At 25 years old, Brendan Leipsic already has had long, winding journey in NHL. The left winger has been traded twice, selected in the NHL expansion draft, waived then claimed off waivers and finally this past summer became an unrestricted free agent after not being offered a contract. For some teams, the inability to stick with one club would be a red flag. For the Washington Capitals, they see it as an opportunity.
The Capitals have had success with low-risk, inexpensive reclamation projects in recent years — notably forwards Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly. And while the organization knows taking a chance on a flyer won’t always work out, Leipsic could be the Capitals’ next successful addition. The 5-foot-10-inch, 182-pound forward will be making his debut with Washington on Monday night against the Chicago Blackhawks in the team’s pre-season opener. Leipsic is expected to skate on a line with forward Tom Wilson and centre Travis Boyd.
“It’s not easy,” Leipsic said of his constant bouncing around. “You want to stay in one place and get some traction, and hopefully this can be the spot.”
Leipsic, a Winnipeg native, is now on his fifth team since making his NHL debut with Toronto during the 2015-16 season. Las Vegas selected him in the 2017 expansion draft, then traded him in February 2018 to Vancouver. After getting waived by the Canucks, he was picked up by the Los Angeles Kings in December.
He set career highs with seven goals and 23 points in 62 games last season with the Canucks and the Kings. The year after he was drafted by Nashville in 2012, he was the top scorer in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) playing for the Portland Winterhawks with 120 points (49 games, 71 assists).
The Capitals’ bottom-six turnover has been one of the major story lines entering the season after a first-round exit to Carolina last season exposed a lack of depth. Leipsic, along with Garnet Hathaway and Richard Panik, were the organization’s three free agent forward additions this off-season.
Leipsic is the biggest question mark of the group. On a one-year, $700,000 contract, he will be the favourite to win the left wing job on the fourth line, but will face some competition from Boyd, Chandler Stephenson and other top organizational prospects.
“We’re going to be open to evaluating performance,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “There’s certain things we’re looking for in our bottom six, and hopefully some guys are going to provide that.”
Coach Todd Reirden said he envisions Leipsic as a player who can be moved up and down the lineup if the team has injuries or other extenuating circumstances in the top six. Carl Hagelin, also known for his fast skating, played a similar role last season. The Capitals also used Connolly and Smith-Pelly in similar capacities during their time in Washington.
“When we were evaluating [Leipsic] we liked a lot of things that he did in L.A.,” Reirden said. “He was able to slot up in their lineup and make some plays with some pretty good players. He doesn’t really feel out of place with the higher end guys and they have some there in LA.”
Leipsic can’t pinpoint exactly what went wrong during his other stops, but when he was searching for the right organization this summer, he was drawn to the Capitals’ team culture and their uptempo, physical style.
“There were some spots where I was trying to be a part of the youth movement, and it just didn’t work out,” Leipsic said. “I think I had a good run in LA last year, but they just sort of went in a different direction so here I am in Washington and hopefully I should have a fresh start and make a really good first impression.”
With any move, there is an adjustment period, but Wilson, who knows Leipsic from playing with and against him in camps when the two were growing up in Canada, believes the room in Washington is different. Players have bounced around the league find a sense of comfort and “feeling at home” in D.C.
“A guy like Brett Connolly, a good buddy of mine, he said it was so easy to just worry about playing hockey because the off-ice stuff was just no a big deal,” Wilson said. “And that is the mentality that I think the leadership group here has had for a long time.”
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Leipsic said the transition has been good so far. He is staying in a hotel until he is able to find a more permanent place in the area. But as far as the on-ice stuff goes, he feels ready to show he is able slot into the lineup every day and gain the trust in the coaching staff.
“I’m just coming in here and still trying to prove myself as an NHL player,” Leipsic said.