“There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing.”
-- Robert Burns
According to capfriendly.com, the Washington Capitals have 14 forwards under contract on the parent club. Of this number, three were signed this offseason as unrestricted free agents, Richard Panik and Garnet Hathaway to four year contracts, and Brendan Leipsic to a one-year deal. Combined, the three players encumber $4.95 million of an $81.5 million salary cap. To that add Carl Hagelin and the four-year contract he received this summer after his acquisition late in the 2018-2019 season.
Messages were being sent – the bottom six needs to get better, and we (Capitals management) have taken action to make that happen. One imagines that message was not lost on Chandler Stephenson (not that he would be alone in this regard), a 25-year old veteran of four seasons with the Caps, two of which he was a full-time player, including the Stanley Cup season of 2017-2018. That Stephenson would need to have a message sent is a reflection of a 2018-2019 season that was a regression from a respectable 2017-2018 rookie season. His games played were almost unchanged (down from 67 to 64), but his top end production was off. He did maintain almost the same goal scoring level (down one, from six to five), but his points were down substantially (from 18 to 11), and he flipped a sign on his plus-minus, going from plus-13 in 2017-2018 to minus-13 last season.
Odd Stephenson Fact…
In 2018-2019, Chandler Stephenson became only the 16th player in NHL history to appear in at least 60 games and log no penalty minutes. He was the first to do it since Butch Goring logged no penalty minutes in 78 games in the 1980-1981 season.
Bonus Odd Stephenson Fact…
The Capitals were 18-10-3 in games in which Chandler Stephenson recorded at least one shot on goal, 18-11-4 in games in games in which he did not.
Stephenson brings a certain diligence to his game that reflects itself in a number that gets buried among so many others. In four seasons with the Caps he has never had more giveaways than takeaways, and over 144 games, his takeaway-to-giveaway ratio of 1.64-to-1 is extraordinary. He is one of only nine forwards over the last four seasons to log more than 45 takeaways and fewer than 30 giveaways.
You score, you win. Makes sense, right? So how did the Caps got 2-3-0 in games in which Stephenson scored a goal last year and 5-4-1 in games in which he had a point? Shoot, they lost the only game he had two points. And it isn’t as if that was unusual. Even in 2017-2018, the Caps were 2-3-0 in the five games in which he had goals, although they were 11-5-0 in games in which he had a point. Then there were the playoffs last season. No points, three shots on goal in 60 minutes of ice time in six games.
- 200 career NHL games (144; he needs 56)
The Big Question… When the puck drops on October 2nd, will there be a roster spot for Chandler Stephenson?
The Capitals are currently carrying 14 forwards on a parent roster that has a total salary cap hit of almost $82.9 million (capfriendly.com). They have to get down to $81.5 million or lower by Opening Night. Chandler Stephenson carries a $1.05 million cap hit, not enough to solve the Caps’ problem if it was moved, but it could be combined with another player in a deal that could solve the problem. There are other personnel actions the team could take to try to relieve themselves of Stephenson’s burden on the cap, but the point is that with the Caps having made a number of acquisitions in the off-season to upgrade the bottom six forwards, or at least generate more competition (Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway, Brendan Leipsic), and Stephenson being a holdover from last season's group, he would seem to warrant attention as a player whose situation is in flux.
It might not be as simple as that, however. It is difficult to say with certainty that a player who just turned 25 years old last April has reached his peak. And while Stephenson has not displayed a lot of offense in his brief career to date, he has had substantial penalty killing responsibility over the last two seasons (fifth in average shorthanded ice time (1:32 per game) among returning forwards). And, he and Nic Dowd are the only Caps having taken at least 150 draws over the last two seasons with a winning percentage over 50 percent. He is also responsible with the puck, although his possession numbers are not impressive. He could be a part of the competitive mix in training camp, but he could be a victim of the hard realities of the hard salary cap ceiling, too.
In the end…
Of the 12 forwards to dress for the Caps on the night they clinched the Stanley Cup in June 2018, eight remain. Chandler Stephenson is one of them. There is always going to be a romantic attachment by fans to players who skated in that game, but Jay Beagle, Andre Burakovsky, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Brett Connolly have departed from that team. Constant and frequent roster turnover is a persistent theme in the NHL, especially given salary cap considerations. Certain the cap played a role in Connolly and Beagle leaving. While Chandler Stephenson carries a relatively modest burden, and his contract is up at the end of this season (whereupon he will be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent), he could get caught up in the unforgiving math of the cap as much as the competition for a bottom-six forward slot. His situation might be the most uncertain one of any roster player in camp. These are life and career decisions for players over which they lack control, but it is why managers are paid the big bucks. Caps fans will hope that Chandler Stephenson makes the decisions the Caps will consider as hard as possible.
Projection: 19 games, 2-2-4, minus-1
Photo: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images North America