Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Washington Capitals 2018-2019 Previews -- Forwards: Chandler Stephenson

Chandler Stephenson

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”
-- Wayne Gretzky

For the last six seasons, Jay Beagle was the pivot on the fourth line for the Washington Capitals.  A fine example of what hard work, despite his modest beginnings (undrafted), could accomplish.  Last spring he became the first player in NHL history to win a Kelly Cup (ECHL), Calder Cup (AHL), and Stanley Cup (NHL) in NHL history.  It says something of Beagle as a player and a person that few harbor any resentments that at the end of his championship season, he signed a contract as an unrestricted free agent with the Vancouver Canucks.

Beagle’s departure opens up a hole in the middle of the fourth line, one that could be filled by Chandler Stephenson this season.  Stephenson, if coming from beginnings not quite as modest as Beagle, has had to put in his time in apprenticeship to an NHL roster spot.  Caps fans might forget that he was drafted one spot ahead of Shayne Gostisbehere (third round/77th overall) in the 2012 draft), or that he played another two seasons in Canadian junior (Regina Pats).  He spent parts of four seasons with the Hershey Bears in the AHL, two of those seasons getting a taste of NHL action (13 games) with the Caps.

It came together for Stephenson in his first NHL game, that coming on October 26th against the Vancouver Canucks.  Late in the third period of that contest, Stephenson took a pass from Beagle at the red line, circled though the neutral zone and down the left side of the Canucks’ end.  Just before curling around the back of the net, he snapped a shot from the goal line extended to the left of goalie Anders Nilsson that snuck between the goalie and the near post for his first NHL goal and first NHL point.  We might have said “it all came together,” but the Caps lost the game, 6-2.

It was the first of 67 games Stephenson played last season, going 6-12-18, plus-13.  That he had six goals was something of an achievement (or an example of uncommon efficiency).  Among forwards dressing for at least 50 games last season, only Vegas’ Ryan Reaves averaged fewer shots on goal per game (0.53) than did Stephenson (0.54).  He was the only player, regardless of position, who had fewer than 40 shots on goal and more than five goals (San Jose’s Joel Ward had five goals on 40 shots).

Odd Stephenson Fact…

Chandler Stephenson is the first Capitals rookie in 20 years to record fewer than 40 shots and at least five goals.  Stephenson had six goals on 36 shots last season.   Jan Bulis had five goals on 37 shots as a rookie in 1997-1998.

Fearless’ Take…

It is not as if Chandler Stephenson has no history as a scorer.  In 230 games in Canadian junior he had 73 goals, including 30 in 69 games in his last year with the Regina Pats.  He had ten in 72 games in his last full season with the Hershey Bears, and in that season (2016-2017) he had 28 assists, fifth on the team.  He showed some ability to be a threat shorthanded with four shorthanded goals in 180 games at Hershey, and he had one last spring in the Caps’ playoff run, giving the Caps some insurance in the 6-3 series-clinching win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round.

Cheerless’ Take…

There was a weird “all-in or all-out” thing about Chandler Stephenson’s numbers.  The Caps were 8-1-0 in the nine games in which he had two shots on goal (he did not have more than that in any game), and they were 24-11-5 in the 40 games in which he did not have a shot on goal.  One shot?  They were 9-9-0.  And there was his ice time.  He averaged 11:52 per game last season.  In the 35 games he skated above his average, the Caps were 20-11-4.  In the 32 games he skated under his average, they were 21-10-1.  He might get a chance to be a little more of a difference-maker if he slides off the wing into Beagle’s spot in the middle of the fourth line.

Potential Milestones:
  • 100 career games played (he needs 20)
  • 50 career points (he needs 32)
  • 1,000 career minutes played (he needs 99)

The Big Question… Can Chandler Stephenson make the Caps “four-deep” in the middle with the departure of Jay Beagle?

Let’s face it, if you are contemplating whether a youngster can adequately fill in a fourth line center role, yours is a club without a lot of roster issues.  That said, Stephenson has to win that fourth line center role (he could, as he did for much of last season, play on the wing).  It is not a certainty.  He could be pressed by someone like Travis Boyd in camp or during the season for that role.  But Stephenson has played in the middle, and his numbers last year did suggest some potential to play it once more.  For example, he did not take a lot of faceoffs (on Beagle’s line, he would not have done so), but he did win 40 of 73 draws, a respectable 54.8 percent winning mark.  He averaged 1:10 in shorthanded ice time per game, one of five forwards to average more than a minute per game killing penalties.  He nearly doubled that in the postseason, averaging 2:01, second on the team (to Beagle).

In the end…

Their origins might differ, but there is some similarity in the early NHL career progress between Jay Beagle and Chandler Stephenson.  Beagle got his first sustained taste of NHL work in his third season (31 games, after a total of ten in his first two years), and so did Stephenson (67 games after a total of 13 over his first two seasons).  Both averaged around 11 minutes per game in what was their rookie season (Beagle – 10:30, Stephenson – 11:52).  Stephenson displayed more development as an offensive player than did Beagle (6-12-18 in 67 games of his rookie season to 2-1-3 in 31 games for Beagle in his). 

The picture that seems to be coming into focus is that Chandler Stephenson might not be the fully developed player (in terms of reaching his potential) that Jay Beagle was last season, but he might be ahead of where Beagle was at a comparable point in their development.  If Stephenson can continue upward on his development arc, he will fill the middle of the fourth line nicely.  But still, it might be nice if he shot the puck a little more.

Projection: 79 games, 7-14-21, plus-12

Photo: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images North America