ARLINGTON, V.A. — Washington Capitals forward Aliaksei Protas leans against the wall of the locker room at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, calm and collected as he fixes his snapback and leans down so he can hear better during our 1-on-1 interview.
Looking at the 6-6 center, there’s something different about him. Even his teammates — and head coach Peter Laviolette — note that the already-towering forward somehow looks like he added size.
“It looks like he got — I don’t want to say bigger, because he’s a big boy,” T.J. Oshie said of No. 59. “But looks like he got a little stronger.”
With a smile, Protas affirms that he did in fact put on some weight. The 21-year-old, who weighed in at 225 pounds last season, said he is now at 235 and put on about six pounds of pure muscle.
“With every game, it doesn’t matter NHL or AHL, you gain experience,” Protas explained. “And for me, the main thing I found out, you got to be stronger in the battles everywhere. So I was focused on that.”
Protas, whose father bought him his first pair of skates before he was even born, saw his lifelong dream become a reality back in 2021-22. Amid several injuries, Protas, who was making noise down with the Hershey Bears, earned a promotion to the Capitals and got to play in his first NHL season. Not only did he notch his first NHL goal, assist and point, but he also skated on the top line with childhood heroes Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov and hit the rookie plateau, appearing in 33 games.
After getting that first taste of the pros and finishing his stint with three goals and three assists, he immediately wanted more.
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So when he went back home to Belarus, where he spent the entire offseason and admitted to making one or two trips to the Belarusian McDonald’s, Protas got back to work with two objectives in mind: to get stronger and to add more speed, which would come from overall improved skating.
“You got to be faster, you got to be, like, step faster everywhere… I work pretty much whole summer on that for sure, get my strides harder, get faster,” Protas said.
Back in his hometown of Vitebsk, Protas would get his own ice and skate on his own, recording himself and sending clips to his skating coach. From there, he’d make adjustments. In addition to skating and time in the gym, he also trained with fellow KHL, AHL and NHL players.
That training paid off and showed from the start of Washington’s training camp, as Protas crushed his skate test and led the pack. He has since made himself one of the standouts so far, as his play has also earned him extended up time with the NHL Group A and gotten him two preseason games.
“He’s working hard out there. He looks more comfortable this camp as far as making plays. Doesn’t seem very jittery out there,” Oshie added.
Heading into what he hopes is his sophomore year at the NHL level, Protas feels more confident and understanding of what he has to do to succeed with Washington. And a lot of that also means being flexible and versatile, something he has carried with him since his youth hockey days.
“I describe myself like, a player who can play everywhere. The coach wants to play me on the wing, I’ll play on the wing, center, center,” Protas said. “If I will need to help the team on the PK, I’ll do that. Like on the power play. Doesn’t matter for me… I’ll do whatever the coaches tell me to do. It doesn’t matter for me where I’ll play. I’ll play anywhere.”
When it comes to expectations for this season, Protas hasn’t spent too much time talking to the coaching staff or front office about his role yet. Instead, he’s just trying to impress each time he’s on the ice, with hopes that it’s enough to help make it back to the big club.
“You got to just be your best, work every day. And now it’s up to the coaching staff and everybody. Just keep working, get better,” Protas said simply.
Protas has also impressed the coaching staff, several have taken to calling him “Viper.” The nickname, which he hadn’t heard since his junior days with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, resurfaced when he joined the organization in 2020, as Hershey coach Patrick Wellar started calling him “Viper,” followed by Capitals player development coach Brooks Orpik. While Protas isn’t a fan of the nickname, he does get a kick out of it.
“I don’t mind it, but I don’t like it,” he laughed.
That moniker also goes hand-in-hand with what he brings to the lineup, per head coach Peter Laviolette.
“I thought he really stood out in the [preseason opener] and used his size and his speed and his skill to make a difference,” Laviolette said of Protas. “He’s a guy that we saw last year, that natural progression of jus going from 19 to 20, 20 to 21 and what’s he going to look like at 25? So I do think he’s growing. And naturally with that would come putting on muscle and getting bigger and stronger.”
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As camp rolls on with cuts on the horizon, Protas is just sticking to his game plan. And most importantly, he’s staying calm and making sure he stands out when he hears his number called.
“I think pressure pretty much on everyone. Everybody’s nervous. It’s normal for the people, for the human,” Protas pointed out. “I think it goes off as soon as you play your first shift or take the first shot, first hit and you just get in game, and it goes away.
“My goal is to be better every day, like player, like person. And for sure to make the team,” he added. “I think everybody’s goal right now, that’s why everybody’s here. Just be your best every day.”