Caps right wing Eric Fehr is now in his eighth NHL season. And 2012-13 will mark the eighth time in those eight seasons that he has failed to play in as many as 70 NHL games.
Fortunately for Fehr, the lockout that wiped 34 games off the ’12-13 regular-season slate is the reason he won’t play 70 or more NHL games this season. The big winger’s health has usually been the culprit.
Knock on wood, Fehr is as healthy as he’s ever been. And that good health is starting to manifest itself on the ice.
Washington’s first-round choice (18th overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Fehr scored a career best 21 goals for Washington in 2009-10, but off-season surgery on both shoulders followed, limiting him to just 10 goals in 52 games in 2010-11.
Traded to Winnipeg in July, 2011, Fehr suffered through a miserable and forgettable year with the Jets in 2011-12. In and out of the lineup because of injuries and coach’s decisions, Fehr played in just 35 games and averaged less than 10 minutes a night for the first time since his 11-game NHL baptism in 2005-06.
A man without a team as the lockout started in September, a healthy Fehr went to Finland and put together a strong run for HPK Hameenlinna, totaling 13 goals and 25 points in 21 games. That performance opened the eyes of a couple NHL teams, and it was an easy decision for the Caps to sign the 27-year-old right wing to a one-year deal for short money ($600,000, pro-rated).
Since then, Fehr’s stock has slowly ascended to the point where he was the team’s even-strength leader in ice time among forwards (14:48) in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers in New York.
Fehr spent the first three games of the season watching from the press box as a healthy scratch. He finally got into the lineup for the first time on Jan. 25 in New Jersey and hasn’t been out since. The Caps are 5-6-1 in the dozen games in which he has played.
Not only has he remained in the lineup for 12 games, he has shown enough to earn more ice time and greater responsibility along the way. He has also started to contribute offensively as he knows he can, with three goals and six points in his last four games.
Early in the season, Fehr got sporadic ice time on the fourth line. Now that he is getting more ice time and a regular shift, Fehr feels less pressure to get something done offensively on one of his infrequent shifts.
“It’s definitely tougher when you’re in the slot and you get your one chance and you play five minutes a game,” says Fehr. “It’s more in your head than it would be if you were consistently on the ice and just feeling the game coming to you. I think you have to force it a little bit more and it makes it a little bit tougher. Unfortunately it’s something I’ve had to work on and try to be ready when that chance comes.”
In each of his first seven games this season, Fehr logged fewer than 10 minutes in ice time. His lowest single-game figure was just 4:11 against the Leafs in Toronto on Jan. 31. The Caps took eight minor penalties that night, leaving those who don’t play on the penalty-killing unit sitting for long stretches of time.
Fehr’s fortunes started to swing on one of Washington’s darker nights this season. The Caps gave up five second-period goals on their way to a 5-2 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Feb. 7, but Fehr was clearly one of the Caps’ best forwards that night. He was involved on the forecheck, forcing a few turnovers at the opposition blueline.
“I felt strong last night,” said Fehr the following day. “I felt great on the forecheck, trying to create some energy and bring pucks to the net. I thought our line did a pretty good job of staying in their zone and tiring out their [defense].”
Playing on a line with Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle, Fehr also had a couple of strong scoring chances in Pittsburgh. On one shot, he rang iron. On the other, he was forced to rip a backhander because he didn’t have the time and space needed to get the disc to his forehand for a shot from the slot.
“I wanted to bring that to my forehand in the worst way,” lamented Fehr, “but there was a guy chasing me from behind. If I get that one again, I’d try to open up. I had a chance earlier; I hit the crossbar the shift before. I feel like I was getting chances around the net and I feel great about it.”
That game in Pittsburgh marked the first time this season that Fehr’s ice time had crept above the 10-minute plateau. He finished with 10:45. The following day at practice, the right wing was moved to the left side of a line with Mathieu Perreault in the middle and Joel Ward on the right.
When Washington pounced on the Panthers for a 5-0 win at Verizon Center last Saturday, the play of Fehr and his linemates was largely responsible. Perreault scored his first goal of the season and added an assist; Ward also had a goal and an assist. Fehr notched an assist for his first point of the season and skated 13:07 on the night.
More importantly, the trio’s forechecking tenacity set the tone early in the game and was a key element in Washington stopping a three-game losing streak.
“Matty P. and Ward and Fehrsie had an unbelievable night tonight,” said Caps right wing Troy Brouwer, one of many teammates to sing the lines praises after that game. “Matty was itching to get back in the lineup and he made the best of it. Those guys worked unbelievably hard. They were the guys who kept those [offensive zone] shifts going and started them in a lot of senses.”
“He looks like he’s got really good jump,” said Caps coach Adam Oates of Fehr after the win over Florida. “It’s very noticeable out there. He’s got a good stick. He’s played better and better every game. Obviously he got rewarded tonight, that whole line. That line’s been a good line for us the last couple of weeks so I’m glad they’re getting rewarded.”
That “good stick” has resulted in some forced turnovers, which in turn leads to offensive zone time for Fehr and his linemates.
“It’s definitely something I’ve been working on,” says Fehr, “just trying to make sure I have better angles and trying to read the other team’s players, which way they’re going to be going and to try to get an extra step on them.”
Because of his strong play all over the ice, Oates started to look for ways to get more ice time for Fehr. Suddenly, Fehr found himself getting occasional penalty-killing duty. Prior to his first shorthanded mission this season, Fehr had logged a grand total of 1 minute and 37 seconds of shorthanded ice time for his 274-game NHL career.
“That was probably like 10 seconds left on the PK when we’d get an offensive zone draw and I’d get out there and get 10 seconds,” laughs Fehr.
In the two road games in Florida last week, Fehr more than doubled that figure. With less than two minutes left in a 5-5 game against the Panthers last Tuesday, Fehr was on the ice killing a Perreault penalty. Not only that, he was on the ice with a fellow right-handed shot, Ward.
Oates, who almost always has a lefty-righty forward combo out in penalty-killing situations admitted later with a smile that “it was hard for me to pull the trigger on that one.”
“I definitely like to pride myself on having sticks in lanes,” says Fehr. “I’m not necessarily the fastest guy, but I like to try to be in position. I think that’s a lot of what they do on the penalty kill. I’m trying to learn it and see what the guys are doing out there.”
It’s somewhat odd to a guy who has spent several seasons in the NHL without killing penalties to suddenly become a penalty killer, but sometimes being seen with the fresh eyes of a new coach can have a positive effect on a guy’s career.
“I killed a little bit in Hershey, never regularly,” Fehr says. “But I remember killing for [ex-Caps and Hershey coach] Bruce [Boudreau] a few times. In Brandon [of the WHL] I was a regular penalty killer. When you turn pro people’s roles are a little more defined. I wasn’t killing as much. But I was familiar with it.
“I go to all the meetings because I like to stay informed. You never know when you’re going to get caught out there on the kill, coming out of the box or whatever. I was definitely ready for it.”
For the last several games, the right-handed Fehr has been the only one of eight Washington wingers to be placed on his off-side, the left wing.
“It’s a different transition, that’s for sure,” notes Fehr of playing on the left side. “It’s definitely different in the [defensive] zone trying to come back and make plays and it’s tougher to see the ice from that side. It’s great on the rush; you can bring it to the net and you can protect the puck a lot better on your backhand.
“The toughest thing playing on your off-wing is making cross-ice plays. You’re on your backhand all the time. You don’t really want to be throwing backhand sauce passes through the middle of the ice so it really limits your plays that way. But with our system, we have a lot of support coming over. You can use the boards and the guys have been talking pretty well [on the ice and on the bench], so it makes it a lot easier.”
In the span of 15 games, Fehr has gone from being a healthy scratch to sporadic fourth-line time to killing penalties to playing on the third line with the odd shift in the top six. As a right-shooting left wing, he has more goals (three) than the Caps’ top two left wings this season have combined to score (two).
“I definitely feel a lot more confident on the ice,” says Fehr. “I feel like I’m getting out in different situations that I wasn’t at the start of the season, which is great. I feel strong on the puck, and I feel like I’m getting some good opportunities. I’m just trying to continue moving forward, continue to create energy and create chances and see where it takes me.
“I definitely want to help contribute. I wasn’t happy with the way my season went at all last year, and I really wanted to turn it around. I’m feeling pretty confident right now and I’m happy with the way we’ve started the season.”
Fehr’s current scoring streak of four games is his longest since a five-game run nearly three years ago (March 14-24, 2010).
“He was a healthy scratch [early] because he was the last guy signed and going through a transition from last year,” says Oates of Fehr. “He’s done nothing but be professional and every second he’s gotten to play, he has played hard. His minutes have grown and he has produced and that line has produced. Good for him.”
Fehr has shown the ability to get the maximum out of the minimum. When he scored 21 goals for Washington in 2009-10, he did so despite having by far the lowest average ice time (12:35) of the 110 players to score 20 or more goals in the league that season.
Back where his NHL career started in 2005, the 27-year-old Fehr hopes the combination of good health and a coach who believes in him can lead to big things.
“I think this is the perfect system for my kind of game,” he says. “I like to get up ice, I like to pressure [defensemen]. When we have all three forwards coming up, I think we’re going to have a lot of opportunities to turn pucks over and create offense. I think the better we get at playing this system, the more we’re going to create offense.”