If you were to judge the story of Washington Capitals forward Jay Beagle's season based on how it began and ended, then it would be considered a tragedy.
Picture this: a 25-year-old role player who had a taste of the NHL the season before, but had yet to earn a full-time roster spot, finally earns his chance after training camp. In his second game of the season, he ends up on the wrong end of a fight and suffers a concussion that keeps him out of action for almost three months.
Flash forward to the postseason, where the player in question, now 26, sacrifices himself - literally and figuratively - to block a shot. He catches the shot on the inside of his foot, breaking it. As hard as he tries to return to the lineup for the next game, even squeezing his ailing foot into his skate and dressing in full uniform, he is held back by his coaches and his own common sense and forced to watch helplessly as his team ultimately loses a playoff series a few days later.
Yet, there is a reason why a book cannot be judged by its front and back covers. While Beagle's story did not start or end well, it was everything that happened in between that tells the true story, a coming-of-age story about a young hockey player who transformed from a fringe player into one that was integral to his team's overall success.
That transformation took hold under Dale Hunter's watch (Beagle only played two games under Bruce Boudreau before the latter was fired November 28), though it took time. In Beagle's first 10 games under Hunter, he averaged just 7:08 of ice time per game, but by the final 10 games of the regular season, Beagle's average skyrocketed by over nine minutes as Hunter began to rely on the players that best embodied his hard-nosed defensive style of play.
"I definitely learned a lot from Dale, even just coming back from the injury and watching the games and the opportunity he gave me," Beagle said last Monday as the Caps held their final meetings of the season. "I knew [it] was a once in a lifetime opportunity to establish myself as a third line center and a guy a coach can go to to play big minutes in big games."
"I’m grateful for the opportunity he gave me and I tried to do my best to do what I could to help my team win too," he continued in regards to Hunter, who stepped down as head coach last Monday. "The last three months have been great, they’ve been the best time of my life playing hockey and a lot of fun. I owe a lot to Dale."
During the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Beagle was tasked with much more defensive responsibility, especially on defensive zone face-offs (where he won over 55% of his draws) and the penalty kill (where he ranked fourth on the Caps - second among forwards - with 2:42 shorthanded time on ice per game). He became the epitome of a shutdown forward; every inch of ice that the opposition gained was definitely earned.
It was the "foot soldiers" - as Hunter affectionately referred to his grinders as - that led the march to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but unfortunately for Beagle (and perhaps ironically), it was his left foot that impeded his own personal march towards relevancy. During Game 5 against the New York Rangers May 7, Beagle went down to block a Anton Stralman blast, but the puck caught him on the inside of his foot, breaking it instantly. Beagle, however, refused to put his teammates in a shorthanded position.
“I wasn’t going to leave my team a man-short in the game,” Beagle said. “You gut through it and know that the pain will be over soon and just kind of get through it. I was a little bit useless out there. I was taking 15-, 20-second shifts because it would get to the point where I couldn’t really skate.”
Beagle had surgery the following day, but that did not deter him from trying to suit up for Game 6 May 9. Beagle got fully dressed, including putting his left skate on his recently-repaired foot, but was held back by Hunter and head athletic trainer Greg Smith. He did not play again in the postseason, which ended May 12 in a 2-1 Game 7 loss, but his passion and drive to compete caught his teammates' attention.
“I’m not sure what he took to get his foot in the boot," Troy Brouwer said. "He tried walking and it just wouldn’t support him. I think he just wanted to be a part of it so badly that he was trying to push through the pain and everything. The way he was walking, the way he was feeling it, I guess you could say, it was kind of clear to the guys how it would turn out. We love the guy for trying as hard as he did.”
While Beagle's season ended prematurely, he will certainly have a chance to continue his story next season. A restricted free agent, the Caps would be remiss not to re-sign Beagle and give him another opportunity to further cement his place on their roster.
Although unexpected injuries may have put a damper on Beagle's first full season in the NHL, they will eventually heal and the scars will fade away. What will not fade away, however, is the impact that Beagle, a player that truly characterized a team-first mentality, had and could potentially have in Washington for years to come.
And when you think about it, that was unexpected, too.
"I don’t think I expected [the success I had this year]," Beagle said. "I wanted to come in and do what I did at the end of this season, play a pivotal role on the team, be able to PK and play the last dying seconds of the game when we’re trying to kill the game. That was my goal, was to come in and play a pivotal role on the team and help my team win every night. I didn’t expect it but I definitely wanted to come out and have a good year and prove that I can play a big role on this team."
“It’s been a roller coaster," he continued. "It didn’t start the way I wanted it to and it didn’t end the way I wanted it to, that’s hockey. Injuries happen and hopefully it will make me stronger as a player and as a person. You really appreciate the good times when they happen once you’ve gone through some adversity. I’m looking forward to next year already. It’s exciting to think about the potential we have and I’m looking forward to it.”