"Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead."
-- Dabbs Greer
In the post-championship haze of celebration, it is easy to forget the contributions of players who might have played support roles in the path to victory. Ten players played in fewer than 25 regular season games this season for the Washington Capitals. We already covered one in Michal Kempny, owing to his importance down the stretch and in the postseason. Here are the ten in order of games played:
Even without Kempny’s contributions, the other nine combined for what would be a respectable season’s worth of games (71) and went a combined 3-9-12, plus-8, averaging more than 11 minutes of ice time per game. As a group those contributions are not inconsequential, and each of the nine deserves some mention.
Taylor Chorney came into his eighth season having played 73 games in two seasons with the Caps, going 2-9-11, plus-16 in the process. Chorney, who spent much of his career on the fringes of getting playing time, often in the role of a seventh defenseman, appeared in 24 of the first 57 games of the season for the Caps, going 1-3-4, plus-8. That plus-minus added to a strange, if impressive run for Chorney. In the last three seasons, his plus-24 in aggregate was 12th-best on the team in that span, despite his playing far fewer games (97, including this season) than any other player on the list (Nate Schmidt was a plus-34 in 132 games). Chorney was waived on February 21st with the intention of assigning him to the Hershey Bears in the AHL if he cleared, but he was claimed by the Columbus Blue Jackets. He appeared in just one game for Columbus and signed with HC Lugano of the National League in Switzerland.
The Capitals were in the market for defensemen at the trading deadline, and while Michal Kempny’s acquisition at that time was more consequential, the Caps did pick up another defenseman. Washington traded a fifth-round draft pick to the Montreal Canadiens for Jakub Jerabek on February 21st. Jerebek, who played in 25 games for the Canadiens in what was his rookie season, played in 11 games for the Caps, matching his scoring line with Montreal precisely (1-3-4, minus-1). All of his scoring with the Caps came in his last seven games he played in. The Caps were successful with Jerabek on the ice, going 9-2-0 in his 11 games. He started the first two games of the postseason for the Caps, both overtime losses to Columbus, but he was scratched for the duration, Christian Djoos replacing him in the lineup. He ended the season an unrestricted free agent.
Travis Boyd’s long climb to the NHL bore fruit in 2017-2018. Drafted in the sixth round of the 2011 entry draft by the Caps, Boyd spent four years with the University of Minnesota and three more with the Hershey Bears in the AHL before this season. After starting this season with the Bears, Boyd made his NHL debut on December 4th against the San Jose Sharks. After a second game with the Caps, he would be sent back to Hershey, but he came up for six more games as the season was winding down. He made his first NHL playoff appearance in the series-clinching Game 6 against Pittsburgh in the second round, playing 12 minutes and change in the contest. Boyd is in the Caps’ fold for two more seasons before his current contract expires at the end of the 2019-2020 season.
It might surprise Caps fans to know that it has been ten years since Aaron Ness was drafted, taken with the 40th overall pick (second round) by the New York Islanders in 2008. From 2011-2012 through 2013-2014, Ness split time between the Islanders and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, playing in 29 games with the parent club. He signed with the Caps as a free agent in July 2016 and has played in 18 regular season games with Washington over three seasons, including eight games this season. Unfortunately, it cannot be said that his presence filled a gap adequately. The Caps were just 3-4-1 in the eight games in which he appeared. He did not dress for the Caps after a November 7th game against Buffalo.
Some players acquire a following based on their performance, others on their unique circumstances. For Nathan Walker it might be more a case of the latter, an player born in Wales and raised in Australia in the National Hockey League. And then there was Walker’s roundabout experience this season. He started in the Caps organization and even made his NHL debut for the club, playing in seven games early in the season. He was placed on waivers in late November, from which he was claimed by the Edmonton Oilers. He did not dress for the Oilers before he was placed on waivers once more and claimed by the Caps. He did not play for the Caps over the remainder of the regular season, spending it with the Hershey Bears. However, he did manage to get into one postseason game for the Caps, recording an assist in the Caps’ Game 6, series-clinching win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. Walker has one more season on his current contract with the Caps.
Tyler Graovac was not the last player taken in the 2011 entry draft, but he could see that spot from where he was picked – 191st among 211 players taken – selected by the Minnesota Wild. He eventually made it all the way, playing three seasons for the Wild in which he had seven goals and nine points in 57 games. He was traded to the Capitals by the Wild for a fifth round pick in the 2018 entry draft (Minnesota selected Damien Giroux). He appeared in just five games with Washington, recording no points and a minus-3, his last game being November 30th. He spent most of the year in Hershey with the Bears, where he went 12-17-29, minus-5, in 53 games.
Shane Gersich might have been only a fifth-round pick of the Caps in the 2014 entry draft, but after scoring 43 goals in 117 games over three seasons with the University of North Dakota in the NCAA, one might have had a greater sense of anticipation when Gersich was signed to a two-year contract last march. He made his NHL debut on March 28th, against the New York Rangers, and appeared in three games down the stretch of the regular season, recording his first NHL point, an assist in the Caps’ season-ending 5-3 win over the New Jersey Devils. He got into two postseason games, both in the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he did not record a point in getting less than six minutes of ice time in each game.
It seems like forever ago that Liam O’Brien was a surprise in the Opening Night lineup against Montreal in October 2014. He played in 13 games that season before being sent down to Hershey, and he has had a hard time making the return trip to Washington. This season, he appeared in three games without recording a point, but he did make his presence felt in his last game with the Caps this year. He dropped the gloves with Pittsburgh’s Ryan Reaves in a 4-1 win over the Penguins on November 10th. He was assigned to Hershey the following day and played the rest of the season there.
When you played in 140 NHL games, logging less than 850 minutes (5:56 a game), your role is not one of scoring goals. Anthony Peluso was that player over four seasons for the Winnipeg Jets before he came to Washington as a free agent last July. He did not add to his career total of four goals with the Caps. Then again, he appeared in only two games, those on the Caps’ annual tour of western Canada. He played less than five minutes in both and did not record a point in a win and a loss. He ended the season as an unrestricted free agent.
In the end…
Some players among the chorus contribute more than others. Michal Kempny became a lesser hero with the stability he provided on the Caps’ second defensive pair (with John Carlson) and his postseason performance. At the other end, a player like Anthony Peluso gets two early season games and is not heard from again. But we are still talking about some of the best practitioners of their craft on the planet. And in that respect, that quote from the late character actor Dabbs Greer takes meaning. Even character actors – bit players, if you will – play their role. Even for a championship team.