Chandler Stephenson does not possess the breakaway speed of a Jakub Vrana or the wicked shot of an Andre Burakovsky, attributes that quickly drew the attention of fans who attended last week’s Capitals’ development camp.
Stephenson’s greatest qualities as a player are far more subtle – qualities like hockey sense, an awareness on the ice and a two-way presence difficult to find in 20-year-olds.
“Those are things coaches look for,” Capitals assistant coach Lane Lambert said, “and he has them.”
The Capitals liked Stephenson enough to make him a third-round choice [77th overall] in the 2012 NHL draft, but unlike the two players the Caps took ahead of him [Filip Forsberg and Tom Wilson] Stephenson did not sign an entry-level contract in his first summer with the Caps.
Or his second.
In fact, it wasn’t until Stephenson had a breakout year for the Regina Pats last season [30 goals, 59 assists in 69 games] that the Capitals signed Stephenson to a three-year, entry level contract that included a maximum signing bonus [$92,500 per season] and the highest AHL salary [$70,000] permitted under the NHL rookie salary cap.
That means Stephenson will earn $162,500 to play for the Hershey Bears next season, which is where he is expected to begin his pro career.
“That’s been my goal, trying to make Hershey,” Stephenson said. “It’s all up to me now.”
"He's certainly ready to make the jump to the pro ranks," Stephenson's agent, Jason Davidson, told The Leader Post after Stephenson’s signing with the Caps. "I think the Washington Capitals took note of that and did their part in making sure he is going to be compensated for it."
It is worth noting that it was George McPhee who signed Stephenson to his first pro contract and Adam Oates who gave him his first taste of the NHL by playing him with Troy Brouwer and Australian winger Nathan Walker last preseason. With Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz now running the show in Washington, Stephenson has a fresh set of eyes to impress.
It doesn’t hurt that Trotz also played for the Regina Pats, a connection Trotz noted on the first day of rookie camp. The Pats have produced more than 140 NHL players in their history, including Clark Gillies, Butch Goring and Al MacInnis.
“It’s good for everyone,” Stephenson said. “It’s a fresh set of eyes. Everybody has a clean slate.”
Having led the Western League with eight shorthanded goals, Stephenson likely will be used in the role of second-line center in Hershey and projects as a third- or fourth-line center in the NHL. He said that after his second of four seasons in Regina he began focusing on his defensive play, figuring that might be his ticket to the NHL.
“My first couple of years in the league I focused on my offensive play,” Stephenson said, “but making that step [to the AHL/NHL] you need a defensive part of your games and that’s something I took pride in and that’s something this year the coaching staff took a lot of pride in.”
Stephenson finished last season with the Bears, picking up one goal in two games after signing with the Caps. With new head coach Troy Mann behind the bench next season Stephenson said he’s hoping to use the advice outgoing Bears coach Mike Haviland gave him in his exit interview.
“He told me I just need to be more consistent and more determined and not be lackadaisical,” Stephenson said. “That’s something I’m trying to work on and take in as much as I can.”