Carl Hagelin has been through this enough times to know that some things can’t be forced. Upon being traded to the Washington Capitals nearly two weeks ago, the forward had the benefit of familiarity and “a mutual respect” with his new teammates from years of playing against them, so it took just four games for him to have his own part in the pregame routine. He and Tom Wilson were singing along to “one of those saxophone techno tunes,” Hagelin said, when voilà, air-playing the saxophone became their thing. They did it before stepping onto the ice against the New York Islanders and won. They kept it going against the New York Rangers and won.
“We’ll keep that one going,” Hagelin said.
Figuring out a way to fit in with a new team three-quarters of the way through a season can be a delicate matter, especially with a group as tightknit as the Capitals, who returned the vast majority of the roster that won the Stanley Cup last season. Washington has been known to have a welcoming dressing room, but those first few weeks are inevitably a little uncomfortable for any newcomer, not unlike switching high schools. There’s a balance between being outgoing and not trying too hard. Hagelin has been through it before, having been traded four times over the past three years, but this is a first for defenseman Nick Jensen, acquired from Detroit a day after the Capitals got Hagelin from Los Angeles.
“I kind of come in slowly,” Jensen said. “I don’t want to say that I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, because I’m sure if I did something they wouldn’t care. But I kind of just tend to stay a little bit out of the way and observe.”
Whatever acclimation process both players are going through off the ice hasn’t affected what has looked like a seamless transition on the ice. As Coach Todd Reirden put it, “When they’ve both played, we win.” The Capitals are on a four-game winning streak, undefeated with Hagelin and Jensen in the lineup, to vault back atop the competitive Metropolitan Division. Following much the same blueprint as how it handled defenseman Michal Kempny after acquiring him just before the trade deadline last season, Washington has spent these first few games easing in Hagelin and Jensen before gradually ramping up their responsibilities.
Hagelin was promoted to the third line before last game, and then he scored his first goal with the Capitals in the shootout win against the Rangers. Jensen has seen his minutes tick up to roughly 17 per game since he skated 14:16 in his Washington debut.
“Hagelin has been through it and understands it, and he’s prepared for it,” Reirden said. “Someone like Jensen, the first time for him going through it, it’s different. I think it’s just good to let them know what’s expected of them both, in terms of their practice habits, their game preparation, the types of video we watch. Let them know some of our team policies and how I operate with players, an open door in terms of discussions and anything we can do to help them out.
"That’s good initially to set the boundaries like that, and then from there you start to get more into what they’re all about and what makes them tick and different buttons you can push to try to make them better and things they respond positively or negatively to. I’m in the process of finding those right now and building my relationship with both of them.”
Almost immediately after a trade is completed, a player is added to his new team’s group text-message chain. Hagelin knew fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom well, and Jensen is good friends with center Nic Dowd — they were teammates in college and groomsmen in each other’s weddings — but otherwise they have to guess which number that pops across the screen belongs to which teammate.
“If anyone texts anything funny or anything, I guess I don’t know who it is, but I’ll laugh,” Jensen said. “Eventually just kind of with time, you figure it out, like, ‘Oh, that was this guy,’ and then you get one guy’s number. I’ll eventually get the guys’ numbers. I just haven’t asked for them yet."
Professional athletes are creatures of habit, and Jensen said even something small such as a different practice time can take some getting used to. Then there’s the matter of figuring out what Washington’s carefully orchestrated routine in warmups is — and how to carve out a role within it. Players tend to do close to the same thing in those 15 minutes on the ice before every game, and that can range from Wilson and forward T.J. Oshie’s wacky bit of smacking each other in the rear with their sticks to Backstrom and captain Alex Ovechkin sharing a fist bump before leaving the ice together.
“The first couple of games, you just kind of skate around and just watch what everyone’s doing so you know, and then you just find your place,” Hagelin said. “But if you really want something, you go take it.”
Nicknames usually aren’t too hard to figure out, although they tend to be so similar that a team can run into some trouble if there’s suddenly two of a kind. Players have been calling Jensen “Jens,” but it sounds so much like Kempny’s “Kemps” that they’ve already gotten confused a couple of times in practice. Assistant coach Reid Cashman has just been calling Jensen by his first name. “I’ve never been called that on the bench, but it’s fine,” Jensen said with a shrug.
Hagelin’s wife and young daughter are in Sweden, and they plan to join him in Washington whenever the team has a string of home games in the near future. Jensen is staying in a hotel near the practice facility, and he has started polling teammates and coaches on where they live as he considers a more permanent situation for him, his wife and their dog, a black Labrador. Unlike Hagelin, an unrestricted free agent after the season, Jensen has the security of being with the Capitals for four more years after agreeing to an extension.
It’s not quite home yet, but it’s getting there.
“I don’t like the process of moving or anything,” Jensen said. “So right now, I’m just in the hotel, and I’m like, I don’t really want to do anything, but I don’t want to live in the hotel at the same time. I eventually just have got to make a push.”