Theme: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald
A decade is an eternity in an athlete’s career, and much can happen – the good, the bad, the unexpected. Eric Fehr has had his share of ups and downs and unexpected turns in his career over the last decade. At this time ten years ago, Fehr was a newly minted first round draft choice of the Washington Capitals, about to embark on what would be his third season with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League. It was one in which he would finish with 50 goals in 71 games. He would follow it up with 59 goals in the 2004-2005 season with Brandon and establish himself as a potential goal-scoring winger with the Capitals.
In the 2005-2006 season Fehr spent most of his time with the Capitals’ affiliate in the AHL, the Hershey Bears, getting a cup o’ coffee along the way (11 games) in Washington along the way. He made himself a hero of sorts when he scored the game-winning, series-clinching goal in the Calder Cup semi-finals against the Portland Pirates. Hershey would go on to win the Calder Cup.
Then, things took a turn. A series of injuries limited Fehr to 37 games in Washington and 51 games in Hershey over the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 seasons. In his 37 games in Washington he could manage only a total of three goals. He returned in better health for the 2008-2009 season but recorded only 11 goals in 61 games in what was primarily a checking line role.
Fehr had what might have been a breakout year in 2009-2010 when he posted 21 goals in 69 games, but that would only be the high-water mark of his career with the Caps. After finishing the 2010-2011 season with ten goals in 52 games, he was traded to Winnipeg for Danick Paquette and a 2012 fourth round draft choice.
That might have been the end of it, especially when Fehr could manage only two goals in 35 games with the Jets, once again battling injuries that stifled any momentum he could generate for his game. However, the 2012 lockout came. Fehr, like many of his NHL counterparts, took to playing in Europe. Fehr signed on with HPK in Finland. It served to rejuvenate his game and his career. Thirteen goals in 21 games was enough to persuade the Caps to offer Fehr a contract as a free agent, a deal the player signed in January 2013 on the eve of the new, late-starting NHL season.
Fehr recorded a respectable nine goals in 41 games, despite little power play time (0:49/game) and primarily third line time at even strength. What highlighted his year were two game-winning goals, both in overtime, and both against the Boston Bruins. The first of them was nominated as a “play of the year” by TSN Canada…
For the first time in what seems like a long time, Eric Fehr has a place he can call his own that does not resemble the dog house in which he often seemed to inhabit under former coach Bruce Boudreau. He will almost certainly start the season on the right side of the third line. The Fun Fehr Fact from last season is that the Caps were 8-0-0 in games in which Fehr recorded a goal (he had two in a 4-3 win in Tampa on Valentine’s Day).
Fehr’s evolution as a hockey player has made him, if not exactly a Selke candidate, a respectable and responsible player in his own end. Last season, among forwards playing in at least 20 games, Fehr was 77th of 395 forwards in goals scored against/on ice per 60 minutes (source: behindthenet.ca). He has been consistently in that range over the past four seasons.
And, in the little things make a difference category (even if they are arbitrary), Fehr had the best takeaway to giveaway ratio on the team last season (23 takeaways, 9 giveaways). Fehr has the makeup to be a solid two-way forward for the Caps. Not, perhaps, a top-goal scorer any longer, but a reliable 15-20 goal scorer. Not, perhaps, a stopper on defense, but a player who will give a solid and consistent effort in that area.
Have we been here before? He has had what looked like a breakout year once before, then had 12 goals in his next 87 games. He has come back from injury before, only to be injured again. Last year was his first season in which he was even on a pace for a 70-game season. Those 15-20 goals might depend on his getting 75 or more games, given the way the Caps look like they are going to use him. You want to take that bet, cuz?
The Big Question… Can Eric Fehr be a reliable source of offensive support?
Put another way, is he past the oft-injured phase of his career. Fehr has settled into a role for the Caps, one that will likely find him getting 12-14 minutes a night (he averaged 13:22 last season), primarily on evens, although he will get some second unit work on both power play and penalty kill. If you look at last year’s performance of those forwards who played in at least half of their team’s games and averaged ice time up to a minute more or less than Fehr’s average, Fehr was the seventh most productive goal-scoring forward among 70 players. He has the capacity to provide some punch from the third line. The lingering question will be whether he is on the ice often enough to do so.
In the end…
Eric Fehr has taken a long road since he was taken 18th overall in the 2003 draft. It has not been butterflies and unicorns. However, his persistence was rewarded with a two-year contract extension that will pay him $1.5 million a year for the next two seasons. Looking at capgeek.com information on contracts, if you look at Fehr’s salary cap comparables who: a) are 25 or older, and b) have deals starting in 2013, five players emerge: Matt Beleskey, Trevor Lewis, Nate Thompson, Drew Miller, and Ryan Jones. At a minimum Fehr compares favorably with the others in terms of his offensive production last season and over their respective careers.
The 2013-2014 season is the next scene in Fehr’s second act with the Washington Capitals. So far, he has given evidence of contradicting Fitzgerald’s observation about such things in American lives. Then again, Fehr is Canadian.
Projection: 66 games, 14-11-25, plus-6
photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America