One of the more controversial stories around the NHL this past summer was the situation between the Washington Capitals and Eric Belanger. After a week of turmoil and bad press coverage, the two parties officially parted ways with Belanger signing with the Phoenix Coyotes. Because the Capitals had been reserving a spot on their training camp roster for Belanger, they had one open slot. That open slot was given to now Caps’ regular Matt Hendricks.
Hendricks took this opportunity to heart, recording a hat trick in a preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He continued to impress coaches with his determination and hard style of play, regularly throwing his body at opponents and chasing down loose pucks.
This effort earned the 29 year-old Minnesota native a one-year, two way contract out of camp worth 575,000, and he has played in 16 of the team’s 18 games this season. So far he has notched two goals and three assists. He also has a plus-1 rating and 30 PIMs on a team that hasn’t exactly been known for its toughness.
Hendricks has spent his career thus far as a call-up. He was drafted by Nashville in the fifth round of the 2000 draft out of Blaine High School. There he won a class AA Minnesota State Championship and was a finalist for the 2000 Minnesota Mr. Hockey award as the most outstanding senior high school player in the state.
After being drafted, Hendricks turned down an offer to play for the Lincoln Stars of the USHL to instead go the collegiate route. He played all four years of his college eligibility at St. Cloud State (leading the team in goals his junior year with 18) before beginning his pro career with the Predators AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, for the end of the 2003-2004 season. Hendricks turned down a contract offer from the Predators following that season and instead signed with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL.
After spending the next three seasons with three separate teams (including the Caps affiliate, the Hershey Bears, for the 2006-2007 season) Hendricks signed a two year contract with the Boston Bruins and was assigned to the Providence Bruins of the AHL. He was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in the summer of 2008.
He played for the Lake Eerie Monsters of the AHL until he was called up to the Avs, making his NHL debut on March 10, 2009. Hendricks made the opening night roster for the Avalanche to start the 2009-2010 season. He was the team’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy (given to the player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey) in his first full NHL season. The award ultimately went to then Caps goalie Jose Theodore. The Caps became his fifth organization in seven years in September.
Not only does Hendricks bring depth at center that the Caps desperately needed, but he has made other contributions to the team off the ice as well. He has become a go-to player for post game interviews, taking some of the pressure off of some of the more regular quotes such as Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble. He added a goal of his own this afternoon in a 6-4 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers.
Hendricks described his game in his own words to the Washington Post after the Caps signed him. “No matter what my role is in a game, no matter how much ice time I get, at the end of it I want to be able to say I changed the game,” he said. “So sometimes it might be scoring a goal, but for the most part it’s the way I play, with the grit and the energy that I bring for the club.”
With other role players to sign this summer such as Laich, Matt Bradley, and Boyd Gordon, there may not be room to bring Hendricks back for the 2011-2012 season. However, it is players like Hendricks that make a difference come playoff time, and his role on the Capitals is not overlooked.