The past week has been something of a 2010-11 Capitals reunion tour, with games against David Steckel, Boyd Gordon and Eric Fehr.
All three were considered role players with Washington — Steckel and Gordon for their faceoff and penalty-killing abilities and Fehr more for his offense. They were shipped out — or, in Gordon's case, allowed to leave in free agency.
But Steckel and Gordon have found key roles with their new teams, and Fehr could do the same as he gets into a rhythm after making his season debut last week. Injuries have opened the door in Toronto and Phoenix, but that has only allowed Steckel and Gordon a chance to fill in.
"I think the guys here who are stepping in take it as an opportunity to play well," Steckel said. "As a team, that's what we're going to have to do. We can't have passengers. All 20 guys have to be going on a nightly basis until some of the guys can come back."
The Maple Leafs have been without as many as seven regulars at a time, forcing Steckel to be more than just one of the most reliable faceoff men in the league. He has four goals in 22 games after five in 57 last year with the Caps.
He laughed about being Toronto's No. 1 center, but it's a spot he found himself in earlier this season.
"I welcome the opportunity. I've played well; I hope I earned that," Steckel said. "And I hope they think if anything should happen, that they can rely on me if I need to fill that spot again."
Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan was quick to say it's hard to number one line as tops - but even considering Gordon as first-line center seemed impossible during his time with Washington. Gordon was a first-round pick and did score his first NHL goal while centering a line with Jaromir Jagr, but he was a penalty-killing specialist and grinder with the Capitals.
The Coyotes, though, needed Gordon — whom they signed to a two-year, $2.65 million contract July 1 — to be more than a niche player. His coach called him a "professional player."
"It's not just the penalty-killing part, but he's come in and really stabilized our center ice, given us some really quality minutes, and he's got a few points on the board," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "He's been a solid, solid player for us."
Of course, Gordon still is in the top 10 in the league in faceoffs and is counted on — like he was by Bruce Boudreau — to kill penalties. But he's also averaging 16:33 of ice time and has three goals and seven assists.
Gordon is on pace to break his career high for points (29, set in 2006-07).
"I've had some good opportunities," Gordon said. "I've been playing with some high-caliber players. I'm trying to make the most of it. It's pretty much that simple."
Getting a chance to skate with players such as Doan and Radim Vrbata, though, means a bit of an adjustment for Gordon.
"It's a little bit different — a little bit different opportunity," Gordon said. "You don't try to change too much. You try to make a play maybe a little bit more than usual. I try not to get too outside of what I do."
Now with the Winnipeg Jets, Fehr hasn't even had the chance to do that yet, as offseason shoulder surgery bled into the first couple of months of the season. But the right wing was once considered a top NHL prospect with the potential to be a scorer.
It's possible it's just a matter of time until Fehr follows his ex-teammates in taking advantage of a bigger opportunity.
"He deserves to play on the first or second line, the power play, definitely," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. "He's got an absolutely deadly shot, and he's a huge body. He's a great player. If he stays healthy, he's tough to handle."
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