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Chandler Stephenson adds depth, versatility to Golden Knights

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — With the Golden Knights clinging to a one-goal lead in the final minute Tuesday against New Jersey, coach Gerard Gallant sent three of his most reliable forwards over the boards for a defensive-zone faceoff.

Paul Stastny, Mark Stone and … Chandler Stephenson.

Wait, Chandler Stephenson?

“Well, that’s what he does,” Gallant said of the Knights’ newest member. “You want to make a player feel comfortable coming to a new team.”

Stephenson, acquired from Washington on Monday for a 2021 fifth-round pick, had been with the Knights less than 24 hours and was still trying to learn his new team’s systems when he arrived at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.

But Gallant didn’t hesitate to use the 25-year-old during crunch time with two pivotal points on the line, which speaks to at least part of the reason Stephenson was so attractive to the Knights.

“Obviously, that’s huge, just for your personal confidence,” Stephenson said. “I feel right at home. That’s obviously something that feels really good in your first game. I’m just going to keep building, and I’m looking forward to what’s ahead.”

Stephenson had been on the Knights’ scouting radar for some time, according to general manager Kelly McCrimmon, and became available when the Capitals needed to clear salary cap space to activate forward Carl Hagelin from long-term injured reserve before Tuesday’s game against San Jose.

Stephenson, expected to be in the lineup Thursday against the New York Islanders, provides additional depth among the Knights’ bottom-six forwards while center Cody Eakin is out with an upper-body injury.

McCrimmon noted Eakin’s injury is “certainly more significant than something that is minor or day to day,” but added that the Knights would have been in for Stephenson regardless of Eakin’s prognosis.

Stephenson carries a $1.05 million salary cap hit and will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights after the season.

“I think versatility was a real key for us,” McCrimmon said. “He’s got the ability to play any of the three forward positions, and he’s a guy that can move up and down the lineup. … He’s a player that we’ve talked about in the past, and when we had the opportunity to acquire him, we thought it was the right move for us.”

Stephenson spent his entire career in the Capitals’ organization after being drafted in the third round in 2012. Knights president of hockey operations George McPhee was Washington’s general manager at the time.

He was with the Capitals in San Jose, California, when the trade was finalized and took a red-eye flight to meet the Knights on Tuesday morning at their team hotel in Manhattan.

“I’ve never had that experience before. I was with Radko Gudas (Capitals defenseman) at the time and just kind of asked him, ‘What happens next?’ ” Stephenson said. “He was really good about it, and (I) saw some of the guys and said bye. It’s a whole learning process and experience for myself and family in that.”

Stephenson must adjust to a new system in the defensive zone after playing man-on-man with the Capitals, though he noted it’s helpful the Knights only recently made the switch to a zone system and he isn’t too far behind on the learning curve.

Stephenson was teammates with Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt in Washington, and the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, native also works out in the summer with Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb, which should help ease his transition.

“It’s obviously nice having those two guys,” Stephenson said. “Just having that familiarity and faces that I’ve seen before and I know and have relationships with. I’m not coming to a whole new team where I don’t know anybody.”

Stephenson centered the fourth line Tuesday and scored in his Knights debut. He has four goals and five points in 25 games, but is regarded as a strong penalty killer who also can take faceoffs (51.4 career winning percentage).

In 169 NHL games, he’s produced 15 goals and 19 assists with a less-than-stellar 45.42 shot attempts percentage at 5-on-5.

“You always hope sometimes a change gives a guy a little boost as well,” McCrimmon said. “We think there’s more there, and that’s what we hope to see.”

Stephenson’s best offensive season came in 2017-18 when he had 18 points in the regular season and added two goals and five assists in 25 postseason games to help the Capitals win the Stanley Cup.

That summer, Stephenson brought the Cup to Humboldt, Saskatchewan, four months after the bus accident in April 2018 that killed 16 players and staff members of the town’s junior hockey team.

“I knew two guys that were in the accident,” Stephenson said. “It was just something — I think it was even before the playoffs — that there was a few of us that were kind of like, ‘If we do this, that’s something I wanted to do.’ It was a really special day and obviously one that I’ll never forget.”

More Golden Knights: Follow at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @GoldenEdgeRJ on Twitter.

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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