For the playoffs, the Capitals’ defensive unit seems pretty set. Jonas Siegenthaler has returned to North America after training in Switzerland and the seven-man unit of John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempný, Nick Jensen, Brenden Dillon, Radko Gudas and Siegenthaler appears to be ready to go for the playoffs.
However, once this season ends, both Gudas and Dillon are unrestricted free agents. That’s going to leave a potential spot open for the Capitals to fill. They might not have to look very far to see whom is going to fill it, because Martin Fehérváry is looking like he might be the next man up to seize a roster spot on this Capitals’ defense.
Who is Martin Fehérváry?
Fehérváry was drafted 46th overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. The defender from Bratislava, Slovakia, checks in at 6-foot-2 and 188 pounds. At 18 years old, he was selected to play in the IIHF World Championships. He is only the fourth 18-year-old Slovak player in history (Jiří Bicek, Marián Hossa and Marián Gáborík were the others) to receive that honor.
After spending his Draft+1 season playing 45 games with HV-71 of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), he made the jump to North America for the 2019-20 season. After an impressive training camp, and a three-game stint with the NHL club in October, Fehérváry was assigned to the Capitals’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, The Hershey Bears.
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Once in Hershey, Fehérváry thrived. The first-year North American pro became a mainstay on the defense, playing big minutes in 56 contests and notching 14 points for himself. He was impressive enough that in February he received another chance to play with the big club. In that three-game stint he was a very different player from his first three games, and he saw much bigger minutes because of it.
What Makes Him So Special?
This is a player who has a skill set and tool box that is going to be essential for successful NHL defenders of the future. As the game evolves, the role of the defender has changed. Anyone who has kept up with rule changes over recent years will have noticed that they continue to remove tools from the defenders’ arsenal. Changes made in the last five years to how hooking and slashing offenses are called has taken go-to moves away from defenders who learned to play the game while having access to those tricks. It has opened the game up, made it faster and increased scoring. It has also seen some defenders who were previously effective struggle to keep up with the times.
New-age defenders are going to have to be quick on their feet and quick in their thinking. They’re also going to need to have good gap control and a good sense of the ice around them. Fehérváry exhibits all these characteristics and combines them with a “high panic threshold.” That means that in pressure situations he doesn’t resort to a panicked pass or make decisions too quickly. He takes his time, makes the smart/right play and helps his team out by doing so.
Often times it is better to show than to simply just tell. In his second three-game stint with the Capitals in February, Fehérváry was able to register his first NHL point, gaining a secondary assist on an Evgeny Kuznetsov goal against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The film is below, but prior to viewing it, lets break it down. Fehérváry’s role in this goal shows just how many tools he has at his disposal. His role in a goal that takes eight seconds to develop only occurs in the first three seconds, so it is easy to miss. The video (which is an overall highlight film from the Feb. 8 contest) is queued up to begin at the 4:20 mark.
In watching the film, it starts with Fehérváry collecting a puck that was dumped in by Flyer’s forward Scott Laughton. He checks over his shoulder to see if Laughton is coming as he gathers the puck. After gathering the puck, he uses his edge work to build up speed around the boards and positions his body to fend off the opposing forechecker. As Fehérváry collects the puck, teammates T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov turn and streak back up ice towards the neutral zone.
He continues to gather speed out of the corner and pulls away from Laughton creating a gap between them. As his opposition breaks off pursuit, Fehérváry is already looking up ice. Head up all the way, he sees teammate Oshie moving to the blue line on the opposite end of the ice and he see’s an oncoming Flyer moving in to take over Laughton’s pursuit. Fehérváry delivers a crisp, on-target pass across ice to Oshie, that catches him in stride, to complete the defensive zone breakout before the new Flyers’ forechecker can close the gap on him enough to cut off the pass. It’s worth watching the pass more than once, because Oshie, traveling at full tilt, doesn’t have to slow down at all to collect the puck.
The speed at which the Capitals are able to burst through the neutral zone catches the Flyers flat-footed, and maybe taking it easy a bit because of the 7-1 lead. Oshie streaks up ice, he feeds Kuznetsov who appears to flub the shot and the offspeed nature of the shot catches goaltender Brian Elliott off guard.
It is just one play on one goal, but the skill set on display here is worth talking about. This is not a hardened NHL defender at work here, this was a 20-year-old kid playing in his fifth NHL game. Yet, he managed to make the perfect play with the poise of a veteran. Clearly, he has had practice making this play before in the SHL and the AHL. This breakout pass is good enough to be teaching material for young defenders.
The play really shows off some his best attributes. He shows good awareness to know where Laughton is at all times. Footspeed and edgework are on display as he’s able to gather speed coming around the back of the net, make a tight turn and break away from his forechecker. Finally, his vision up ice and keen passing ability are shown as he converts the breakout and manages to catch the forward in stride skating at top speed.
Fehérváry shows the skills and ability to make plays that elite NHL defenders have to make consistently, game in and game out, throughout the season. They do not always result in goals, and most certainly do not always result in an assist for the defender. This ability to gather the puck, achieve possession and then break out the puck under pressure from an opposing player is essential for the modern NHL defender.
On a team like the Capitals, with the forwards they have, a defender who can execute this kind of play with consistency would be huge. Combine this with the solid defensive aspects of Fehérváry’s game, his NHL size and the ability he has shown to grow into any role given to him, and what you have is a player who has a real chance of being a contributor for the Capitals as a member of their defensive corps for years to come.