- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It was a late February game in a lost season for the Washington Capitals, but for Eric Fehr it was his chance to establish himself in the NHL.

His back had been bothering him for a long time, but he wanted to play through the pain. At one point that night at Bell Centre in Montreal in 2007, Fehr’s center was tossed from the faceoff circle. When Fehr moved into position, he couldn’t bend over to take the draw.

After experiencing the pain for another game Fehr’s season was over, and a nearly yearlong struggle to return from a back injury commenced. Now Fehr is finally healthy, and the Caps have a chance to see whether their first-round pick from 2003 is ready to fulfill some of his promise.

“I would definitely like this to be my breakout year,” Fehr said. “I’ve had a couple of years where I wasn’t able to perform at my highest level, but this year there is no real excuses for me. I’ve got to be ready to play. Hopefully I can find an opportunity on one of the top couple of lines and perform.”

Fehr’s quest began this summer, when for the first time in his professional career he had a chance to spend all of it training. In 2006 he helped the Hershey Bears to a Calder Cup, and the summer of 2007 was lost to rehabilitation.

This summer was about improving his skating and getting into better shape. When the Caps drafted him with the 18th pick in 2003, they had visions of a top-flight power forward. Back-to-back 50 goal seasons in the Western Hockey League started to make the organization look prophetic, but now Fehr has to put the injury issues behind him.

“He’s at the age now where he has to make a statement for himself,” Boudreau said. “Is he going to be a bona fide challenger for this job and be a good player, or is he going to be a real good minor league guy? I know where he wants to be, and I know where I want him to be, but it is up to him.”

Added Caps center David Steckel, who played with Fehr in Hershey: “When he’s healthy, he can be a go-to guy. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty in the corners, and that’s the type of game that he likes. When he gets the opportunity to bury it, he usually does. He’s got a great release. When he can do that, he can be very effective.”

While Fehr always has been considered one of the organization’s top prospects, his path to stardom has been derailed by the back injury, and now he needs to be a standout during training camp just to be in the lineup. Barring an injury, Fehr could begin the season as the team’s 13th forward, which would mean spending game nights watching instead of playing.

Should Fehr shine in camp, the Caps will have to consider pushing someone else to the sideline to make room for him. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, the 23-year-old Fehr is blessed with size and soft hands - which were on display when he scored a nifty goal in the playoffs against Philadelphia.

It could be a numbers game for Fehr, who is a natural right wing. With Alexander Semin’s semi-permanent move to the right side, the Caps have four players they expect to dress (Viktor Kozlov, Semin, Chris Clark and Matt Bradley) at the position.

“It definitely won’t be as easy, but once you get in [the lineup], it is going to be a lot of fun,” Fehr said. “We’re going to have some good teams here for a lot of years, and I want to be a part of it.”

And how do his teammates know the injury isn’t bothering anymore?

“He definitely can touch his toes again,” Steckel said.