ARLINGTON, Va. — It takes a village to contend for a Stanley Cup.
Unlike the other three major sports, in hockey your best player — unless he’s the goaltender — takes a seat after just 35 to 40 seconds on the ice. The NHL is a General Manager’s sport. And while the stars have been shining (Alex Ovechkin is tied for seventh in goals, Evgeny Kuznetsov is sixth in assists and points, Braden Holtby leads the NHL in goals-against-average), solid production by several under-the-radar players has been a factor in the Capitals’ strong start.
Two of those unsung heroes are producing on the ice while also getting adjusted to a new system and city. The offseason moves that brought Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie to D.C. have paid dividends already. Thanks in large part to the duo, the Capitals are in second place in the Metropolitan Division at 17-5-1 and riding a five-game winning streak into a big showdown with Atlantic Division-leader Montreal Thursday evening.
Oshie began the season with a bang, notching four goals and four assists in his first nine games in Washington, while Williams took a while to settle in, but was second on the team with five goals in November. Jason Chimera isn’t surprised at the quick adjustments made by both players.
“They’re guys who have both been in the league a long time,” he says. “They’ve played every system in the book and are very smart players … so it doesn’t take them much to integrate them into the system.”
Each has made smooth transitions on the ice and in the Verizon Center dressing room.
“Those are the two keys — they’re good people and they’re good players,” says head coach Barry Trotz. “I think they have street credibility with the players … and they fit in seamlessly in terms of with what they’ve brought to the team.”
Oshie comes to D.C. after playing his entire career in St. Louis and has asserted himself on the top line with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. He’s also been able to seamlessly transition into the Caps family, despite some initial uncertainty about the trade.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking coming into a new team,” Oshie says. “They took me kind of under their wings right away and made me feel like I was a part of the team … I’ve developed some good friendships.”
Chimera has been settled into the Washington area for six plus years, he knows that the adjustment can be tough.
“When you get traded here, really the only community you initially have is within this room,” he said of the Caps locker room. “A lot of wives reach out to each other — give them a list of doctors and places to shop.”
Relocating is more than just a player looking to contribute on the ice, but also a husband and father trying to make sure his family is on firm footing.
“Willie’s got kids,” Oshie says of Williams. “I’ve got a kid. For our families to be comfortable and get along with the other wives, it just makes us not have to worry about that and focus on hockey. Getting prepared to play and prepared to win.”
Williams is happy his 7-year old son Jaxon is pleased with his offseason move, as he explained this past summer to Capitals Outsider.
“My son’s excited,” Williams said. “He woke up (the morning Williams was traded) and said ‘Daddy, where are we playing?’ I told him Washington and he was all smiles. So I passed the test. I’m happy about that.”
Coming to a new city and meshing with a club that already has a solid core is always a transition, but players like Chimera have made life for the Oshie, Williams and their families relatively drama-free when you consider one moved 818 miles and the other hauled his family all the way across the country. Was the secret that welcome to the neighborhood casserole?
“They’re not casserole people so I couldn’t drop off a casserole,” jokes Chimera.
It’s easy to think of the relationships professional athletes have away from the game as potential distractions, but they can also give those like Chimera a chance to further connect with his new teammates.
“Willie’s kid plays hockey with my kids,” he explains. “Our wives keep in contact … we try to help out as much as possible.”
While Williams has produced on the ice, the veteran known as “Mr. Game Seven” — thanks to 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy and an NHL career-record seven Game 7 goals — is already a valuable leader on a team he’s fairly new to. Trotz says the 34-year-old is a quick study.
“What I’ve learned about Justin … is that he says the right thing at the right time.”
He and Oshie have said and done all the right things so far, as the team heads into its biggest test of the young season.
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