In his exit meetings almost a year ago, Brooks Laich sat down with the Washington Capitals coaching staff and mapped out some of what he thought needed to change.
Already a respected veteran, Laich played the role of consultant in pointing to one player who deserved a more substantial role.
"I said that one of the guys that really impressed me and I think can play on this team is Jay Beagle," he said. "The guy works so hard. He's in your face, and he works so hard and he does things right."
Even though it took a regime change to Dale Hunter and some extra time as he missed 31 games with a concussion, Beagle developed into a key contributor, especially in the first six games of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Boston Bruins.
"He's one of the guys that's gonna give you every ounce that he's got every single game," Laich said. "He's been amazing for us. He's done a great job on the defensive side of the puck, and then he has abilities to score goals, too. He's been an unsung hero for us."
No longer is Beagle on the fringe of the minor leagues or a healthy scratch. Instead, he's thriving as an elite penalty killer, defensive stopper, shot-blocker and faceoff specialist.
"I've been given an opportunity with this coaching staff to play a pivotal role. They showed a lot of confidence in me and in my game," Beagle said. "To be given the opportunity to play that role here was not something I was going to let slip through my fingers."
Beagle has captured it by using the same kind of tireless work ethic that got him to Hershey (AHL) and then the Caps to begin with. There's no denying, from the 26-year-old forward to his coaching staff to anyone who watches hockey, that he doesn't have the talent of an Alexander Semin or even Laich or Troy Brouwer.
But all you have to do to figure out how he's skating on the same ice with them, and often outperforming them, is watch him lifting or working in practice with assistant coach Jim Johnson on foot speed or with Dean Evason on faceoffs.
"He's not going to get cheated with his work ethic," Evason said. "Players like that have an opportunity to play a long time in this league because they're committed to outworking an opponent who has more skill, maybe more speed, more size. But nobody will have more desire than him to compete."
Ask anyone about Beagle, and work ethic usually is mentioned first. After a game in late February, Hunter pointed out that he's "annoying to play against because he works too hard out there."
"He grows on you," the Caps coach said last week. "You see him in practice where he's, you know, the hardest worker in practice. You need him to take faceoffs, and he works hard in practice."
But Beagle needed to work harder than his counterparts just to get here. A year ago and even early on this season, his place to shine was often scratches skates where he showed off his conditioning and fitness because he wasn't in the lineup.
The difference is Beagle getting a chance to play on a consistent basis with ample ice time.
"He's been given opportunity this year. He's been given opportunity to play the role that he's very good at and ... seems to succeed and do well at it," linemate Matt Hendricks said. "His faceoffs, he's become outstanding at that. His ability to play defensive hockey against some of the best lines in the league, it's shown throughout the course of the games that he's played."
Beagle excelled as a shutdown center beginning with such challenges as the Carolina Hurricanes' Eric Staal and the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos. Against the Bruins, he was tasked with stopping the likes of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci and kept them from scoring for the first five games of the series.
What used to be Jeff Halpern's job, to win key draws, is now Beagle's. His faceoff game gradually has improved through video and technique work with Evason to the point where he's whipping the best faceoff team in the league during the regular season.
Beagle won 53 of 86 faceoff attempts in Games 1 through 6, good for 61.6 percent and fifth best in the playoffs. He attributes it to practice and being more comfortable, but that's not all.
"The biggest thing that's allowed him to be successful is he competes," Evason said. "He's going to get in there and he's going to battle and he's going to compete. Now we've made a couple of tweaks as far as his hand position, his stick position. But after that, once the puck's dropped, it's just your will and your desire to win the faceoff. And he has both of those."
Then there's Beagle's willingness to block shots and prowess to do it the right way. Naturally, there are times he needs ice packs from rubber flying 100 mph at him, but his block of Johnny Boychuk's one-timer at the end of Game 4 was called the biggest play of the night by goaltender Braden Holtby.
To Beagle, the pain was just a "good sting," as he said: "That's why I play the game."
And that's why Beagle is out there in the most crucial moments because Hunter and his staff trust him to win faceoffs, block shots and not make the mistake that could cost the Caps the game. All part of a day's work.
"The main thing is they put me out there to win hockey games. I want to win for my team," Beagle said. "I hope I can do whatever it takes to win that hockey game."
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