Photo credit: Patrick Smith
In early 2007, Jay Beagle was a member of the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL, a team he signed with after college. As an undrafted forward playing third-tier professional hockey in middle America, Beagle had little shot at making the NHL. He skated in 26 games for the Steelheads, mostly in the postseason, picking up 13 points. During their Kelly Cup-winning playoff run, the Steelheads matched up against the Las Vegas Wranglers. Steve Richmond, currently the Capitals’ Director of Player Development, happened to be in attendance for those games in Vegas. He liked what he saw, and Beagle received an offer to join Washington’s annual development camp over the summer.
“I was ecstatic,” Beagle said. “It was a chance that I didn’t really think I’d ever get.”
Among prospects and draft picks, Beagle was an outlier. Free agent invitees are often just space-fillers at the development camps held by teams during the offseason. Beagle, however, proved there is hidden talent to be found. Less than 10 years after playing those ECHL games in Vegas, Beagle was seeing time on the top line as a member of the Washington Capitals.
“I went through many development camps after that and I was like ‘Oh, this isn’t really for free agents to come and get a contract,” said Beagle. “I didn’t know that at the time.”
“It was a summer I’ll never forget,” he added. “I trained my butt off coming into it because I knew this was my chance to do something.”
In the fall, Beagle signed a minor league contract with the Bears, putting up 19 goals and 37 points in his first AHL season. That lead to a two-way contract with the Capitals, and, in 2009, his first NHL game. He spent a few years going up and down between Washington and Hershey, winning a couple Calder Cups alongside guys like Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Braden Holtby. After the lockout, Beagle established himself as a full-time player: a solid fourth-line center with a flip phone.
This year, however, was different. At times, Beagle played as the top-line right wing with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. With eight goals, Beagle doubled his career total in just 62 games. During the playoffs, he became a credible scoring threat on Washington’s third line. He was also one of Washington’s best faceoff men, and one player who won a higher percentage of draws this year, Eric Fehr, helped learn the craft from Beagle when he switched positions.
“Beags is amazing,” Alzner said. “You can’t help but not love the guy.”
But the kicker is simple: Beagle is a solid fourth-liner. He can score a few goals, win faceoffs, and his teammates adore him. But fourth-liners are replaceable. After the best season of his career, Beagle will not come with a discount. Nevertheless, the Capitals seem confident they will keep him.
“He’d be an easier one to sign, I’d hope,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We like Beags. We want to get Beags on a good number as a fourth-line player.”
Including Beagle, the Capitals have six unrestricted free agents and four unrestricted free agents to re-sign. A couple of those RFAs, who the Capitals say they will focus on first, could end up with significant cap hits. Washington may have limited money left over for anyone else.
“I’d hate to be in management’s shoes.” Beagle said. “I obviously love it here. I’m not gonna say otherwise.”
“I’ve never been in this situation,” he added. “It’s tough.”
Three of the UFAs — Beagle, Fehr, and Mike Green — have played together for a combined 29 years. All of three of those guys want to stay. The salary cap, however, turns wistful thinking into hard choices. Somebody has to go.
Jay Beagle will remain for fan favorite. But there’s a chance it will not be in Washington.
“This has always been my home,” he told me. “It’s weird. It’s definitely weird.”
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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