players of Thai ancestry, but he’s the first-known Thai NHLer.
“I’m proud to be half Thai,” Siegenthaler said. “It’s such a fun place and beautiful . . . I go there once a year, if I’ve got time in the summer. I’ve got one grandma that’s still living, and she lives in Thailand. She’s pretty important to me because she’s all I know as a grandma, so yeah, I’ve got a lot of relatives down there.”
He’ll have more stories to share the next time he visits, about the year he officially became an NHL player and the time he assisted on Ovechkin’s goal. Reirden has steadily exposed him to more situations — Siegenthaler is regularly killing penalties now — and he’s handled each of them with poise. He’s playing with a maturity not expected for his inexperience, and it’s exactly what the Capitals need right now.
“For him, it started with just the one game and how once you get to that one game, a lot of stuff changes in your life, everything you’ve worked for and sacrificed for,” Reirden said. “I really put a huge amount of emphasis on that with a player, that they’re able to accomplish a lifelong dream, and no matter what happens, no one can ever take that from him and say that he never played a game in the NHL. We spent some time on that initially, and from there, we start building on, okay, let’s put together a few games here. Let’s string together back-to-backs, and then let’s put you in a situation where you’re playing a little more difficult competition . . .
"He has definitely taken advantage of his opportunity that he’s gotten. Even when we have taken him out [of the lineup], he could’ve easily played in any number of games because I’ve really liked his game. Now that we’re down to six defensemen, it’s a little bit more opportunity for him, and we’ll see where he takes it from here.”