Alex Ovechkin doesn’t often concern himself over matters of the minor leagues, but special circumstances inspired a break from protocol. On several occasions last season, the Washington Capitals superstar would approach vice president of communications Sergey Kocharov to inquire about a certain defenseman with their AHL affiliate. As organizational memory serves, it was the first time Ovechkin had ever expressed such mounting curiosity in a prospect.
“What’s going on with Djoos?” he wondered, again and again.
“How’s Djoos doing?”
“When’s Djoos coming up?”
Word soon spread onto the Capitals’ farm in Hershey, Pa., reaching the person of interest. “Fun to hear that he asked,” Christian Djoos says. Now it’s an early-November afternoon at the Capitals’ practice facility. The 23-year-old kicks back in his new locker stall, across the street from the hotel where he unpacked at the start of training camp and hasn’t left yet, across the carpet from his personal champion. “Gives you a little boost, a little confidence. Pretty cool.”
Not that he needed extra motivation. Less than one month into his rookie NHL season—no doubt delighting Ovechkin and everyone else rooting for a promotion during a 58-point, 66-game offensive outburst with the Hershey Bears in ‘16-17—Djoos has already defied steep odds as a seventh-round pick, ascending from No. 195 five years ago to a blue-line mainstay for the two-time defending Presidents’ Trophy winners. On the other hand, he’s unassuming by nature, hardly the type to harbor grudges against other teams for overlooking him. No running recollection of anyone chosen before him in 2012, no Arya Stark-style hit list seared into his brain. In fact, Djoos clarifies, “I’m bad with names. Sorry.”
Should he eventually happen across the results from that draft weekend in Pittsburgh, though, two particular entries might catch Djoos’s eye. By now enough late-round choices have reached the NHL—especially overseas prospects like Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg (210th, 1999) and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (205th, 2000)—who slipped through central scouting’s nets—that the success of one more isn’t wholly novel. Still, it is nonetheless striking to see three players, drafted in the same final round in the same year, playing the same position (defenseman) and shooting from the same side (left), beginning to earn their keep in the NHL at the same time.
There is the red-bearded rookie on the San Jose Sharks, tennis in his blood but hockey in his heart. And the Florida-born, Anaheim-based son of an NFL defensive back, who graduated in three years with a finance degree and figured that he’d seek employment at some Wall Street firm if this whole playing career thing didn’t pan out. And finally there's Djoos, a baby-faced, second-generation Swedish defenseman who can now claim a hometown idol as a mentor and colleague. “For me,” says Djoos, “it wasn’t like a, ‘I’m going to show them.’ I was just happy to get picked. I appreciate the Caps doing that, taking a chance.”
The rest can relate.
As the organist pumps pregame tunes throughout Madison Square Garden on Oct. 23, Catarina Lindqvist-Ryan moseys into the concourse and finds a high-top table to chat. Years ago she was the 10th-ranked player on the women’s pro tennis circuit, reaching two Grand Slam semifinals in the late ‘80s and twice competing for her native Sweden at the Summer Olympics. Now she works as an assistant coach at Rutgers and operates an indoor facility in East Brunswick, N.J., with her husband, Bill Ryan, a former tennis agent and lifelong Rangers fan. Oh, and they happened to have raised one of San Jose’s most pleasant surprises of this still-young season.
It had been a busy stretch for the family. When their oldest son, 24-year-old defenseman Joakim Ryan, previously made his Tri-State Area debut against the New Jersey Devils earlier that week, more than 50 friends and relatives packed the stands at Prudential Center. The next night was more manageable, roughly 10–15 ticket requests for the Sharks' eventual loss to the Islanders. And now between 20 and 30 were flocking to midtown Manhattan, where they would see Ryan skate almost 16 minutes during a 4–1 win, in a building where he used to attend games under his dad’s season-ticket plan.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” Ryan said that morning. “Everything happened so fast.”
Lindqvist-Ryan remembers draft day well. The family was in Sweden, visiting her mother, after Ryan’s freshman season at Cornell. It was his second and final year of eligibility, and getting passed over once left him “really disappointed.” They tracked the results online, but as the rounds passed--fourth...fifth...sixth…—Lindqvist-Ryan gave up and headed to a friend’s house around the corner. When Ryan swung by later, he delivered an NHL-caliber fakeout. “Yeah,” he said somberly, “didn’t get drafted.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Lindqvist-Ryan replied.
“I’m just kidding!”
To hear Ryan retell the story, his eventual selection—seventh round, No. 198, three spots after Djoos—was a surprise. “I’d talked to a couple teams on the phone in interviews and such,” Ryan says. “I knew maybe there was a chance. But I wasn’t expecting to get drafted.” He grew up playing both tennis and hockey, but eventually chose the latter because he preferred the team atmosphere. “Tennis is a pretty lonely, individual sport,” he says, and fortunately fate dumped him into perhaps the most boisterous locker room in the NHL, filled with characters like Joe Thornton and Ryan’s usual defensive partner, Brent Burns.
Looking around the visiting dressing room at the World’s Most Famous Arena, Ryan motions to other unlikely success stories like him. There’s captain Joe Pavelski and defenseman Justin Braun, both fellow seventh-rounders. Forward Joel Ward and goalie Martin Jones went undrafted. As Ryan was coming up through Cornell, a communications major and an Ivy League first-teamer, this gave him confidence. “I knew the Sharks had no problem playing guys,” he says. “If you’re good enough, you’re going to play.” Indeed, when Paul Martin re-aggravated an ankle injury two games into the season, Ryan was summoned from the minors to make his NHL debut. “And here I am,” he says.
He still plays tennis every offseason, mostly against his younger brother, Tobias. (“I never lose,” Ryan reports.) He has seen a few short, grainy clips on YouTube of his mother during her playing days, beating opponents with a smooth one-handed backhand, and they used to play often when he was younger. “It definitely translates to hockey,” Ryan says. “A lot of agility, quick movements, good hand-eye coordination. It’s a sport that makes you more athletic.”
As a pair, Burns and Ryan have been outscored 6-2 in 180-plus even-strength minutes together, but controlled more than 56 percent of total shot attempts. A ticket to the minors seems likely once Martin gets healthy, but Ryan was never one to look too far ahead into the future. That’s how he got here in the first place. As Lindqvist-Ryan has watched her son climb the ladder—from a championship run with Dubuque in the USHL, to four solid years with Cornell, to a 10-goal, 49-point, notice-me ‘16-17 season for San Jose’s affiliate—she noticed parallels in their playing styles. “I think we have the same demeanor,” she says. “We don’t get too excited. We don’t get too down, either. We take everything in stride.”
Similar to Ryan, Ducks defenseman Jaycob Megna hails from sturdy athletic stock. His mother Jacqueline was a national-caliber swimmer and water polo player in high school. His father spent several seasons in the NFL, dressing for Miami, Washington and New Orleans until hamstring injuries forced him out. “He was always the overachiever,” Megna says. “Undersized, undervalued.”
Jay Megna wouldn’t let his two sons play football until they were 12, but by then they had already found another love. They grew up in Chicago, sitting on the glass at Blackhawks games in the days when tickets were practically given away for free. “They were pretty lax with their security,” Jaycob, 24, says. “There was nobody there anyways, so it didn’t really matter.” No doubt it struck the family as serendipitous, then, that the Ducks recalled Megna in time to make his NHL debut last April against none other than his hometown team.
“I don’t remember a lot about it, to be honest,” Megna says. “I look back on it as an amazing day. It was a good benchmark for me. It proved to myself that I can play at this level and I belong up here. Gave me more motivation to keep working, keep pursuing my dream.”
He too was passed over during his first year of eligibility, and recalls falling off most major scouting lists by 2012. He was at college in Nebraska-Omaha for summer training that Saturday, paying no attention to the happenings in Pittsburgh when the Ducks called his name at No. 210, second-to-last in the entire draft. “I did it the year before, and it was a bummer not getting taken, so I didn’t want to deal with it,” he says, but Megna wasn’t too concerned anyway. His older brother, Jayson, went undrafted but was already receiving significant interest from NHL teams offering free agent contracts. And his defensive partner—Andrej Sustr, currently of the Tampa Bay Lightning—was in a similar spot. “I knew there was still a chance,” Megna says. “I wasn’t at the point where I was thinking about life after hockey quite yet.”
Worst-case scenario, he would find a job in finance. No need. He graduated in three years, signed an entry-level deal with the Ducks, and reported to their affiliate in Norfolk, Va. When he was playing for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks, his goal was simply to earn a D-1 scholarship. “Then once I finished my freshman year, I figured, I think I can do this, I think I can make the next step,” he says. “Once that finally clicked for me, that became my only focus.”
Like Djoos, Megna insists that he had enough to worry about beyond who was picked before him. “I don't know if it was a chip,” he says. “I definitely wanted to prove the teams that didn’t take me wrong, but I also wanted to prove Anaheim right that they made the right decision. It serves as motivation. That’s always in the back of your head. You want to prove to people that you do belong and you can make it, regardless of where they take you. By proving one team right, the rest of them are looking and saying, hey, we could’ve had him and we chose not to.”
Acclimating himself to NHL life has taken some time. The travel schedule is more hectic, the games more abundant. And he hasn’t enjoyed the luxury of skating with a steady partner like Megna, thus far deployed with five different Anaheim defensemen for at least 15 even-strength minutes apiece, thanks to injuries currently ransacking the Ducks’ core.
“It was a bit of an adjustment at first, playing against guys you watch every night on TV,” Megna says. “But then you realize, I’m there too. I’m there for a reason. And you tell yourself that you belong.”
Hundreds of miles away on June 23, 2012, not long before Ryan marched across the street to prank his mother, Djoos was busy refreshing NHL.com at home in central Sweden. Then his phone rang. “Big day,” he says. “Emotional for the family.”
Nearby, his father beamed. Pär Djoos—yes, beverage-based puns write themselves—spent bits of three seasons with the Rangers and Red Wings but mostly made his mark as a cerebral, puck-moving defenseman for Brynäs IF. Early into his career there, one of his teammates was Anders Backstrom, who later became general manager of the Swedish Elite League club and often brought his son around the rink. Pär Djoos would do the same.
Later on, when Nicklas Backstrom was starring for the same team, he once swung by a youth practice and autographed gear for the kids. That always stuck with Christian. “He’s one of the best in the league,” Djoos says of Backstrom. “We’ve been watching him since we were kids. I like watching him play, because he plays a great game. Some parts you can take after him, but some parts he’s almost the only guy that can do it too. He’s such a smart hockey player.”
That’s what they say about Djoos around Washington too. He could stand to get stronger in the defensive zone and fill out his bony 169-pound frame, which makes him the NHL’s third-lightest defenseman behind Montreal’s Samuel Girard and Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon. But his offensive talent is undeniable too. As a kid, Backstrom loved watching Pär Djoos’ crisp tape-to-tape feeds on the rush. He thinks this trait got passed down onto the next generation. “You just watch in practice, he never misses any passes,” Backstrom says. “And if he does, he gets mad and gets right back at it. Which is how it’s supposed to be. Young kid, coming up, wants to get better, wants to make sure he’s feeding guys the right way. I think that’s great.”
It is indeed a testament to Djoos’s savvy that he hasn’t yet been smooshed against the glass by an oncoming forechecker. “He processes very quick,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz says. “He’s smart, understands the game very well, has lots of poise with the puck.” Winger Andre Burakovsky, a longtime friend from Swedish national teams, says Djoos has “always been the smartest guy on the ice. He always made the sick passes.” His partner, veteran defenseman John Carlson, praises Djoos’ backhand as “probably better than a lot of guys in the league.”
Staying up late to watch from home in Sweden, Pär Djoos sees a quiet, swelling confidence in his son; Christian’s two goals equaled the rest of Washington’s blue line through Wednesday, and recently he’s enjoyed an uptick in ice time above 16 minutes over the past two games. “He shows that he can play on a regular basis,” Pär Djoos says. “You’ve got to grow into it.”
Christian meanwhile envisions a long road ahead. He’s part of a young flock of Capitals thrust into the spotlight after offseason attrition gashed the group of several key veterans, promised even bigger roles in future years. Already he represents a success story, one of the rare seventh-rounders who reached the big time. (Among the 2012 class, only Djoos, Ryan and Megna have logged more than 10 NHL games.) But there is so much room to outgrow that tag, to become something even more. “It’s probably going to take the whole year, and maybe next year too,” Djoos says. “It’s great to be around the guys. It’s fun to see players and rinks and cities you’ve never been to.
“So far, so good.”