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Hard Work Paying Off

Jonas Siegenthaler's development is proving what the Capitals' brass saw in him on his draft day

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / WashingtonCaps.com

As the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft started in Sunrise, Fla., Caps assistant GM Ross Mahoney was anxious. He was ecstatic to have picked goaltender Ilya Samsonov with Washington's first-round pick, the 22nd overall choice, but he had his eye on a defenseman he really liked, too. But there was a problem.

Washington didn't have a second-round pick; the Capitals dealt their second-round pick and a third-rounder as well to the Calgary Flames for forward Curtis Glencross ahead of the trade deadline on March 1, 2015. The Caps came to the draft with picks in the third and fourth rounds, and a couple of later picks as well. But without a second-rounder, Mahoney feared he wouldn't be able to get his man.

"Ross started bumping me about the first pick of the second round," recalls Caps GM Brian MacLellan. "'Can we trade our first from next year? Can we trade our second?' I'm like, '(Expletive)!' His knee is bouncing up and down. 'Can we give something? Get it, get the pick!' It was hilarious."

Six defensemen came off the board in the first half of the second round. Then Buffalo, Boston and Calgary all went for blueliners with consecutive picks in the early 50s overall.

"And then it kept going you know, the second round kept going," recounts MacLellan. "It was falling and it was falling, and Ross was like, 'Come on!' And then it got to the point where we could jump in and with the added pick, somebody was going to bite on it."

MacLellan called the Rangers, and he offered New York the Capitals' third-round pick (No. 62 overall, obtained from Buffalo in the trade for Michal Neuvirth a year earlier) and their fourth-rounder (No. 113 overall) for New York's second-rounder, the 57th pick in the draft. The Rangers made the deal, and the Caps announced their pick, "Jonas Siegenthaler, from Zurich in the Swiss League."

Siegenthaler spent much of the previous season playing for longtime NHL coach Marc Crawford in the Swiss League, against men. Scouting reports pegged him as a mobile defender who already possessed NHL size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), a guy who projected as a possible top four defenseman.

With an assist from MacLellan, Mahoney got his man.

"We took some heat, but it's about managing your list, for me," explains MacLellan. "Your amateur scouts put a list together, you manage it. My job is to manage that list, to get the guys they want. We lost a pick, but this kid could be top four for 10 or 15 years, for a fourth-round pick."

Siegenthaler's ability to hold his own against better and older competition as a teenager was certainly eye-opening, and he was also a standout in international tournaments.

"Siegenthaler playing with the men, that's a real advantage," said Mahoney at the time. "You're not playing against some 16- and 17-year-olds, you're playing against guys who could be 30 years old, guys who might have been good American League players that have gone back to Europe to play and might even be players that have played in NHL games.

"We had a chance to see him play obviously in the tournament in April. But the tournament for him was a little bit hard, too. His team in Zurich ended up playing in four rounds of the playoffs and losing in the elite league finals there. He finished that and just moved two or three days later right into the tournament. We saw him play playoff games in the elite league, and he played a regular shift and killed penalties. That's pretty special for a 17-year-old."

Fast forward four years, and Siegenthaler is here in Washington, and he has played in each of Washington's first 41 games this season, averaging 16:41 a night. That's a step up from last season, when he was up and down with the Caps, getting into 26 regular season and four playoff games.

As an NHL rookie in 2018-19, Siegenthaler saw spot duty. He averaged 14:09 per game during the regular season, while riding the Hershey shuttle to and from the Caps' AHL affiliate in central Pennsylvania. In those 26 NHL games last season, Siegenthaler was never able to crack the 20-minute mark. In some games, he played less than 10 minutes, but he did average 63 seconds per night in shorthanded ice time.

Early this season, the Caps began trusting Siegenthaler with more minutes. With Michal Kempny on the sideline to start the season, Siegenthaler spent some time skating alongside John Carlson during the latter's historic start to the 2019-20 campaign. Siegenthaler also started logging more time on the penalty kill, and in a 5-3 win over Chicago on Oct. 20, he finished the night with 21:32 in ice time, including a whopping 6:21 of the 8 minutes in which Washington was shorthanded that night.

On the season to date, Siegenthaler's average of 3:09 in shorthanded ice time is tops on the team, and he also leads the team - and ranks among the NHL's top 30 - with 70 blocked shots. Washington's penalty killing unit has climbed to third in the league in the first half of this season, up from 24th in the circuit in 2018-19.

"With the specific lineup that we have and the breakdown of minutes," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, "you have to put players in the spot where they can have the best success, given their role. We've always felt strongly about his penalty-killing ability, through his understanding of structure, through his willingness to block shots, and his big body and longer reach.

"He is a big part of us continuing to improve on that penalty kill, and he has been a big part of why we have improved this year, and that frees up John Carlson to not spend as much time out there. It's been a little bit of a different allocation of minutes this year, and it has allowed some of our top guys to have more success on the power play or at 5-on-5."

Siegenthaler's road to the NHL from Switzerland wasn't a direct one. He saw late season action with Hershey in 2015-16 after Zurich's season ended, and the plan was for him to start the '16-17 campaign with the Bears. But after eight games with Hershey, Siegenthaler asked if he could return home and finish the season there. The Caps acquiesced, but Washington's brass believed there was another issue that was preventing Siegenthaler from pushing forward. His body fat was higher than the Caps wanted it to be, so the Reirden and Washington's strength and conditioning staff sat him down and laid it out for him.

"The discussion that Jonas and I had in regard to getting himself in a different condition to play the game, it probably wasn't a fun conversation for Jonas and not for myself, either," said Reirden during the team's 2017 training camp. "But it's the reality and my coaching style is one of honesty and telling players exactly where they stand, and he needed to make some different commitments.

"I really couldn't be any prouder of him for the response he has had. Just how he looks in terms of his physique after losing close to 20 pounds and dropping his body fat by five or six percent, and now being able to see how that translates on the ice as a player, is awesome as a coach to see the response.

"Now, he is able to do some things on a smaller rink because he is lighter. You watch him at practice now, and we have the conditioning skates at the end, and he is winning the conditioning skates, and his feet seem so much lighter."

From Siegenthaler's perspective, the awakening in terms of his nutritional and workout habits have transformed him, and is part of who he is now.

"I think that was huge," admits Siegenthaler. "I got drafted, and where I played in Zurich, they didn't really take care of body fat and stuff like that. So I came in here and I was a little bit over. I did my interval every morning, and it wasn't fun. But then I realized that I had to change something. Everybody else comes to camp in good shape, and I wanted to do the same for the next camp, and show them that I want to be here. I've kind of changed my whole lifestyle, with eating, and I try to lift a little bit healthier, too.

"I grew up, too. I was still young there, and I didn't know a lot about nutrition and everything. I bought into that stuff, and I got better as I got older. I think I just learned from it. Every mistake you make is a teaching point, so now I know what it takes, and what I shouldn't do. It's not like I'm crazy into nutrition, it's just part of my job. At the end of the day, it's your job, and it's what you get paid for. So you've got to pay them something back."

The change in his physique combined with a strong first season at Hershey in 2017-18 put Siegenthaler on Washington's radar, and he was recalled to the NHL early last season, debuting against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov. 9, 2018.

He was up and down several times between Hershey and Washington last season, but he spent a lot of the summer of 2019 in Washington, working out and skating with other Caps in the area including Carlson, who is a big fan.

"I think he is an amazing player," says Carlson. "I think he is going to be a stud. I think he is one, but I think he is really going to take his game to the next level. I think he has some offense in him that maybe hasn't shown yet, while he is trying to cement himself in a role and an opportunity and all that.

"But he is always ears open and eyes open, and always wanting to get better. Ever since he came here in the middle of the summer like he did, you could tell he was ready to take his game to the next level, and it shows on the ice. He is obviously great at shutting guys down, but he can make any play out there, and I think he's got a lot left for us to see, too."

Siegenthaler is the youngest of Washington's defensemen, and that's a good situation for him, too. The other five blueliners are just under 30, they've got hundreds of games of NHL experience, and they're happy to share their knowledge and experience with him.

"Everybody in here, the whole [defense] corps has helped me out," says Siegenthaler. "They're all kind of the same age, they all have a lot of experience. I sit close to [Radko] Gudas and next to [Nick] Jensen, and anything I need I just go up and ask them. I talk a lot with Gudas; he is the guy I usually ask when I don't know something. I just go to Gudie. And early in the year, I played with Johnny and he was helping me out a lot, too. I think it's a good thing for me that we have such an experienced [defense] corps."

Gaining the coaching staff's confidence has led to more minutes and more responsibility as the 22-year-old approaches the 70-game mark for his career.

"The coaches believe in him, and that's the reason why he is here as well," says Gudas. "He's got that big reach, and he can poke some pucks away that not everybody can get to; not everybody can reach that far. He has made a great step. I wasn't here last year, but after his NHL debut is when I started picking up on him as a player. I think as camp started here this year he just took off, and he is getting better and better every game. He is a really smart player at his position, and I'm really happy he is doing this good. He is going to be better, too."

Defensemen with less than a season's worth of NHL experience are typically weaned slowly and steadily, and their development doesn't always track in a straight line. But being able to play a lot of minutes - even if it's not on a night in, night out basis - can also aid in accelerating that development.

"It definitely helps," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "Young legs like that can handle it, no problem. But especially at that age when you're coming into the league, the less you have to think and the more you can just get back out there and get those reps, the more comfortable you feel. He has been pretty steady since he was first called up, but when you get to playing more minutes consistently, it starts to come easier and you can push yourself forward even more. The sky is the limit for him. He's got tons of talent, and a good head on his shoulders."

Scoring is not part of Siegenthaler's job description, but he did net his first NHL goal - a game-winner, no less - on the first anniversary of his NHL debut, in a 5-2 win over Vegas. The next stage of his gradual development is probably going up against a higher caliber of competition at 5-on-5.

"He has been able to go against other team's top power plays," says Reirden, "He is comfortable now, and he is not out of his element. He has already done that for a year. So he feels comfortable at 5-on-4, in the penalty kill department, because he did it last year. And then that's a phase we've got to get to with him at 5-on-5.

"He has touched it a little bit this year against some top players; he's not fully ready for it yet, but at times he is, so that will be the next evolution of him. It's all by design, and you put players in the proper spots and let them grow through it. We went through the growth last year at 5-on-4, and now we're reaping the benefits of it this year." 

Siegenthaler is still very much a work in progress, and Reirden believes that teams really don't know who or what they have in a young defenseman until about the 200-game mark. Siegenthaler is working on growing as many aspects of his game as he can.

"Really everything, but mostly my skating," he says. "And sometimes you feel like you don't have time, and then you check out the video and you see that you have time. That's another thing I'm working on.

"Like when you're on the blueline and you want to shoot the puck and have a good shot, but you feel like you don't have enough time, so you want to just rip it on net. The next day you see it on video as well, and you see that you had enough time. So that's something else I'm working on, trying to gain that confidence to just go. Overall, if you play with confidence, it kind of comes automatically, so that's the thing."

The Caps are happy to have Siegenthaler, and they're excited to see where his development takes him in the years ahead.

"I think you've really got to give credit to our amateur staff on that pick," says MacLellan. "We went over it. They had him high, and they stuck to their guns. We were fortunate to get him.

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