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Capitals' Fehr excels in new role as checking center

by Ben Raby / NHL.com

ARLINGTON, Va. -- More than 10 years have passed since defenseman Mike Green and forward Eric Fehr, now Washington Capitals teammates, played against each other in the Western Hockey League, but Green still has one regret.

Eric Fehr
Center - WSH
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 30
SOG: 135 | +/-: 7
"I wanted to drop the gloves with him; I really wanted to go," said Green, who was captain of the Saskatoon Blades. "But Eric, he was too busy scoring goals against us, two or three a game. He was a great goal-scorer, absolutely. We couldn't stop him."

Back then, few teams could. Fehr was a two-time 50-goal scorer with the Brandon Wheat Kings and led the WHL in scoring during the 2004-05 season with 59 goals and 111 points in 71 games.

"Scoring 50 goals in the Western League isn't easy," said Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner, who was a WHL rookie with the Calgary Hitmen when Fehr led the league in scoring. "So he showed that he could score -- it's what got him to the NHL -- but now he's showing a whole other side of his game. He's adapted and it's been great for our team."

A decade removed from his days in Brandon, Fehr does not score at nearly the same clip (one career 20-goal season in the NHL), but Washington's first round pick (No. 18) from the 2003 NHL Draft may have found a new calling thanks to a mid-career shift in position and philosophy.

Now in his second stint with the Capitals after one season with the Winnipeg Jets in 2011-12, Fehr has gone from a sharp-shooting right wing with elite scoring potential to a defensive-minded center charged with shutting down the opposition's top players.

Fehr is entrenched as the third-line center for the Capitals, who play the New York Rangers on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, TVA Sports).

"You would never have heard me say this, even five years ago, but I absolutely love frustrating the other teams' top lines," said Fehr, who had 19 goals and 30 points in 71 games playing primarily with Brooks Laich and Joel Ward. "I can't say it enough; I really enjoy being a defensive, checking centerman."

Fehr concedes this is not necessarily the path he envisioned his pro career taking, admitting he was shocked when former Capitals coach Adam Oates approached him last season about switching positions.

"I knew absolutely nothing," Fehr said of playing center. "If a teammate got kicked out of the faceoff circle and it was for one of the wings to take the draw and move into the dot, I'd always make sure the other guy took the draw every single time. That's how little I cared about playing center, that's how little I wanted to play center."

But Oates convinced the 6-foot-4, 212-pound forward, who took 12 faceoffs in his first six NHL seasons, that with the NHL moving toward bigger centers, a shift to the middle would be for the best.

Fehr, 29, was equally wary because the position change would entail greater defensive responsibility, an area of the game he admittedly had not always prioritized earlier in his career.

"I remember [former Capitals coach] Bruce [Boudreau] used to tell me that that was probably the last thing he'd ever want from me, to go down low in the defensive zone," Fehr said.

"He didn't really want me playing defense anywhere; he didn't see me as a guy he'd want low in the zone. He wanted me on the wings just chipping pucks off the boards, and I completely understood that because it's what I was used to."

But as the Capitals have adapted organizationally from an offensive juggernaut into a more defensively responsible hockey team, perhaps no player better exemplifies the shift in attitude than Fehr.

"You have to make adjustments," Fehr said of lasting in the NHL. "In my mind, I would have wanted to continue to be a really high goal-scorer like in junior, but because of injury (back surgery and multiple shoulder surgeries) and not always fitting in the lineup, it just didn't work out that way."

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said, "I think that comes with maturity. I think a lot of the players that come up that are high scoring juniors, even guys like Guy Carbonneau; you have to find a role that works for you in the National Hockey League and I think that Eric has.

"He's finding a role and a comfort level where he can still score, but he's got more of a two-way mentality now than he did earlier in his career. … He's a guy I can send out to win a key draw, a guy you can trust in late-game situations. There's a lot of value in that."

Among Fehr's most productive games of the season was a 4-0 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 28 when he was matched up primarily against center Sidney Crosby. Crosby was held to three shots on goal, and Fehr scored a goal and won 13 of 17 faceoffs against the Penguins captain.

"The biggest change has been on the faceoffs," said Fehr, who credits teammate Jay Beagle with teaching him the intricacies of the position. "Before I wouldn't really have a plan, I wouldn't look to see what the other guy was doing, but now I try to read and react and see what other guys are doing and make the appropriate adjustments. That's a lot better for me and I've done better at it."

Fehr has taken a career-high 810 faceoffs this season and has a 52.3 percent success rate entering Saturday. He is averaging a career-high 14:53 of ice time per game.

"I play on the penalty kill and 4-on-4 and I just feel a little bit more involved," said Fehr, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. "You're on for late-game situations, trusted in big spots, getting consistent shifts against other teams' top lines, you get involved in the game and feel like you're a bigger part of the team."

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