ARLINGTON, V.A. — On Monday afternoon, Aliaksei Protas saw his name alongside Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and other top stars as the Washington Capitals released their opening roster for the 2022-23 season. The 21-year-old, in shock, called his wife and parents, who are still in Belarus, to share the news and celebrate.
And, following his first practice with the official 2022-23 squad after a busy training camp, he “still can’t believe it.”
“It’s unreal… it’s unreal feeling,” Protas said. “Can’t wait to get going… [my family can’t] wait to get up every morning at 2 a.m. to watch. So happy.”
Protas made the 23-man squad following a standout performance in camp and the preseason. The 6-6, 235-pound found success after a busy offseason that saw him improve his skating and add 10 pounds to his frame. He had one goal and one assist in the preseason and also dressed for all of the team’s exhibition games, and he also showed more speed and strength.
“At the end of the day, it’s training camp and you come in here and hope people play a game that catches your eye and does it consistently,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “For every time that we saw him on the ice, he was a player that we noticed. His size, his speed, his compete on the puck, his ability to generate, his defense; his training camp was excellent.
“With every game, it doesn’t matter NHL or AHL, you gain experience,” Protas added. “And for me, the main thing I found out: You got to be stronger in the battles everywhere. So I was focused on that.
“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.”
Not only did Protas earn a spot on the club, but on Tuesday, he was in the top 6 as the Capitals ran their likely lines ahead of the season opener against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday. He will skate alongside Dylan Strome and Anthony Mantha.
“I’m so proud of the work I have done over the summer,” Protas said. “I worked pretty much whole summer to make my dream come true. Pretty close, I am close to it. Keep working.”
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No. 59 added that he’s happy to have earned a top-6 spot to open the campaign and said it’s a “big honor,” but that ultimately, he is willing to help the team anywhere he can. He’s known for his versatility and ability to draw in anywhere in the lineup, and he even said he’s “good to go” to put on the pads and play goal as well (though he was mostly joking).
The Protas-Strome-Mantha line will bring a lot of size, with Protas being 6-6, Strome standing at 6-3 and Mantha coming in at 6-5 — though Protas teased that Mantha needs to put on more size. It’ll be a good unit for Protas to start on, but ultimately, he doesn’t mind who he plays with. He just wants to play.
“Stromer and Mo, great teammates, great players. I will do everything to help them. Anyway, if we need a goalie or somebody else, I’m ready,” Protas said, adding, “Everybody here great teammate. It’s great to play with everybody. We’re hard-working guys. Always help me on the ice, support me, so that’s all that matters.”
Although he’s on the team to open the season after starting last year with the AHL’s Hershey Bears, Protas knows that nothing is permanent, and the work doesn’t stop here. He played in 33 NHL games before being sent back down last season, so he knows he’ll have to keep putting in a full effort night in and night out while remaining consistent.
“I just need to work even more to prove I deserve to be here,” Protas added