David Steckel had a solid rookie season, establishing himself as a strong defensive player for the Washington Capitals.
But the 26-year-old Steckel wasn’t satisfied with five goals and 12 points in 67 games as an NHL freshman, so a longer-than-normal offseason meant more time to work.
“I’ve set some goals, and hopefully I’m able to achieve them,” Steckel said. “Offensively, last year was kind of a ‘get to know the league and feel it out’ thing, and I was kind of disappointed with that. I definitely want to try and contribute more offense to the team and make sure I am still the same guy I was [defensively] last year.”
After two long American Hockey League playoff runs cut into his summers the previous two years, Steckel went back to central Ohio this past offseason with more days to train. He worked out at Ohio State and skated at a rink where he lives in Dublin, a suburb of Columbus.
Later in the summer, he was able to join members of the Blue Jackets organization for informal practices at Nationwide Arena.
“I think last year I came to camp in good shape, and this year I think I’m better if that’s possible,” Steckel said. “I feel better anyway. … I spent a lot of time lifting weights trying to get stronger, but I know I’m not the best skater, so anytime I could gain an edge to get quicker I worked on that.”
Steckel’s path to the NHL was a little out of the ordinary. After the Los Angeles Kings made him the last pick of the first round in 2001, he ended up spending four years at Ohio State. He was a freshman phenom with 17 goals and 35 points in 33 games and after a couple of down seasons rebounded with a strong senior campaign (17 goals and 30 points).
After exhausting his eligibility in Columbus, Steckel passed on an NHL entry-level contract with the Kings and instead opted for a one-year AHL pact in part because of the pending lockout. Once the season was over, Steckel became a free agent and followed his AHL coach, Bruce Boudreau, to the Caps organization in 2005.
“The first year I had him in Hershey he had  goals during the year, and all of a sudden he blossomed in the playoffs to 10 goals, and then the second year he had 30 goals,” Boudreau said. “Again, I think the same type of thing can happen now.”
Steckel made the team during training camp last season and beat out veterans like Ben Clymer and Brian Sutherby for a spot in the lineup. He proved to be one of the team’s top defensive forwards, both at even strength and using his long reach as an asset killing penalties.
Despite being a regular last season, Steckel isn’t necessarily assured a place among the team’s top 12 forwards when the season begins Oct. 9 in Atlanta. With Nicklas Backstrom, Sergei Fedorov and Michael Nylander on the roster, Steckel will be no higher than fourth on the depth chart at center.
Barring injury, there appear to be four players (Steckel, Boyd Gordon, Donald Brashear and Matt Bradley) vying for three spots on the fourth line, and that doesn’t factor in Eric Fehr or a player such as Chris Bourque making a push.
“Just because I was on the team last year doesn’t mean there is a spot for me this year,” Steckel said. “I still feel the same pressure that I did last year trying to earn a spot. I’m approaching it the same way. I want to be a part of this team night in and night out. I don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines watching things happen.”
Added Boudreau: “He was taking baby steps [last year], but he’s got to feel confident. He knows he’s an NHL player - there’s not that thought about getting sent down. He should play with confidence, and he better because I look at our forwards and it is a tough group to crack on a consistent basis unless your first name is Alex.”