T.J. Oshie brought home boxes and started the process of packing up the home he and his family have rented in Arlington for the past two years. It was early May, and the Capitals’ season had just ended in familiar and bitter fashion, leaving Oshie less than two months from unrestricted free agency. He wanted to re-sign with Washington, but he wasn’t blind to the big picture.
“We kind of just assumed that there wasn’t really enough salary cap space to stay,” he said. “We weren’t really planning on leaving, but we were just figuring we were going to have to find somewhere else.”
While Oshie was pondering the packing ahead, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan was conducting his end-of-season meetings. It was during those exit interviews that player after player campaigned for the team to retain Oshie.
They didn’t gush about his 33-goal season or the fact that he’s the first Capitals player other than Alex Ovechkin to score at least 30 goals since 2009-10. They figured his play had spoken for itself. Instead they focused on his constant positivity throughout the draining 82-game seasons and the vigor he brought to every shift on the ice. And they spoke of both in reverence.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played with a guy who has the combination of his talent on the ice and that energy,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I think he’s a guy — I don’t want to say impossible — but he’s pretty hard not to like.”
The steady stream of praise gave MacLellan plenty to think about and put the Capitals on the course for their most crucial decision of the summer. In Oshie, MacLellan felt he had a player who had the blue-collar attitude to inspire others around him while still possessing the skill to score, two ingredients the team has desperately needed as it has failed to advance past the postseason’s second round with Ovechkin on the team.
“We get in the playoffs, you notice him,” MacLellan said. “He brings you into the fight. He recognizes when the team’s a little flat, and he tries to go out and change the energy.”
But MacLellan also faced a complicated offseason picture with 11 players in a contract year and some due big pay raises, including Oshie, who would have been coveted by other teams as the top unrestricted free agent on the market. On June 23, Oshie signed a $46 million contract that will keep him in Washington through the 2024-25 season, four seasons longer than the current deal of Ovechkin. With that contract and because of his uncommon combination of talent and charisma, Oshie shifted from a peripheral piece and into the team’s core.
“You want as many of these guys as you can find,” MacLellan said.
How the team valued Oshie, who has six goals in 16 games this season, probably best could be seen in a later move made by MacLellan. To help accommodate the new salaries for Oshie and the team’s restricted free agents, the Capitals traded Marcus Johansson, a goal-scoring forward, for draft picks.
The message was clear. While the team liked Johansson, he was a complementary piece over his seven seasons in Washington. Oshie, in the two years since the Capitals acquired him from the St. Louis Blues, had become an indispensable part of its foundation.
A dynamic presence
Trading for Oshie before the 2015-16 season became one of the marquee moves of MacLellan’s three-year tenure as Capitals general manager. Washington had needed a top-line complement to Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom for years, and while Oshie may have started as their sidekick, the change of scenery helped him become a star in his own right.
Oshie rediscovered his creativity in Washington, and after never scoring more than 21 goals in St. Louis, he put up 26 in his first season with the Capitals. In his second year, his 33 goals matched Ovechkin for the team lead, even though Oshie played 14 fewer games. But the goals only accounted for part of Oshie’s value. He’s a threat on Washington’s top power-play unit, he kills penalties, and his two-way game is sophisticated enough for him to match up against opponents’ top goal-scorers in games.
“All-world skill, but he plays like a third- or a fourth-line player,” goaltender Braden Holtby said.
“How many guys do as many things as he does on the ice?” MacLellan asked. “He’s top of the league, I bet, in versatility.”
MacLellan scheduled the individual end-of-season meetings in order of age, starting with the oldest player. That meant Orpik was first, and while MacLellan didn’t ask everyone for an opinion on the team’s pending free agents, he wanted to know Orpik’s thoughts as one of Washington’s alternate captains.
“I think his energy and his personality is very infectious in the room, especially for an 82-game season,” Orpik said he told MacLellan. “You need guys like him. I think he leads by example, how he plays, and Mac obviously can see that, but it was kind of our job to let him know how important he was in the room and [how] big a part he was on the team off the ice, too.”
Holtby also spoke up to MacLellan, concerned the team couldn’t afford to lose another lively personality in the locker room after Jason Chimera signed with the New York Islanders two summers ago. “A lot with consistency has to do with the energy in our room,” he said.
The long NHL season stretches from the start of training camp in September through the Stanley Cup finals in June, with so many early mornings at the rink that it’s understandable to show up tired or in a bad mood on occasion. But Oshie is so consistently buzzing with joy that some Capitals have wondered whether he’s faking it at times.
“He’s always been that way,” said Lauren Oshie, T.J.’s wife. “I think that’s what attracted me to him when we first met.”
Lauren saw some of that spirit in Oshie’s father, Tim, who manages to crack jokes and get the room laughing even as he has battled an Alzheimer’s diagnosis for the past five years. When T.J. and Lauren learned their first child, Lyla, would be born with a condition called gastroschisis, a hole in the abdominal wall that causes a baby’s intestines to be outside of the body, it was T.J.’s positivity that helped ease Lauren’s high stress during the pregnancy.
“I really think a lot of it is just innate,” Lauren said.
Some of it was intentional and learned from Oshie’s previous stops in the NHL. As a 22-year-old rookie in St. Louis, Oshie overlapped with veteran Dan Hinote, whom Oshie credits for always holding a glass-half-full mentality.
“He was the guy in the locker room that I’m still trying to be now,” Oshie said.
“There’s a lot that goes into that,” said New York Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who played with Oshie in St. Louis and Washington. “It’s not always just being a guy who everyone likes. It’s being a guy who everyone respects. T.J. has always been a guy who just works hard in practice. He works hard in games — I don’t think anyone ever questions his work ethic. He holds guys accountable when they need to be held accountable, and he knows how to pick guys up as well. . . .
“I don’t think anything is going to change within T.J. when he’s 36 or 37. I think he’s still going to have that young, boyish personality and that lightheartedness that keeps guys up and keeps guys happy. He’s someone who can play until he’s 38, 39 years old.”
Facing the future in D.C.
When Oshie sat down for his end-of-season meeting with MacLellan, he expressed his desire to stay. Then as so many other players had that day, Oshie gave MacLellan his opinion.
“I thought it was realistic that we can have a real shot at a couple Stanley Cups,” he said.
The Capitals gave Oshie a maximum eight-year term because that helped get the salary cap hit, derived from the average annual value of the contract, down to something that would allow Washington future flexibility with its roster. Committing that many years to a 30-year-old is risky as goal-scorers typically decline at his age. But the team figured he would continue to be a top-line player for at least the first half of the contract, when Washington’s championship hopes are highest, and he could help establish a culture in the locker room with a roster that’s expected to get younger in the second half of his deal.
Oshie’s 23.1 shooting percentage was the highest in the league last season, well above his career average of 11.8 percent. MacLellan wasn’t concerned that may be a red flag for future regression in production because Oshie’s power-play position in front of the net provides him regular high-probability scoring opportunities.
“He has such a good release and shot from that area, and you have Backstrom and [Evgeny Kuznetsov] feeding you and Ovi behind you, so, I mean, are you going to have a normal shooting percentage?” MacLellan said.
The long-term ties to Washington hit home for Oshie when he considered that by the time his new contract expires, his daughters, Lyla and Leni, will be 11 and 9, respectively, having spent the bulk of their childhood here even after Oshie spent seven seasons in St. Louis.
“That’s the crazy part,” he said.
The fan base has embraced his family, with Lauren Oshie’s Instagram account boasting roughly 166,000 followers. In the same way, the Oshies have fallen hard for the D.C. area. Lyla takes local ballet and gymnastics classes, and she is in nursery school with Haley Backstrom, Nicklas’s daughter. T.J. still slows down every time he drives by the White House on his way to Washington’s downtown arena.
The boxes he brought home in May for a potential move are still in the garage, and the Oshies still will have to pack soon. They bought a house in McLean and plan to move there in February.
“D.C. is our home now,” Oshie said.
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