Like fishing trips and memories of past relationships, sports lore is littered with stories of "the one that got away" - the champion-to-be that left (or was run out of) town too soon. Here in Washington, that "one" is undeniably Scott Stevens, who departed D.C. back in the summer of 1990 when the Caps chose not to match the offer sheet to which the St. Louis Blues signed the then-restricted free agent, making him the highest-paid blueliner in hockey. Stevens would go on to lead the New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cup Championships, while we in Washington still wait for our first.
And while the bounty the Caps received in return for letting Stevens go is still showing up on the Capitals roster two decades later, the legacy of Scott Stevens has the potential to make another lasting impression on the Caps this spring... via Jason Arnott.
Arnott, who was acquired from the Devils four weeks ago at the trade deadline, has already established himself as precisely the kind of veteran leader which the Caps were lacking. Consider this, from his first post-game scrum as a Cap:
"They brought me in for a reason, to speak up in the room, and there are certain things we have to address if we want to go forward. If these guys want to win there's a lot of things that we need to address and play a lot better than we did tonight.
"If that means me speaking up and guys don't like it, that's what I've got to do," Arnott said. "I think they brought me in here for my experience with stuff and I saw a lot of things tonight that we can do a lot better and I'm sure everybody knows that. We've got to talk it over and go out and do it together."
Arnott has been vocal on and off the ice. Heck, he's even talked to Alexander Semin (and coaxed out some of the Russian winger's best games of the season). As important as Arnott is to solving the Caps' second-line center concerns on the ice, he might be even more important to this team in the locker room.
Which brings us back to Stevens. You see, Scott Stevens may have saved Jason Arnott's career.
As Sherry Ross of The Daily News wrote back in June of 2000:
He arrived in New Jersey a 6-4, 225-pound, 23-year-old, already a father himself, but still something of a little boy lost.
But Jason Arnott has found the right father figure for himself in Devils captain Scott Stevens.
Booed out of Edmonton after five seasons - including a rookie season in which he vied with the Devils' own Martin Brodeur for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year - Arnott was disillusioned with the game and was bereft of the joy that hockey had always brought him.
"I saw a person that just wasn't enjoying hockey at all," said Stevens of Arnott, who was acquired from the Oilers for Bill Guerin on Jan. 4, 1998. "We talked a lot and he would ask me, 'How do you get up for games?' Here was a guy that was young asking me that, and that's just not right. But that's how tough it was for him coming from that environment and having to really find his game again."
You would never know now how close Arnott came to slipping off the hockey map.
The "now" in that last sentence? Just a few days before Arnott would score in double overtime of Game 6 to win the Stanley Cup for the Devils.
As recently as two years ago, Arnott credited Stevens when talking about his own leadership:
"I try to take a little bit from every captain that I've been with, Scotty probably the most just because I had a chance to live with him for a little bit and we did a lot of things together," Arnott said Monday.
"We hunted together a lot and drove to the rink together every game. You don't really realize how much you learn because you don't think you're learning from it.
"But now that I look back, I take little bits of what he had to say, how he worked every night and how he conducted himself. You look back and you pick up on those things. So I'm really glad I had that opportunity to be with him and learn from him."
As the Capitals prepare for what they hope is a deep playoff run this spring, they have addressed with Jason Arnott what has been their most glaring deficiency for the past couple of seasons, namely the lack of a legitimate second-line center. But it's possible they did something else with that trade. In Jason Arnott, the leader, they may have brought back to D.C. a big piece of "the one that got away."
(Stick tap to sk84fun_dc for putting the bug in my ear on this one.)