"Honor lies in honest toil."
-- Grover Cleveland
In six seasons with the Washington Capitals, Jay Beagle has seen his workload increase: three games in 2008-2009, then seven, 31, 41, 48, and finally 62 games played last season. Until last season his ice time exhibited a similar increase: 7:36, 9:16, 10:30, 11: 51, and 12:06 before dropping back to 11:15 last season
That is not bad for a guy who was undrafted and who spent all of part of four seasons with the Hershey Bears in the AHL before making the big club for good. On the other hand, Beagle has never had a ten-point season in the NHL. He is a fourth liner who does not play special teams much, a total of 255 minutes in 192 regular season games, almost all of it penalty killing (about 1:15 a night over his career).
There is little about Beagle’s resume that stands out. Aside from being an infrequent point-getter, he does not take a lot of penalties, but he takes fewer. For example, his ratio of penalties taken/60 minutes to penalties drawn/60 minutes at 5-on-5 last season was second worst on the team among forwards playing in at least 20 games.
That said, what Jay Beagle was last season, as he has been over his six seasons in the NHL is a guy who puts in an honest day’s effort, even if his production is modest.
Even when he is called upon to play on the top line. Last March 16th someone thought it would be a great idea to pair Beagle and Alex Ovechkin. OK, that someone was then head coach Adam Oates, so it became a fact. At the 15:53 mark of the second period in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the puck was shot into the netting to stop play. On the ensuing faceoff, Oates put Beagle out with Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson. From that point through the Caps’ April 1st contest against Dallas, Beagle and Ovechkin skated together on 113 shifts with one of Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, or Mikhail Grabovski on the top line (shifts with Dustin Penner were excluded as not being a scoring forward). The Caps were outshot, 43-28, over those shifts and outscored, 2-0. The Caps went 3-2-3 in the eight games that Beagle and Ovechkin were paired in this way. It seemed the best spin head coach Adam Oates could put on that experiment was “I thought that line hasn’t hurt us.”
In the traditional formulation of forward lines, you want the first and second line to score, the third line to prevent scoring, and the fourth line to provide energy (a euphemism for crash and bang hockey) and/or do no harm. Take that penalties thing. He has taken only one major penalty in his career, that being a five-minute major for fighting (it didn’t end well for Beagle). Only four times in 192 games has he taken more than one minor penalty in a game. He has never taken a double minor penalty in the NHL. In other words, he doesn’t play stupid, which is more than a fair number of players in his role can say.
Uh, cuz…about that “do no harm” thing. Beagle doesn’t get a lot of ice time, and almost all of it was at 5-on-5 last year. He had the worst ratio of goals for to goals against on ice at 5-on-5 of any Capital forward who played in at least 20 games (11 for/20 against). The Caps allowed 157 5-on-5 goals last year, 12.7 percent of them when Beagle was on the ice. He was 351st of 435 league forwards playing 20 games or more in goals against per 60 minutes. He is not a Selke candidate, but it is hard to think of him as any more than a fourth liner, either.
The Big Question… Is Beagle a keeper?
Jay Beagle is in the last year of a three-year contract that carries a $900,000 cap hit. As contracts go it is unspectacular, either as a bargain (it’s not) or as an overpayment. According to capgeek.com his comparables in age (26-30; Beagle is 28) and cap hit ($850-950,000) include: Kyle Chipchura, Richard Clune, Jesse Winchester, and Jesse Joensuu. None of these five players were a member of a playoff team last season.
It suggests that players at this age, level of play, and compensation are interchangeable. That is an indelicate way of putting it, but the fact is that there are a lot more players available at this level of play than there are among scoring line forwards. Given his experience, it would seem that it is entirely likely that Beagle will start and end the season as a Capital.
In the end…
The Capitals have a fair number of unsettled roster issues – who plays second line center, which side Ovechkin plays on, how the defensemen will be paired. Who plays on the fourth line might not get a lot of attention, but there is a potential battle shaping up there. Beagle, Chris Brown, and Michael Latta will compete for a spot on that line, and all of them can play center.
Beagle has the advantage of experience (192 games to 17 each for Brown and Latta). He is also a good faceoff man (54.2 percent over his career, 51.7 percent last season). Neither Beagle nor Latta are waiver-exempt;Brown is (for another 52 games, anyway). None are likely to raise eyebrows at the offensive end. The battle might turn on which of the three can play adequate defense and contribute on the penalty kill.
Beagle’s ascent through the Capitals’ system was slow and steady after he was signed as a free agent in March 2008. In 2012-2013 he finally had a chance to play in every regular season game, albeit in an abbreviated season (48 games). Last year he was a scratch in 20 of the Caps first 25 games. It is worth noting that Latta played in 15 of the 20 games in which Beagle was scratched.
That was a different time under a different coach, though. Which is to say that Beagle seems likely to be in a fight for playing time, even if it is as a fourth line forward. Honest work has served him well so far; it appears Jay Beagle has some more ahead of him.
Projection: 52 games, 4-4-8, minus-4
Photo: Greg Fiume, Getty Images