With nameplates stripped off lockers and one large equipment bag stuffed to the seams, Jason Chimera took what could be among his final steps into the Washington Capitals’ dressing room on Monday morning.
He first passed through its threshold in Dec. 2009, arriving as part of a trade that shipped then-captain Chris Clark to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Nearly seven years of alternating excitement and disappointment followed, and as he stood at the head of the chamber, his next steps were designed to steel himself from the uncertain realities of his future.
“If they win a Stanley Cup next year and I’m not part of it, I’ll go into a deep depression for a couple weeks probably, maybe months or years,” Chimera said. “You put a lot in with these guys and you work a lot of hours with the guys and some of your best friends you meet in your whole entire world are on this team. You want to see that through.”
Chimera turned 37 earlier this month, and once the Capitals’ season expired last week, his contract effectively did as well. Of the three players set to become unrestricted free agents in July — center Mike Richards and defenseman Mike Weber among them — only Chimera was with the team longer than half a season.
General manager Brian MacLellan said on Monday that he intends to use much of the team’s projected $15 million in salary cap space to retain restricted free agents — a group consisting of left wing Marcus Johansson, right wing Tom Wilson, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and center Michael Latta.
If Washington does that, it could be looking at a pool of approximately $6 million with which it can round out its roster. Should MacLellan stick to his plan of adding two to three forwards, plus likely a defenseman, the modest raise Chimera would receive over his $2 million salary for hitting 20 goals and 20 assists would make it very difficult for MacLellan to realize that plan.
By hitting those marks, Chimera became one of only four players this season to do so at age 36 or older. Such an accomplishment has happened only 15 times in the last five years; Jarome Iginla and Martin St. Louis did it three times, and Jaromir Jagr has done it twice.
Not only did the 20 goals match a career high set in 2011-12, Chimera scored four of them on the power play — and he had entered the season having scored only 10 power-play goals dating to his debut with the Edmonton Oilers during the 2000-01 season.
He played in all 82 games for the fourth time, reached 40 points for only the second time and, by scoring in Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers, he tied Peter Bondra with six postseason game-winning goals, the most in franchise history.
“A third-line guy who scores 20 goals? That’s huge for the team,” center Michael Latta said. “He really stepped up this year. The last couple years, he’s really been just real sturdy every game. He comes to play every game and he’s tough to play against. Other teams don’t like it. He’s a valuable piece to this team.”
What could work in Chimera’s favor: MacLellan said the Capitals are looking for offense from their reconfigured bottom six — a third-liner nearly the entire season, Chimera was seventh on the team in points — and will want to accentuate their team speed, which he does as one of their fastest skaters despite his age.
“He’s a freak,” said center Jay Beagle, a frequent linemate of Chimera’s in recent years. “He’s going to play for, I think, a lot more years. He’s still one of the fastest guys in the league. He’s got those young legs that never seem to slow down.”
Neither do his antics, which have made him one of the Capitals’ biggest jokesters. It’s rare that a practice goes by without Chimera needling a teammate or fidgeting by himself in some way. Often, when reporters are allowed in the dressing room, it’s he who is imitating others or finding a way to distract those being interviewed.
Before the Capitals’ recent playoff games in Pittsburgh, a number of players loosened up by kicking a soccer ball around a hallway. Only one voice — Chimera’s — rose above the others.
“He’s a great guy to have on your team,” Beagle said. “A lot of energy. … He’s a lot of fun to be around. I’ll just say that.”
What, exactly, is the value of it all? Even Chimera doesn’t know. Though he has spent parts of 15 seasons in the NHL — he played a combined four games during his first two with the Oilers — he has never been an unrestricted free agent.
He was under team control for his first three contracts, signed a four-year extension with the Blue Jackets in 2008, was traded to the Capitals a year later and has twice signed a new deal during the season.
Chimera will, theoretically, have his choice of teams and situations for the first time, but that doesn’t mean that he wants it. A native of Edmonton, he and his wife, Sarah, have raised their children, son Cale and daughter Ryann, in the Washington area.
The thought of leaving, predictably, is worrisome.
“I still think I’m going to be back,” Chimera said. “I’m not confident in anything. In this game, I think you’re not guaranteed anything to be back. I want to be back. You don’t think of playing anywhere else. You know the business side of it, but I still don’t think I’m going to play anywhere else. But, you’ll see what happens, right?”