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THE CHIASS

BY CAIT MACPHAIL

F

ans are rarely privy to the exact ins and outs of player signings, contract negotiations, or trade formulations-whether it be exactly how they come to be or any close-calls or near-misses along the way.
 
Hockey insiders across broadcast networks can offer insight or a small window to a world fans clamor for a glimpse into. Look no further for proof than some of hockey's most influential pundits who command more than one million Twitter followers that hang on every character of every tweet about anything from the "inside".
 
These media personalities can supply the slivers that satiate an appetite for real-time, behind-the-scenes info, but in reality, these talks are held close to the chest on the sides of agents, players and teams for obvious reasons.
 
It's not just leading up to those loud signings on July 1 where this delicate process plays out. Dictating the future of any player takes time, diligence and forethought from many perspectives.

And as Alex Chiasson embarked on the second professional tryout (PTO) experience of his career this fall in Edmonton, he knew that process of patiently combing for the right fit is key, while also keeping in mind that once your blades hits the ice for that next opportunity, nothing is certain. 
 
He is no stranger to this.  
 
"You're taking two suitcases, a suit, a couple shirts, a backpack and off you go. But you're still not really sure where you're going to end up," said the forward.
 
While the 28-year-old made earning a spot with the Oilers the priority, he was not blind to the realities of fighting for a contract this way. You're showcasing in one city, but others with interest can keep a keen eye. A year earlier, he was rolling into the Washington Capitals training camp under the same circumstances.
 
"Obviously you're trying out for one team, but you're also trying out for every other team in the NHL."
 
The Edmonton Oilers announced on Sept. 10 that they had signed the Quebec native to a PTO. With a goal of rounding out their forward group, in addition to some off-season signings, the organization opted to bring in the versatile winger to compete for a contract. If he earned that, the next step would be vying for playing time against a mix of burgeoning prospects and other vets in the Oilers system.

So far, it's two big checkmarks for Chiasson in Edmonton-and with a pleasant influx of offence to boot

The big winger's resumé came with a documented nose for the blue paint. His ability to go the net, jump on loose pucks and still have hands adept enough to finish in tight has largely been what's earned him his paycheques in the NHL. It's always a part of why, despite not signing more than a one-year contract for the last four seasons, he's continued to find a niche on an NHL team every season of his career.

The 6-foot-4 winger was selected 38th overall in the 2009 NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars. His customary post-draft interview shows a very recognizable Chiasson, despite being just 18 at the time. With his new Stars cap affixed to his head, there's something else recognizable about him, and it's how he describes his own personal style of play. 

"When I play physical, it's when I score goals. It's weird to say, but that's the way it is. I like to go to the net hard and play physical."

Fast-forward nearly a decade later to just his second game with the Oilers, who upgraded his PTO to a one-year deal signed on Oct. 2.

After watching the team's first five games from the press box as a healthy scratch while the Oilers forward group worked out its early-season identity, it took only a few periods in his second appearance to show why he earned his latest contract. 

Chiasson shouldered a Pittsburgh defender to the ice in the corner, curled off the boards, fired a shot on net, shoved his way to the middle, gloved down his own rebound and, while falling, potted a beautiful wrister under that bar for one of the prettiest first goals you'll see a PTO-turned-depth-signing score with their new club. 

The words of 18-year-old Chiasson on draft day were echoed in the replay of how his first Oilers goal developed. A physical play in the corner resulting in Chiasson netting one from the dirty area in front. It was nothing if not a calling card for the journeyman winger. He would go on to score his second of the season in that same game and thus, Chiasson's tenure with the Oilers had begun.

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His personal journey through the NHL is a unique one. Beyond his entry-level deal with Dallas, Chiasson has worked his way through five other clubs on successive one-year contracts. Rarer than that, is a player who is not only on a fifth-consecutive one-year deal but one that has contributed consistently enough to stay at the NHL level throughout the entire process.

The forward seemingly filled a role every step of the way and his work ethic is well-documented.

Having coached him not only as a rookie in Dallas, but again during the forward's one-season stint with the Calgary Flames, there may not be anyone who knows this fact better than Oilers assistant coach Glen Gulutzan, who was key in Chiasson's recruitment to Edmonton.

"It was a continual dialogue throughout the summer," said Gulutzan about his off-season chats with Chiasson.

"He's one of those guys… He does everything right. He comes to practice hard, he's a great pro. He's just one of those guys you need on your team that gives you real stability."

"Ultimately we were glad he chose to come here."

In so many words, Gulutzan described exactly why the Oilers were interested in bringing Chiasson in. They wanted to give him the opportunity to be the type of new-look role player the Oilers could use. In addition, his consistency as a five-on-five offensive contributor in a bottom-six role was not overlooked by an Oilers team who sought more scoring depth.

Being reunited with a trusted coach was on the list of pros for Chiasson in Edmonton.

"I trust his experience and his thoughts and value on different things," Chiasson said of Gulutzan.

"I think he knows the type of player I can be. It's been great to have him on my side so far. I know where I stand with him, he's pretty honest with me, at the same time, he's always helped me put myself in a position where I can be successful."

As days ticked off the calendar this past summer, Chiasson assessed his options. The Oilers weren't the only ones expressing interest, so some weighing and measuring had to be done.

"When (Oilers GM) Peter (Chiarelli) called, I looked at the guys on the team and where I could fit in," said Chiasson about when the Oilers first came knocking.

"I believe in my ability and I thought this would be the best place for me to come and play."

Chiasson admits that, despite being in similar positions in past off-seasons, the process is often both arduous and stressful at times. Pushing your chips in on a PTO opportunity is a leap of faith, one Chiasson was comfortable taking in Edmonton. Still, waiting until September gave the forward some time to evaluate.
 
"It was kind of really late (to sign a PTO). I think, personally, in the way things happened this summer, I kind of waited until the end to see where could have been the best fit."
 
His shortened summer proved to be a crossroads for Chiasson-an off-season where his recent past and impending future collided in a big way. Chiasson was a part of the 2018 Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals and on Sept. 2, he got his own day with hockey's Holy Grail. And like many NHLers do when it's their turn, he took the Cup back to where it all began for him in Quebec City.
 
An emotional journey was capped off in the off-season with Chiasson parting ways with not only the Cup, but with the Capitals organization as well, who opted not to offer Chiasson another contract with some other negotiations taking priority given their cap situation. 

Not seven days later, Chiasson was packing his bags and hopping on a flight to Edmonton for his next PTO opportunity.
 
Chiasson admits separating himself from the emotional turbulence of a Stanley Cup run and almost immediately having to turn the page was not easy, but he is no stranger to adapting. On potentially his fifth NHL club before turning 30, he was more so a pro at it. 
 
Though it wouldn't be long for his past and present to collide again.

After giving Oilers management every reason to keep him in the lineup after his first few appearances, his third game saw his former teammates from Washington roll into town.

They brought with them Chiasson's Stanley Cup ring. Chiasson entered the visitors dressing room at Rogers Place following the Oilers pre-game skate donned in orange and blue, where, in a short and touching gesture, Capitals' captain Alexander Ovechkin presented Chiasson with his sparkly hardware. 

The former Cap said a few heartfelt words and exchanged some quick hugs and thank you's with old teammates and emerged from the dressing room with the box clutched in his hand. Some local media asked him if he could show off his new token. Chiasson admitted his hand was still shaking as he placed the ring back on his right ring finger to show the camera.

What would be an impactful and emotional moment for any Cup champion had to have a short shelf life for Chiasson that day. In a few hours, he was set to go up against the same group he battled to a championship with just months before.

He didn't disappoint. 

Chiasson broke over the Capitals' blueline that night and fired a long-range wrister that beat Braden Holtby over the shoulder for this third goal in two games. The Oilers went on to beat the defending champs 4-1.

The media contingent converged on Chiasson's locker room stall after the game. He was hard-pressed to keep the smile off his face and was quick to describe just what kind of day he had.

"I don't think I've had a day with ups and downs like that in emotion," said Chiasson.

"It was super emotional for me to go back into that locker room and have Ovi hand me the ring… Going back home today, it was kind of awkward. Trying to move away from what had happened this morning and in the past and focus on the game, it couldn't have been a better outcome." 

Chiasson isn't unfamiliar with having to "turn the page," as he describes it, and that night, as he spoke candidly about his day, it became clear the winger had taken an important step in separating the past and ingratiating himself in a new organization.

When talking about what kind of player the Oilers were getting in Chiasson, Gulutzan mentioned something specific that has become apparent during the forward's time in Edmonton.

"Once he feels comfortable in his surroundings, he's going to work really hard every day and he has the ability to score," said the Oilers assistant coach.

Chiasson has fit the bill exactly and with even a little more on the offensive side. In just his first 20 games with the Oilers, he has tallied 11 goals, just two shy of his career-high with Dallas in 2013-14. 

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It wasn't just a familiarity with player's skillset that piqued the Oilers interest. Chiasson was bringing in something that can't be charted via analytics.

"You can see it right away in him. He knows that it takes to win. He was a part of a team in Washington that transformed into a machine that won the cup. I think he understands the subtleties," said Gulutzan

Chiasson also spoke to this sentiment when asked what he thought he could bring to a young team in Edmonton looking to get back to the post-season.

"I think that's one thing I have going for me," said Chiasson.

"Being a part of that group last year, it takes every guy and every guy has to do their jobs to the best of their ability."

Chiasson scored a huge playoff goal for the Caps in Game 7 of their series against Pittsburgh, but he's well aware players in similar roles as his don't have to be filling the back of the net to be highly effective in the battleground of post-season play. 

He recalls a recent situation in Edmonton that Oilers fans would remember vividly.

"When you're in the playoffs, in the second round, a Zack Kassian is important. I watched Kass play two years ago in the playoffs and he was a big difference for that team and that's what you have to realize," said Chiasson.

Chiasson often pauses when he speaks in interviews. It becomes apparent that he's simply processing the next well-thought-out answer. He's honest with an air of quiet confidence. It's the voice of a well-travelled journeyman of over 400 NHL games who finds his role and embraces it over and over again, one who has earned every opportunity he's been given, even when it comes with the pressure of proving your worth on the legs of a one-year commitment. 

So far, he's done just that with the Oilers, endearing himself to not only the fans, but clearly coaching staff and management as well.

After taking the reigns in mid-November, new Oilers Head Coach Ken Hitchcock had a few games to asses the roster in front of him. It took him less than a week to see what was to like about the player that is Alex Chiasson.

"He goes to the net, stays at the net and can score at the net. All of his goals are scored in close. Right now, Alex is one of the best on the team at that," said Hitchcock.

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After a hard-fought divisional battle to open the Oilers December schedule with a win over Las Vegas during Hockey Night in Canada action, Chiasson sat down with CBC's Scott Oake and Louie DeBrusk post-game for a customary After Hours segment, usually reserved for a player that might be generating a little buzz at that moment. Chiasson fit the bill, having been elevated to the Oilers top line with Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid for the few games previous after finding consistent scoring success in the early-going.

He discussed what was expected; a little bit about the past, a little bit about his present and, of course, a little bit about the nomadic nature of his career thus far. Despite what is behind him and what could potentially be in front, Chiasson speaks like a man living in the moment. 

"It feels like I'm getting rewarded for my play and my effort the last couple years," said Chiasson, as he watched some of his Oilers highlights on the screen in front of him.

"It's not always been easy for me as a player. I've changed a lot of teams, I've had to move around and I've gotten used to packing my luggage… But so far here, it's been good." 

On pace to smash his career numbers offensively while quickly becoming a fan-favourite in Oil Country, the chase for Chiasser as he continues to prove, yet again, that he was worth taking a chance on.

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