(photo by Mitchell Layton)
If this is the year the Washington Capitals are able to finally to reach their true potential and make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals, just know that there’s a good chance all of this was set in motion 13 years ago.
Back in ‘98, coincidentally, the same year the Caps made their only appearance in the Finals, two franchises not located in our nation’s capital agreed to a trade that could have a lasting impact locally.
On January 4, 1998, the Edmonton Oilers traded Jason Arnott, along with defenseman Bryan Muir, to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for forwards Bill Guerin and Valeri Zelepukin. And the rest, as they say, is history.
While Muir, Guerin and Zelepukin don’t really factor into this story, the same cannot be said about the fourth player in that trade.
After four and a half tumultuous seasons in Edmonton, a 23-year-old Arnott was suddenly faced with the prospect of starting all over with a new franchise in a new town.
Fortunately for him, one guy went out of his way to ensure Arnott had the smoothest transition possible – Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens.
“Scotty was a huge influence when I got there,” Arnott said. “I lived with him for two and a half months and got to know how he was as a person and how he was family wise. I was single at the time, so I got real close with his family and learned a lot about nutrition, eating better and taking care of myself.
“And then, just watching him on the ice,” he continued. “He wasn’t real vocal in the dressing room, but he led by example on the ice every night. That’s why he was one of the best.”
Old school Caps fans no doubt remember Stevens, who anchored the blue line in D.C. from 1983-90. And in the interest of full disclosure, Scott Stevens is my all-time favorite player not named Al Iafrate.
Needless to say, Arnott thinks about as highly of the Kitchener, Ontario native as I do.
“He took me in and we had a lot in common,” Arnott said of Stevens. “We loved to hunt. We rode to the rink together every day. Even when I got my own place, I’d always pick him up for games and we’d travel together. We’d talk about the game, how he prepared himself and things like that. It helped me a lot.”
It’s impossible to play more than 1,600 NHL games and not earn a bit of a reputation. Well, there were a few things that Stevens was known for – specifically, devastating hits and elevating his play in the postseason. Those traits aren’t lost on Arnott.
“That’s why he was wearing the ‘C.’ That’s why he’s got three Stanley Cups. And that’s why he’s a Hall of Fame defenseman,” Arnott said. “He came to play every night and when the playoffs were there, he turned it to a new level. He played mean, and just led us every single night.
“Not the most offensive guy, but very good defensively and he was just a machine,” he continued. “He played through everything and led by example. He took us to three Stanley Cups and everyone followed him.”
Fast forward to Feb. 28 of this year, when Arnott was traded from the Devils to Washington for center Dave Steckel and a second-round pick.
Even though he was once again the new guy in a new city, Arnott was no longer the impressionable youngster. No, this time around, he was acquired specifically for his experience and veteran mindset.
Sure, he could have sat quietly and opted to “not rock the boat.” But that wasn’t really an option. Stevens was there to point him in the right direction early in his career, and now it’s Arnott’s time to pay it forward.
“He’s just a wealth of knowledge and if he says anything to you, you listen,” said defenseman Karl Alzner. “Everything he says has merit and at some point, you’re going to come across a situation to use it.”
And by all accounts, Arnott still has plenty left in the tank.
After posting four goals and three assists for seven points in 11 regular season games for the Capitals, Arnott has one goal and two assists for three points in three playoff games.
That’s 10 total points in 14 games for Washington. To put that in perspective, that’s one point more than Boyd Gordon had in 60 games this season. And I haven’t even mentioned Arnott’s eagerness to spend time with a hardheaded enigma like Alexander Semin.
Add all of that up and you begin to see how a guy who hasn’t even been in town two full months yet completely owns the Caps locker room.
“When you have a group of wide-eyed younger guys and you get someone like that coming in the dressing room, everyone listened and respected him right away,” Alzner said.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the “new guy” has done something the rest of this locker room is dying to experience – namely hoisting hockey’s hardware. That’ll help get folks attention.
“He’s been a tremendous addition to this team,” said forward Matt Hendricks. “His leadership and his on-ice play have been tremendous and he’s been a player I’ve followed my entire career. He’s definitely a guy I’ve tried to emulate. He’s won a Stanley Cup and he’s had a great career.”
Not that anyone is in a rush to see that illustrious career come to an end, just yet.
“He’s won over everybody in this city – the players and coaching staff included,” Alzner added. “He’s an honest player who works hard, knows the game really well and shares all of his information with us. He’s a big-game player that we love to have on our team in the playoffs.”
While I’ll always think of Stevens as “the one who got away,” it lessens the pain a little bit to learn that he helped mold Arnott into the savvy veteran now returning the favor back here in Washington. In an odd way, it almost feels like the story has come full circle.
And because Stevens took such great care of himself, he was able to extend his playing days until he was 39, when he finally called it quits on his 22-year career.
It’s obviously too soon to rush out and sign Arnott to a long-term deal, but if he continues to be such an impact player – on and off the ice –it wouldn’t be shocking to see the 36-year-old at least brought back for another season.
Although, in all honesty, his teammates would be okay if Arnott stuck around a little bit longer.
“Right now it looks like he could go for another 10 years,” Alzner said. “I don’t know how his body feels or how much longer he thinks he can go, but he looks good out there. Look at a guy like Chris Chelios. Look at how long he played. Arnie’s got those same tools, so he could be here a long time.”
Whatever happens next, just know that Arnott is convinced he wouldn’t be the player he is today without the guidance and mentorship of Stevens. So thank you Oilers, for giving up on a top-line player at least 13 years too early.
If these Capitals do manage to one day win the Cup, I’ll be sure to have Ted Leonsis send you a thank-you note.
(For more on this topic, head on over to Japers’ Rink.)