Over the Boards: Oates gets Fehr on ice
NHL.com's Dan Rosen reports on Eric Fehr's nine-game absence from the roster and his recent return
It's for those reasons Fehr has played the past five games as the left wing on the Capitals' second line with Mikhail Grabovski and Troy Brouwer. It's also for those reasons that Oates said he scratched Fehr for nine straight games in November after watching him contribute three assists in two games as the replacement for an injured Alex Ovechkin on the Capitals' first line.
The first part of that makes sense on its face. The second part requires some explaining.
Why scratch a guy who was producing in a top-line role even if the guy he was replacing returned to the lineup? Why not just keep him in the lineup in either a second- or third-line role? And if you're going to scratch him, why do it for nine consecutive games? Finally, if you scratch him for nine straight games, why put him back in the lineup as a top-six forward?
For Oates, it boils down to depth and proper placement in the lineup.
When Ovechkin came back for the game against the New York Islanders on Nov. 5, Oates had two wings he liked on the second line (Brouwer and Brooks Laich) playing around Marcus Johansson, who belongs in the top six. He didn't want to break up his third line of Grabovski, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward because it was going through a productive stretch.
The only place he felt he had an opening for Fehr was on the fourth line, but Oates doesn't view Fehr as a fourth-liner and says Fehr shouldn’t view himself as one either.
"He said to me, 'Oatesy, I'll play fourth-line right wing,' but I'm like, 'You're not a fourth-line right winger, and I've got a kid [Tom Wilson] who is a fourth-line right winger right now, so no sense in you playing six minutes doing nothing,'" Oates told NHL.com. "Now, a guy doesn't want to hear that, but I don't think that's optimal, and I don't think it helps him. He's a better player playing 15 minutes.
"If he plays fourth-line right wing and he plays five minutes, he's not going to do anything and then everybody is going to think he can't play."
Oates was right in that Fehr didn't want to hear the coach's rationale, not after the way he performed as Ovechkin's replacement.
"I just finished two games on the top line, we scored a couple of goals, and I thought things were going well," Fehr told NHL.com. "I was blindsided when I came into the rink and I wasn't on the board to be playing. That was definitely tough to take."
It was also tough news for Oates to deliver.
"Sometimes, it's not fair -- and for me, too -- to explain it to a guy who plays well that you have to take him out," Oates said. "That's my first time doing that and I don't like it, but unfortunately it's part of the gig."
To his credit, Fehr stayed in shape by diligently working in practice alongside Jay Beagle, who was also a healthy scratch. He also said he learned to understand Oates' reasoning, even if he never liked it.
"I can definitely see his side of it, where he wants guys on the fourth line that are hitting guys and playing a real physical game," Fehr said. "It's not easy to sit on the bench for 20 minutes and then go out there for a shift and try to make plays. It's tough that way. I understand what he's saying. It's just difficult when you're not in the lineup, you're watching your team go out to battle, and there's nothing you can do to help them."
Oates stuck with the same top-nine forwards for the next nine games, with the only adjustment being a swap of Johansson and Martin Erat on the top two lines. It was hard to blame him, considering Washington went 5-1-1 in the first seven games without Fehr.
However, Oates finally made some changes after the Capitals lost back-to-back games against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens. He put Erat in the press box and brought Fehr into the lineup against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 23.
Fehr played nearly 17 minutes, found chemistry as the left wing alongside Grabovski and Brouwer midway through the game, and finished with five shots on goal in a 2-1 shootout loss. He scored goals in each of the next two games and was still on the second line Tuesday when the Capitals hosted the Carolina Hurricanes.
Erat has since asked to be traded.
"He was never bad," Oates said of Fehr. "He's a good hockey player. He can score goals, and it's so hard to score in this league. He's my go-to guy right shot after a power play. He kills penalties. He plays 4-on-4. The minutes are there. Lots of time, you have to let it evolve as a player. You can't be impatient, but that's tough. That's the coach's job, to try to talk him off a ledge. Two weeks ago, he was staring at me with daggers in his eyes."
Fehr might have some staying power in the lineup, especially if Capitals general manager George McPhee finds a way to honor Erat's trade request.
Laich has missed three straight games with what the coach hopes is a minor groin issue, but provided he can return this coming weekend, Oates might use Laich on the second line and Fehr as the third-line center. The coach said he thinks Laich is better on the wing than he is in the middle, but Fehr has proven to be interchangeable this season, having played all three forward positions.
"He has the confidence in me to go out and help this team," Fehr said of Oates. "Being able to be on the penalty kill in the last 30 seconds when we had just finished tying the game [against the Islanders this past Saturday], that gave me a lot of confidence that he believes in me. I'm playing more 4-on-4 in overtime. I definitely think he's putting me in roles to succeed. I have to continue to show him that I can."