Kevin Shattenkirk, long targeted as the NHL’s most wanted man, is worrying less and feeling more at home.
In an interview Tuesday, the most coveted unrestricted free agent of 2017 said he is more open now to the idea of re-signing with the Washington Capitals than when he first got dealt to the U.S. capital from the St. Louis Blues on March in a surprise, all-in push by the Presidents’ Trophy champs on Feb. 27.
“Yeah,” Shattenkirk exclaimed. “It’s a great city. I really enjoy the locker-room. The D.C. area is a great place to live. The beauty of it is, [Capitals GM] Brian MacLellan just said, ‘Come in here and play hockey. We have a lot of things to take care of on our end after the season is over, and we’ll talk about it after the season.’ He didn’t want to make any promises.
“Really, it’s been a breath of fresh air for someone like me, who’s been worrying about where I’m going next year, to just come in and play hockey for a few months. Then, when the season’s over, I can start worrying about that.”
When point machine Brent Burns re-signed with the San Jose Sharks for eight years and $64 million (that’s a lot of beard oil) in November, Shattenkirk’s stock blasted through the netting.
He’s under 30, he’s in the throes of a career-best 55-point season, he can quarterback an elite power play (more on that later), and he slides into that ever-attractive category of puck-moving defenceman.
As a native of New Rochelle, N.Y., Shattenkirk wears New York on his heart. The whisperers have him pegged as a future Ranger. Nearby New Jersey certainly has the need and the means (i.e., cap space) to make a pitch. Edmonton has reportedly poked around; Boston and Tampa and Arizona, too.
Cash-flush Toronto and Buffalo—rebuilding teams in search of blue line help and quick to court UFAs (see: Stamkos, Steven; Vesey, Jimmy)—will no doubt explore a fit. Heck, most teams should at least see if there’s mutual interest worth pursuing.
But the way Shattenkirk spoke of Washington — which will also have calls to make on (take a deep breath) T.J. Oshie, Karl Alzner, Justin Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Daniel Winnik, Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Paul Carey, Nate Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer — maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to rule out the team on his personalized No. 22 ball cap.
“When you come into a team like this that’s doing very well and just seems to run on all cylinders at all times, it’s very easy to transition into that game. Everyone here is playing at a high level. That forces me to play my best every game,” Shattenkirk said.
“The thing that takes a while is finding chemistry with the guys you play with. That’s been coming well. The power play has started to really get going. I’m playing better with Brooks [Orpik] on the back end.
“The guys have been very helpful in welcoming me to D.C. and making sure everything away from the rink is taken care of, so when I come in here I’m ready to play hockey.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz said when new players parachute into an established dressing room mid-season, the old guard has a tendency to be “standoffish” with the new guy. That wasn’t the case here.
Ironically, the club’s three-game losing swing through California in early March—a trip further marred by Shattenkirk’s two-game suspension—actually allowed the six-year Blue to bond with his new teammates. Misery and company shackled in hotel rooms and buses.
“He’s fit in with the group very well on a personal level,” Trotz said after Washington’s decisive 4-1 win in Toronto Tuesday night.
“There was some growing pains because we play a little different than St. Louis. You saw how important he was today. Makes great plays, has great poise. His puck skills are very strong.”
Shattenkirk scored his first goal and 13th point as a Capital Tuesday. Afterward, he announced his adjustment period over — and offered a slice of insight into his influence on the league’s third-best power play.
“I feel good with these guys,” said Shattenkirk, all smiles and sweat droplets.
“The best part about it is, how I like to play my game and when I’m at my best, it fits this system really well. That’s what makes me so confident to get out there and be me. I’m not trying to wade into the situation or tiptoe around the team. I can make plays. They brought me in here for a reason—that’s to be me, my style of player. They’re not asking me to be Brooks Orpik. That’s the important thing.”
An example of the brilliance of the Shattenkirk-Capitals connection lies in this video of his power-play goal versus the Maple Leafs and Shattenkirk’s explanation of how he orchestrated it:
Set up in his usual left-circle office, sniper Alex Ovechkin was looking for a seam pass but got pushed down low. As they’d been practising recently, Nicklas Backstrom and Shattenkirk passed the puck back and forth to create movement on the outside.
“When I saw we were a little stagnant, I kinda yelled down to O for a switch, and when he comes up [to the point], it’s a matter of the [Leafs] trying to figure out what they want to do,” Shattenkirk detailed.
“You see it in their eyes—they’re trying to figure it out on the fly. O makes some good plays up there; he doesn’t just bury his head and shoot it. Nicky makes a great pass. I was going backdoor, and I pulled back. Stop and pop, and he timed it perfectly.”
Meet Kevin Shattenkirk, the one man who can tell Ovechkin where he can and can’t go.
“It’s something I’m used to, because we did it a lot in St. Louis,” Shattenkirk went on. “It was a matter of getting [Ovechkin] on board. It’s something he likes. He likes to change it up. He knows teams are going to shade to his side and take him away. If I can start putting in a couple from there like him, it’s going to open up his shot from the top.”
Shattenkirk doesn’t need to glance at the standings or Washington’s approximate $22.8 million in 2017-18 cap space to understand the importance of getting the job done this spring. The Capitals are well aware they’re not all coming back next fall.
“It’s similar to last year in St. Louis and even this year, for me, in St. Louis. When you have a team like this that always makes [the playoffs], that has a great chance to win it every year, you always know you’re going to lose guys at the end of the season,” Shattenkirk said.
“You really have to cherish that. Make sure you realize it could be your last chance on a great team.”
“I haven’t leaned on anyone too much,” Shattenkik said. “Last summer was a whirlwind with all the trade talk. That prepared me for this year, being able to go through that for a few months, take deep breath and start the season. I’ve really just been worrying about me and playing my best hockey. I have been this year.
“I’ve been dealing with it well. The most important thing is, the better the team plays, the better I’m going to look. Fortunately, I’m on one of the best teams now, and it’s only going to make me look better.”