A little while ago, Eric Fehr was the subject of an essay in these spaces, the focus being the ability of the Washington Capitals winger-turned-center to pressure opponents into offensive zone turnovers. It's an interesting reminder of just how far a journey Eric Fehr has taken to become the sort of player who makes a living "forcing opponents to keep their heads on a swivel when he's on the ice."
Think about it. A dozen years ago, Fehr was finishing up his second year with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League. He would do so with 26 goals in 70 games, a big improvement for Fehr over his 2001-2002 season at Brandon in which he scored 11 goals in 63 games. His sophomore season at Brandon got the attention of NHL scouts, but Fehr would go into the 2003 draft as the second-highest ranked member of his Wheat Kings squad, 15th among North American skaters in the NHL Central Scouting final ranking of skaters while teammate Ryan Stone finished with a 12th-place ranking.
The Capitals, to perhaps the surprise of fans and draft analysts alike, selected Fehr with the 18th-overall pick in the first round of the 2003 entry draft, before such higher ranked amateur skaters as Rimouski's Marc-Antoine Poulliot, Sarnia's Dan Fritsche, and his own teammate, Stone. Oh, and Calgary's Ryan Getzlaf, a point of frustration with many Caps fans over the years.
Fehr made the Caps look good in his final two seasons with the Wheat Kings, scoring 109 goals in 142 games and hitting or surpassing the 50-goal mark in each season. From the perspective of a Caps fan looking forward, Fehr looked as if he would be the scoring forward to eventually replace Peter Bondra, who had been traded to the Ottawa Senators in February 2004 after a 14-year career in Washington.
His climb up the organizational ladder continued in the 2005-2006 season in Hershey with the Bears, the Capitals' AHL affiliate. He took that next rung surely and smoothly, posting 25 goals in 70 regular season games and getting 11 games with the Capitals (no points). He played in another 19 games in the AHL post-season, scoring eight goals, including one of the most memorable goals in recent Bears' history. In Game 7 of the Calder Cup semifinals against the Portland Pirates, a team that would add NHL'ers Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner for this game after their Anaheim Ducks were eliminated days earlier, Fehr scored the overtime winner to send the Bears to the Calder finals, where they would win their ninth Calder Cup.
The trouble with journeys is that the road might be narrow, but rarely are they straight. That would become true in spades for Fehr starting in the following season. He seemed to barely miss a beat at the start of the 2006-2007 season. He had seven goals in his first 16 games before being called up to the Caps over the Thanksgiving holiday for two games. Upon returning to the Bears he recorded 12 more goals in 24 games before he was called up once more by the Caps in late January.
In his first game after his second recall, he scored his first NHL goal, the game-winner in a 7-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. It might have been the high point of his 2006-07 season... one that came to an end less than a month later, when he developed a herniated disc in his back that would keep him out of action for almost a year. He returned to the ice for the Hershey Bears in January of the 2007-08 season, then earned another call-up to the Caps at the end of the month, where he scored one goal in 23 games with the Caps to close the regular season and added another in five post-season games in the Caps' seven-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
That loss to the Flyers started a cold and dark portion of Fehr's evolution as a player. He had surgery on both shoulders in the off-season. Whatever the nature of the effect - physical, mental, the long recuperation taking its toll or a comination of the three - it was significant, and not in a good way. Fehr scored just three goals in his first 29 games of the 2008-2009 season and seemed to spend most of his time trying to find the exit from head coach Bruce Boudreau's doghouse.
It would become the routine for Fehr over three seasons - show glimpses of his goal-scoring potential (43 goals in 182 games, almost a 20-goal pace per 82 games), then end up back in the press box... or be out with an injury. He reinjured his right shoulder in a collision with teammate David Steckel, dislocating his right shoulder joint and tearing his labrum, missing almost two months before returning, but his season was essentially done. Fehr scored two goals in his first game back from the injury but did not score again in his last ten regular season games and scored one goal in five games of the postseason.
Once thought of as a player with a top-line scoring-winger upside, Fehr was reduced to an injury-prone, inconsistent, infrequent player on a club that had a lot of offense in other areas. It made him expendable. And when the Caps were faced with having to make moves to comply with the league's salary cap, he was traded to the Winnipeg Jets for a mid-level (at the time) prospect.
Heading back home was not the tonic it might have been for Fehr. He missed 19 games at the start of the 2011-2012 season recuperating from surgery and missed the last 11 games of the season to an upper-body injury. In between, he managed just two goals in 35 games with the Jets. What was a once-promising career as a top-line goal scorer when he was drafted at age 17 in 2003 was now, if not in tatters, then certainly a disappointment at age 26.
Then came a blessing in disguise: the NHL lockout of 2012.
After his difficult 2011-2012 season and injury history, Fehr (as an unrestricted free agent) might have started the year without employment. However, with the 2012-2013 season failing to start on time, a lot of players were looking for work, and for Fehr that meant signing as a free agent with HPK Hameenlinna in the Finnish league. In 21 games in Finland, Fehr had 13 goals, one more than he scored in his previous two seasons in the NHL with Washington and Winnipeg combined.
His contributions in Finland (which were honored by his rabid Finnish fans) put him back on the Caps' radar, and they signed Fehr to a contract in January 2013. But he came back to the Capitals a different player than the one envisioned almost a decade earlier - no longer a prospect with a goal-scoring touch, Fehr was now a bottom-six forward who would have to earn his keep by using other skills at his disposal. He was still able to chip in, scoring nine goals in 41 games, but it was done primarily as a checking line winger.
However, while his profile as a productive scoring line forward appeared to be receding into the past, he was developing other parts of his resume. For one, his possession numbers were very good for the Caps in the 2012-2013 season. His 51.8 Corsi-for percentage at even strength was third among forwards playing in at least 25 games; his relative Corsi-for of +5.2% was second among those forwards. He was even better in close score 5-on-5 situations, leading the team in Corsi-for (52.1 percent) and Corsi-for/Relative (+6.2) among forwards.
He also fine-tuned his ability to come through in the clutch. He already wrote a chapter in the franchise's history when he scored what would be the game-winning and insurance goals in the Capitals' win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2011 Winter Classic. But in 2012-13, his nine goals revealed some interesting dimensions to his play. All nine of his goals came in games won by the Caps (8-0-0; he scored twice against the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 6-5 overtime win on April 13). Four of his goals came in tied-game situations, two of them being overtime winners (both against the Boston Bruins).
It might have seemed as if Eric Fehr's metamorphosis from scoring line forward to checking line forward with an ability to chip in timely goals was complete. It was not. Head coach Adam Oates went to training camp with the idea of making Fehr a center, a position that would be entirely new to him, and slotted him in between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward on the team's checking line. While it did not have quite the hoped-for effect (all three were below 50 percent Corsi at 5-on-5 when playing together, and the Caps failed to reach the postseason) it was still ultimately a successful experiment. Because by season's end, Fehr had made himself a credible center.
That's how he started this season - not a center-slash-winger, but a full-time center who spends most of his time in the middle of the third line with Ward on his right and Brooks Laich on his left. For a player who had never played the position and had won just four of 22 faceoffs in eight seasons before assuming the new position, he has made himself into a decent performer in the circle (50.9 percent wins on 636 draws taken through Sunday's games). His possession numbers have suffered a bit in the team rankings (he is tenth in Corsi-for percentage among forwards playing in at least 40 games), and he is a tick below 50 percent at 5-on-5 (49.9 percent), but he is still better in close score situations (50.6 percent).
And some of that goal-scoring magic has returned, as well. Fehr is tied for third on the club in goals (17) despite playing less than 15 minutes per game, 11 of those goals coming with the Caps tied or holding a one-goal lead. Eight of those goals have come in the third periods of games, another two in overtime. His four game-winning goals is tied for second on the team, and he on a pace to finish this season with what would be a career-high 23 goals. Almost, if not as impressive, is the fact that his goals against/on-ice per 60 minutes at five-on-five is third lowest on the team among forwards playing in at least 40 games.
Drafted as a winger who might grow into a 30-40 goal scorer, circumstances made Eric Fehr's journey a much different one than what was envisioned on that draft day in 2003. When injuries took a toll, robbing him of the time and perhaps some of the physical skills that might have enabled him to grow into that scoring role, he became a different player, developing a new and different set of skills to allow him to contribute in a wider range of ways in a manner that makes him, in his second life as a Washington Capital, an extremely valuable player in his own right. His passage from scoring winger to two-way forward has been interesting to watch unfold.