That Eric Fehr was able to score 50 goals in back-to-back seasons in the Western Hockey League is a formidable achievement, but considering some of the competition he did it against makes the feat even more impressive.
Consider that when Fehr scored 50 in the 2003-04 season, the list of players who might have been marking him on a given night included Dion Phaneuf, Shea Weber, Brent Seabrook, Braydon Coburn, Cam Barker and Mike Green - a who’s who of top young defensemen in today’s NHL.
“All those guys were No. 1 defensemen in the Western Hockey League,” Fehr said. “That was a really tough year to get goals. There were some really strong defensemen, and that league is known for producing some pretty good ones.”
Fehr and Green are part of a contingent of Washington Capitals players from Western Canada. While the group of Russians on the Caps roster earns plenty of attention, there is also a distinct Western Canadian flavor in the dressing room.
“I think there are a lot of good, hard-working boys from Western Canada. Everybody should want them on their team,” Green said. “The WHL is a great developmental league for the NHL. I remember when I was getting drafted - there were a lot of guys from our league getting drafted.”
There are six guys who grew up in Western Canada on the roster, and that figure doesn’t include Karl Alzner or Tyler Sloan - the players with Hershey in the American Hockey League who have played the most games for Washington this season.
The Caps also have leaned heavily on the WHL for talent via the draft. Washington has selected 22 players that have played in the WHL this decade - more than the Caps have picked from Europe and more than the other two Canadian junior leagues combined.
“We just try to go out and get the best player available,” Caps director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney said. “I think in the first three or four years we might have had more picks out of the West and out of Europe, but we don’t have a preference - we just want to get the best players.”
Added general manager George McPhee: “It is probably just a coincidence. The draft is hard enough - if you favor one area over another or one position over another, you end up making mistakes because you end making a player out to be better or worse than he is. If you are smart, you just focus on getting the best player.”
Still, there are reasons to believe why the Caps might, coincidentally or not, favor players from that region. Mahoney is from Western Canada and has spent years coaching and scouting in the region. McPhee spent five years in the hockey operations department with Vancouver before joining the Caps.
Even though he is from Ontario and played college hockey at Bowling Green, a couple of his players thought McPhee was actually from Western Canada.
The WHL is generally recognized as the most physical of the three major junior leagues in Canada. Because of that style of play, scoring is generally down compared to the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. When Alzner and Sloan were here, the team dressed as many as five former WHL defensemen (along with Green, Jeff Schultz and Shaone Morrisonn).
The Caps have one of the biggest teams in the NHL and have displayed a penchant for nabbing big defensemen in recent drafts. While not all have come from the WHL (Joe Finley and Sasha Pokulok were NCAA hockey guys), players like Green, Schultz, Alzner and 2008 pick Eric Mestery have been.
“Maybe it is the closest to the NHL style of play,” Schultz said. “The teams are doing really well and grooming the players from juniors to the pros there, so you’ve got to give them a lot of credit.
“I think that really compliments the development process of the league - just maybe the style of play these players have. The Capitals like having that style of player on their team, and it was a good thing for me and a lot of other guys in here.”