With each year that ticked by, Taylor Chorney knew his NHL dreams got slimmer while the reality got harsher. There was the toll on his family, he and his wife never quite able to put down roots while he was a fringe player. He spent most of his time in the American Hockey League but was called up to the NHL just enough to keep hoping.
“I always believed in my abilities and I always was confident I could play,” Chorney said. “But at the same time, I wasn’t getting any younger. I know I understand how the business works. I’m not naive, and I know that you usually get your chance when you’re 21, 22, 23 or 24 years old. I had a chance, and things were okay, but not great.
“I felt like I kept improving as a player and I felt like I was still ready to get a chance to play, but it just doesn’t always work out like that, so I mean, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some nights where you’re lying awake wondering if you’re going to get another shot to play.”
It’s ironic, then, that Washington Capitals Coach Barry Trotz has referred to Chorney as a “young” defenseman more than a few times this season, despite the 28-year-old Ontario native being older than half of Washington’s blue-liners. Chorney feels young, too, finally getting his opportunity, a full NHL season with the Capitals.
The offseason addition of Chorney wasn’t as heralded as the acquisitions of forwards T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. But with defenseman Brooks Orpik out for more than two weeks with a lower-body injury, Chorney has stepped in on the third defensive pairing and Washington hasn’t missed a beat. In the nine games Orpik’s missed, the Capitals went 7-1-1.
“You look at it as just a fresh start,” Chorney said. “I put in a lot of work over the last seven years to get to this point and kind of grinded out. To be able to come here and have the opportunity to play on a team like this, yeah, it’s kind of like a new start for me.”
When injuries ravaged the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense entering the playoffs last spring, Chorney didn’t want to add extra pressure to playing in the postseason, but he wasn’t blind to the opportunity. He would be an unrestricted free agent in the summer, and he was suddenly gifted with playing time on a stage where scouts and general managers would be watching.
Chorney’s last 10 games with the Penguins, including five in the playoffs, led to his first one-way deal, a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Capitals. As with any one-way contract, which pays a player the same amount regardless of whether he’s in the minors or the NHL, the expectation was Chorney would be on the Washington roster.
But he still had to prove he was deserving in training camp. The top three defense pairings appeared to be penciled in before the season, with the third pair of Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov being the only change from last season. But Chorney not only made the team, he didn’t get caged into a strict seventh defenseman role. He supplanted Schmidt by the third game.
Schmidt eventually got back into the lineup and Chorney was a healthy scratch for six games, but when Orpik got injured, Chorney already had the familiarity of playing with Orlov, so Schmidt was moved up to the top pairing with John Carlson and Chorney was inserted back on the third pair. The Capitals made it look seamless.
“It’s a long year,” Chorney said. “There were some times there where I was sitting out for a bit. You know, I think in my position, that’s kind of part of the deal, but you’ve got to keep yourself ready. To get to play in a string of games here when the team’s playing well, it’s been fun.”
With only six healthy defensemen on the team, there was no pressure of one bad game leading to a scratch, and Chorney thrived, recording his first two points of the season last week with assists against Dallas and Colorado. Orpik returned to practice on Monday, and though doubtful for the Capitals’ next game at Montreal on Thursday, his return appears to be in the near future, meaning Chorney could find himself out of the lineup again.
But he’s enjoying this new experience nonetheless, and Washington now knows that it has depth on its defensive corps.
“When you get long periods of time when the defensemen know they’re going to be in and they’re not going to be the guy out, you can really see what they can do,” Trotz said. “The quality ice time they get is a little higher against better opponents and those type of things. You can really assess where your defense is, especially your bottom pair.
“From that standpoint, I think it’s been a little bit of a blessing in disguise. Obviously, Brooks Orpik is a big part of what we do, but it’s an opportunity for the young guys to step up, and they have.”