Eric Fehr swooped through the offensive zone as time ticked away in Tampa on Thursday, determined to make some luck for himself. When his initial chance on the rush went unsuccessful but the Washington Capitals maintained possession, Fehr took his 6-foot-4, 212-pound frame to the front of the net for a perfectly-placed deflection that earned him the game-winning goal against the Lightning.
It was Fehr’s second goal of the night, his eighth goal and 19th point of the season. And it came with Fehr playing on the Capitals’ top line opposite Alex Ovechkin — quite the role for the 28-year-old winger who not long ago wondered if he would play in the NHL again.
“I thought since Day One when he’s got the chance he’s never let it go,” Coach Adam Oates said. “He’s got a great skill set offensively. Every little situation that I've asked him to do he’s responded and had some success. I've been very happy for him and he’s been very good for us.”
Plagued by shoulder injuries — he’s had surgery three times, twice on the right — and unable to live up to the expectations of being a first-round draft pick through the first seven years of his NHL career, Fehr became a free agent in the summer of 2012 when his hometown Winnipeg Jets opted not to submit a minimum qualifying offer to retain his rights.
So when the lockout took hold last fall, Fehr went to Finland with hopes of rediscovering his game and maybe doing enough to earn a second chance in the NHL. He got his wish a year ago Monday, when the Capitals brought him back on a league-minimum contract to add depth up front.
Seventy-six games into his second stint with Washington, the team that drafted him in 2003, Fehr is a more self-assured player who has turned into one of the team’s most reliable and versatile forwards. Much of that is due to finally being healthy — Fehr hasn’t had a problem with his shoulders since the 2011-12 season. But it is also because of his willingness to adapt and improve his game.
“I think playing in Finland really helped me to be a guy that they want the puck on your stick and to get the feeling of that again. When you play third-, fourth-line minutes for [seven] years, you almost lose the feel of the puck and how to create space and how to hang on to it and make plays,” said Fehr, who is in the first year of a two-year, $3 million contract. “I think that kind of clicked in my mind again that I can do this and showed me the ways I need to do it again. When I came back here I was playing with a different kind of confidence and reminded back of what I could do.”
Fehr has been a constant guinea pig for Oates, who has used the natural right wing at left wing and at center because of the Capitals’ depth on the right side. Fehr has happily accepted the experimentation, which has made him a more well-rounded player and increased his playing time.
“Before I was just a five-on-five guy, didn’t play a lot in the third,” said Fehr, who is averaging a career-high 14 minutes, 46 seconds per game and 1:02 on the penalty kill. “You’re a bigger part of the team every night. You come to the rink, you feel you can make a difference, whereas before it didn’t always feel that way.”
Oates knows that fluctuations in assignments don’t make it easy for a player to grow comfortable in his role, but he’s consistently praised Fehr for the ability to take on every new challenge. He also sees a player who is eager to do anything he can to prove he belongs in the NHL.
“He’s always kind of been given scraps, like I have a hole – ‘Hey Fehrsie, plug the hole.’ It’s not like, ‘Hey I really want you here.’ But he’s done a great job of that,” Oates said. “Maybe that’s his age, maturity level, getting a second chance. So it’s kind of a win-win. I want him to keep pushing to become an ultimate regular where [General Manager] George [McPhee] won’t let him go, and I think he has that capability.”
Mikhail Grabovski’s agent, Gary Greenstin, said Saturday that he and the team are in the early stages of discussions for a contract extension with the veteran center.
Grabovski, 29, who signed a one-year, $3 million contract in with the Capitals in late August, has 12 goals and 32 points in 42 games playing on each of the Capitals’ top three lines. Grabovski would be highly sought-after should he test the open market as an unrestricted free agent this summer, but Greenstin said stability is important for his client and his family.
“He’s comfortable here. Good coaching staff, he fits here very well, but Grabo is a very talented center,” Greenstin said. “We’ll see what’s happening. Most likely he’ll stay here.”