Since his arrival at the trade deadline, Capitals center Jason Arnott has exceeded expectations. "I guess you can never underestimate the value of leadership," General Manager George McPhee said. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Jason Arnott has been in the NHL half his life, and it would seem he knows no other way than to walk into a dressing room, assess the situation, and say exactly what comes to mind. “He knows what he was brought in here to do,” said Matt Hendricks, Arnott’s teammate for the past two months on the Washington Capitals.

He knows now, at 36, how to act and what to say and when to say it. But the man who has led the Capitals for the last two months — and there doesn’t appear to be anyone in the dressing room who disputes that fact — was once an 18-year-old rookie looking for leadership, not doling it out. The fans of the Edmonton Oilers, for whom he played, couldn’t understand when Arnott would finish, say, his third game in three nights and say, “I was exhausted tonight.”

“For me, I always said what was on my mind,” Arnott said. “I spoke the truth, and that got me into a lot of trouble. The fans don’t understand when you say you were tired, even when you were. You learn a lot growing up, being put in that situation.”

As the Capitals prepare for a second-round playoff opponent that has yet to be determined, it’s hard to imagine Arnott has ever had a more profound impact on a team. Yes, he had a goal and two assists in the Capitals’ five-game first-round series victory over the New York Rangers. The more telling stat: With Arnott in the lineup, the Capitals lost one regular season game — in a shootout — and one in the playoffs. They have won the other 14 games in which he has played.

Arnott has played 11 of his 1,172 regular season games, and made five of his 111 playoff appearances, for Washington. He scored the overtime goal that won the 2000 Stanley Cup for the New Jersey Devils, and as a Cup winner — not to mention a Cup hero — he carries credibility and cachet into the dressing room.

“The most important thing we were looking for was a talented center,” said Capitals General Manager George McPhee, who, five minutes before the Feb. 28 trade deadline, acquired Arnott from the New Jersey Devils for forward David Steckel and a second-round draft pick. “I guess you can never underestimate the value of leadership, because we’ve gotten much more out of that than we anticipated.”

Under pressure early

Arnott’s upbringing is scarcely different from the scores of Canadians who populate the NHL. He grew up in Wasaga Beach, Ont. — a summer resort town some 80 miles north of Toronto on Lake Huron — where his father Bill was an auto mechanic who bought a Budget Rent a Car franchise, which his wife, Eileen, managed.

The Arnotts had come from little, but their children wanted for nothing. Jason rode dirt bikes, and his father worked six days a week — “You had to convince him to take Sunday off,” he said — so his mother could schlep him to hockey practices that were, sometimes, more than two hours away. Arnott’s own summer jobs included washing cars for Budget — “I hated that,” he said — to getting to drive the forklift in his dad’s wreckage yard, a task “I could have done all day.”

“They gave us everything they had,” Arnott said. “I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have that.”

But Wasaga Beach — which boasts the world’s largest freshwater beach, but has no hospital and, back then, a population far less than the 15,000 that live there today — doesn’t necessarily prepare a kid to be the seventh pick in the NHL draft by the Oilers. In 1993, when Arnott was selected, the Oilers were only three years removed from the last of their five Stanley Cups. When Glen Sather, then the Oilers’ general manager, decided Arnott was good enough to make the club out of his first training camp, there were expectations: “You get in a situation where the fans are looking for you to win the Stanley Cup. For me, that was a lot of pressure.”

Arnott seemed to handle it just fine early on, scoring 33 goals and becoming the runner-up to New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year. But his frankness with the press didn’t always sit well with Oilers fans. He was growing up in public, with pressure, and that was a bit of a volatile mix.

“Coming from a small town, you’re not used to all that attention,” Arnott said. “You go to the corner store, it’s like people maul you in Edmonton. It was crazy to me. So it got old after a while. I enjoyed playing there. I loved it. I have no regrets playing there at all. But it just got really overwhelming at the end, where I couldn’t take it any more. . . . I wanted a change, a change in my career, a change in my life.”

So just in January 1998, Sather traded Arnott to New Jersey — which was developing a proud hockey tradition, but where he could go get a sandwich without being hounded. Just more than two years later, he skated through the left circle as Devils teammate Patrik Elias dug a puck out of the opposite corner. Elias blindly sent a pass Arnott’s way, and at 8:20 of the second overtime of Game 6, Arnott beat Dallas goalie Ed Belfour and won the Cup for New Jersey.

“I wanted to win another one since that moment,” Arnott said. “That’s how you want to be remembered: As a winner.”

A decade later, that’s how the Capitals looked at Arnott.

“We wanted the experience and talent,” McPhee said, “and we wanted the experience of winning the Cup.”

New leadership

About a month before this year’s trade deadline, McPhee placed a call to New Jersey General Manager Lou Lamoriello, for whom McPhee had played at the tail end of his own career, and said: “I know this isn’t something you want to talk about, but if things don’t go well for you guys, and that player’s available, then we’re interested.”

Lamoriello’s job, then, was two-fold: evaluate his own club — on the outskirts of the playoff chase but surging — and ask Arnott whether he would waive a no-trade provision in his contract in order to go to a team that had a better chance of winning. After stints in Dallas and Nashville, where he became a captain, Arnott had returned to New Jersey with that same goal: Win a Cup.

But with the Devils still nine points out of the eighth spot as the deadline approached, Arnott said he would approve a deal with Washington. That gave McPhee a good idea he had a reasonable target in mind.

“If you have to talk the player into it,” McPhee said, “you’re going after the wrong guy.”

Arnott’s brother Wade serves as his agent, and Wade’s conversations with McPhee made it clear that the Capitals were looking for contributions in the dressing room as much as on the ice.

“You’re not going to have a lot of time to make your presence known,” Wade told him. “They want you to speak up as soon as you can.”

“Well, it’s difficult,” Arnott responded, well aware that superstar Alex Ovechkin was the captain. “It’s not my team. It’s Ovi’s team.”

In his very first game with the Capitals, at home against the lowly New York Islanders, Arnott was surprised at what he saw from such a talented group. Irresponsible decision-making, a lack of attention to detail — the failures of teams that can’t win in the playoffs. So in between the second and third periods, with the Capitals down 1-0, Arnott surprised even himself by speaking up.

“I just thought, ‘We’re not going anywhere playing like this,’ ” he said. “I thought: ‘You know what? I got to say something.’ I figured hell, I’ll throw it out there and see how they respond.”

Such a brash response from someone who had played just 40 minutes with his new club?

“Veteran guys, they know where they stand,” Capitals forward Eric Fehr said. “He knows that what he has to say is more valuable than a lot of other players.”

“He’s said some pretty key things here that have helped with a lot of things,” forward Jason Chimera said. “It means the world.”

That night, the Capitals came back to beat the Islanders in overtime, and no one, it appears, is rankled by Arnott asserting himself. During a practice before the Rangers series, Arnott plopped himself between Ovechkin, the outgoing captain, and Alexander Semin, the exceptionally talented but sometimes reticent winger, and talked at length. Arnott made it a point to establish a relationship with Semin, his linemate for much of his time here, early on.

“It was hard,” Arnott said. “It’s still hard. He’s a different guy.”

The result, though, has been tangible. Semin, a playoff disappointment the past two seasons, scored three goals against the Rangers.

“Semin’s been really exceptional since Jason arrived,” McPhee said. “It’s not a coincidence.”

Nor, the Capitals say, is it a coincidence that their swift victory over the Rangers – the first playoff series they have won in fewer than seven games since the core of this team was assembled — came with Arnott on the ice, and in the room. He has played 16 games in a Capitals sweater. Yet want the pulse of the Capitals, as they’re headed into the second round? Ask Jason Arnott.

“It feels like a lot more like we’re doing things correctly now than when I first got here,” Arnott said. “No question.”