Theme: “Well, there are some things a man just can't run away from.”
-- Henry, The Ringo Kid (John Wayne in “Stagecoach”)
When the contract of Matt Hendricks expired with the end of the 2013 season, it was apparent that he would not be resigned to a new deal by the Washington Capitals. Hendricks established himself as a fan favorite, his “Paralyzer” shootout move delighting crowds, his stand-up attitude gaining the respect of players and fans alike. But he was also a fourth liner who was not likely to get more than ten minutes or so of ice time on an average night and was not likely to be more than a 10-15 point a season player. Given his age (32), the hard miles put upon his body, even over only 263 regular season games, and his likely asking price (he signed a four-year deal in Nashville for $1.85 million a year), returning to Washington was a long shot at best.
And that brings us to Aaron Volpatti. Four years younger than Hendricks, with only 71 games of NHL experience, and (perhaps most important) with only a $575,000 salary cap hit through the 2014-2015 season with the two-year contract extension he signed last April (itself a hint that Hendricks would not be re-upped), Volpatti now assumes the role of agitator, provocateur, grinder, occasional pugilist that was filled by Hendricks. As for his replacing “The Paralyzer” in the trick shot competition, don’t count on it. He has not yet taken a turn in the Gimmick as an NHL’er.
Volpatti skated a path similar to that of Hendricks to get to this point in his career. Both are products of four-year careers in NCAA schools, Hendricks at St. Cloud State, Volpatti at Brown University. Both had brief introductions to the AHL when their final NCAA seasons ended, Hendricks with the Milwaukee Admirals, Volpatti with the Manitoba Moose. This is where the paths diverge a bit, though. Hendricks knocked around the AHL for another five seasons – Lowell, Rochester, Hershey, Providence, and Lake Erie (with a stay in Florida of the ECHL included). Volpatti spent a little less than a full season at Manitoba in 2010-2011 - 53 games there, with another 15 with the Vancouver Canucks in the NHL – before sticking with the Canucks permanently (if not full time; he played in only 23 games due to a shoulder injury) in 2011-2012.
Earlier this season, at the end of February, Volpatti was claimed off waivers by the Caps. He played in only 17 games for the Caps out of 29 for which he was available. It took him a while to get started with the Caps. He had as many fights (one) as shots on goal (one) in his first eight games with Washington. Not that he was getting much ice time; he averaged less than eight minutes a game over those first eight contests.
His ice time picked up in the last nine games of the season he played for the Caps – almost 11 minutes a game – but he did not record a point and had nine shots on goal. He finished 0-1-1, minus-2, averaging 9:18 of ice time a game.
The extent to which Volpatti gets ice time would seem to bear a direct relationship to his propensity to play with a physical edge. That does not necessarily mean dropping the gloves. In his first season with Vancouver he led all forwards in hits per game, even though he appeared in only 15 games. The following season he was second (minimum ten games played). Last season, up to his being waived, he again led the Canucks. One might say with some confidence that hits are something of an arbitrary statistic, but given his rank among teammates, you might expect that the observational bias would be similar among teammates.
Volpatti has given no sign of contributing much, if any offense from the fourth line. Yeah, he has only 71 games played in the NHL, but by the time he played in 71 NHL games, the guy Volpatti is replacing (Matt Hendricks) was 10-9-19. Volpatti is 3-2-5 and has twice as many penalty minutes (88) as shots on goal (44). No one expects the fourth line to contribute much on offense, but it can’t be a dry well, either.
The Big Question… Will Aaron Volpatti be anything more than a patch this season?
The top two lines are largely set for the Caps. The third line could be a Brooks Laich-Mathieu Perreault-Eric Fehr production. That leaves Jason Chimera and Volpatti to work things out on the fourth line at left wing. Chimera would appear to have the inside track on that spot, but he slumped so much on offense last season, it might sound alarms about how large his contributions might be. The thing is, neither Chimera nor Volpatti play much, if at all, on special teams, so it comes down to 5-on-5 production. Volpatti is going to struggle to get a sweater on this team, absent injury or a personnel move. If he is going to blossom, he is going to have to hit the ice skating to make an impression.
In the end…
It is hard to see how Volpatti plays more than a handful of games and/or makes an impact when he does. He has displayed little in the way of being an offensive threat, is a hitter but not necessarily a fighter (probably an overrated skill in this NHL these days). His contributions are going to be the kinds of things that do not show up in box scores. He is likely to be the prototypical “energy” player who is difficult for other teams to play against. He is going to have to show some skill in the defensive end to make up for his offensive shortcomings. It is not an easy way to make a living in professional hockey, even if there are just some things a man can’t run away from.
Projection: 26 games, 1-1-2, minus-3
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images North America