As the Washington Capitals prepare to welcome back Nicklas Backstrom, they face a potential cap crunch, and in turn, a flurry of roster decisions. To make space for No. 19, they’ll have to send some of their prospects, who have been effective for Washington, back to the AHL’s Hershey Bears. And so far, Aliaksei Protas has made the case to stick around for a while.
Protas just missed the Capitals opening night roster to open 2021-22. However, amid a myriad of injuries, he got called up to the big leagues and capitalized on that chance. He has adjusted with aplomb to the NHL level, becoming more confident in himself and adding much more to his overall game at both ends of the ice.
“Probably just think faster and game still the same,” Protas said of adapting to the big club. “Speed. Really fast game, but try to see things faster. That is probably why get more comfortable out there.”
“When you kind of get used to the game, for sure it gets easier,” he added. “For sure. It is so much work, more to do, but you get better every game.”
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The 6-6 forward has dished two goals, five points, 20 shots and nine hits through 17 games so far. He has also won 43.8 percent of his face-offs and has been versatile up and down the lineup, able to play at center or wing. With Tom Wilson now day-to-day, Protas is back to playing on the first line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, his childhood heroes and fellow Russian speakers.
“They just help me get used to play with them, help me on the line… they help me a lot,” Protas explained. How should I where should I move, how should I play.
“I think you have to be focused every time playing with these guys because they so experience, they like playmakers and they can make the play,” he added. “You won’t feel it and you won’t wait for it, but it can count. So you have to be ready every second.”
With each game, Protas has shown improvement and progress. He is using his size to his advantage and has significantly stepped up his skating, playing with speed and moving the puck effectively. Also, he is showing awareness at both ends of the ice, and he battles hard for the puck and has a tremendous shot and impressive passing ability. Not only that, but the Belarus native has taken on multiple roles up and down the lineup, while also logging time on the man advantage.
And, in the end, it’s his work ethic and drive, as well as his progression and continued development at the pro level, that have put him on the radar and, in turn, praise from head coach Peter Laviolette.
“I think he’s a guy that just works out there. He’s got a big stride and a big reach,” Laviolette said. “He has a skill level that will allow him to do that. I like how he gets into the battle. I like how he comes in, he’s a young kid and he goes into the battles fearlessly. His stride I think is really good, his reach is really good, and so he’s able to pull pucks and pick up pucks that maybe some people can’t just because of his size and reach.”
Right now, Protas has made quite the impression on the District. He has shown that he can keep up with the sped of the game and battle heard each night. Still, the next couple of games will be vital. Backstrom appears likely to draw back in on Wednesday, and with Wilson day-to-day and Garnet Hathaway eventually returning from COVID-19 protocol, there won’t be a lot of spots remaining. Taking that into account, Protas will have to not only stand out over recent call-ups in Beck Malenstyn and Brett Leason but even the likes of regulars like Connor McMichael and Daniel Sprong.
Ultimately, though, he has made quite an argument to stick around for the Capitals.
“It is so much fun, having trust from the coaches. Try to get more trust every game, every shift,” Protas said.