When Mattias Sjogren signed a two-year deal with the Washington Capitals in June, general manager George McPhee called it a "new challenge" for the 24-year-old center coming over from Sweden. The hope was that he would make the NHL roster out of camp and be a regular contributor to a contending team.
But over the following months that challenge and hope devolved as Sjogren was sent to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League following training camp. With seemingly no chance to be recalled to the Caps any time soon, Sjogren decided to go back to Sweden on Tuesday, effectively ending his relationship with the organization — as some harsh words were tossed around from both sides.
"It's probably a mistake. He needs to develop here. He wasn't prepared to make the commitment to do so," McPhee said Tuesday night after the Caps' game against the St. Louis Blues. "When we signed him, we told him we had a job available and promised him we'd give him a look this year. His training camp wasn't good enough to keep him at the start of the year, and he was developing OK. But I guess he got impatient and decided to go home. If you're going to quit on us, you might as well go."
Sjogren went, leaving the Bears after 19 games, two goals, three assists and a minus-6 rating. McPhee said he would "probably not" entertain the idea of bringing the 6-foot-1, 209-pound center back in any capacity.
"Probably not" in this case likely means never, especially given what was said in recent days. Sjogren has two representatives — Ritch Winter and Claude Lemieux — and in recent days Winter has been critical of McPhee and the Caps, arguing that they promised Sjogren a spot in the NHL. Over the weekend, he wrote on Twitter that Washington had become a "graveyard" for good NHL contracts.
Winter said in a phone interview late Tuesday night that about six teams made offers to sign Sjogren but that his client chose the Caps because of a comfort level with fellow Swedes Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, among other things. Sjogren has said the Montreal Canadiens were the other finalist for his services. Winter said a European out-clause was negotiated because Sjogren did not want to play minor league hockey in North America.
"We gave up opportunities in four or five other cities where not only did we have the assurance that he would play for the whole season but we had negotiated the out-clause and substantially larger bonuses," Winter said. "His decision as an athlete was to play in Sweden or the National Hockey League. So we negotiated the right for him to depart if he wasn't playing in the National Hockey League, and they agreed to that, and now we exercised that right."
Sjogren was on a plane to Sweden and could not be reached for comment. Winter said the decision to go back to Europe occurred "when it became clear that [the Caps] weren't going to meet the commitments they made."
What each side saw out of that commitment was a matter of opinion.
"You can't promise anyone an NHL job. You can promise him you'll give him a great look, and you'll give him an opportunity, and we told him we'd give him an opportunity this year," McPhee said. "But you've got to earn that job, and we all know Mathieu Perreault had a great camp and he's a better player."
Winter argued that Sjogren, who took part in development camp, rookie camp and training camp, did not get a good enough shot.
"Mattias wasn't given much of an opportunity. I think this is just simply the standard disconnect between general manager and coach. George signed him, George liked him, and it appears after training camp that [Bruce] Boudreau had a different view," Winter said. "That happens. And it was hard to evaluate, I think, at training camp what his skills were. He didn't really get that much opportunity to play."
Sjogren was one of the final three cuts at main camp, but it was Cody Eakin who got recalled in mid-October to make his NHL debut. With Dale Hunter now behind the Caps' bench, Winter was asked if Sjogren considered waiting a bit longer and said the decision was made after more than a month and a half in the AHL to go back to Farjestads of the Swedish Elite League, "where we all believe the level of play is considerably higher and in the long term will be much better for his development."
McPhee is a proponent of players developing in the AHL, and the reports he was getting about Sjogren from Hershey were not stellar.
"He was playing OK. He started off well and then faded, but playing OK," McPhee said. "His upside was fourth-line [NHL] center. He probably doesn't have the foot speed to play any higher in the lineup than that. But it didn't work out."
McPhee said he did not try to talk Sjogren's camp out of leaving.
"I know Claude Lemieux told him that he should stick it out," he said. "So either Rico Winters or whatever his name is told him to go home or the player didn't want to be there."
The Caps will continue to hold Sjogren's rights, meaning he won't be able to play in the NHL with any other team unless he is placed on $125 buyout waivers, a move that would terminate the contract. That would need to be mutually agreed to by both sides. Winter said that had not been discussed.
Despite this episode, McPhee said the Caps won't be hesitant to go the same route with signing European players moving forward.
"This stuff happens from time to time," he said. "You scout all over the world to see someone that might have a chance. You give them opportunities. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't."
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