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What’s Next For Capitals, Lineup With Brown Out Long Term?



Washington Capitals

ARLINGTON, V.A. — Just four games into the 2022-23 regular season, the Washington Capitals find themselves in — unfortunately — familiar territory. The team is again dealing with a major injury on the top 6, as Connor Brown is out long-term with a lower-body injury.

Brown was brought in this offseason to help fill in for injured names, including Tom Wilson on the top-line right wing and Carl Hagelin on the penalty kill. Through the first four games of the year, Brown was averaging 16:46 minutes a night, and though he didn’t find the scoresheet, he was starting to get the hang of the team systems, battling hard for pucks and bringing a lot to the table on the top 6.

However, in the Capitals win over the Vancouver Canucks on Monday, Brown took a hard hit from Noah Juulsen along the benches. The 28-year-old went down in visible pain, grabbing at his right knee. He got up and left the ice without putting any weight on that right leg. It is unclear what the nature of the injury is at this time. However, surgery is an option.

Dealing with major injuries is nothing new for the club. With Brown now on the shelf, Washington is missing three top-6 forwards in him, Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom, who is in the midst of a long rehab process after hip resurfacing surgery. And of course, Hagelin also underwent hip surgery and is regaining his full vision, and that now marks a few top penalty killers out of the mix.

“We’ve been doing it for a while now,” head coach Peter Laviolette said of dealing with injuries. “So guys are going to have to step up and fill different positions.”

So… now what?

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Well, the Capitals have options.

First off, Connor McMichael and Joe Snively get to draw in. Both will play against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday, as Evgeny Kuznetsov will be serving a one-game suspension for his high stick on Kyle Burroughs. In that game, both will battle for a spot. McMichael is a natural center, but he can also play on the wing if he has to. Snively, meanwhile, is a proven winger. Both can get that opportunity to fill in for Brown, and both have shown what they’re capable of doing.

McMichael, a 2019 first-round selection, is crafty with the puck and has great speed, and he has also added a lot of strength. After an up-and-down rookie year, looks like he can make a bigger impact in his sophomore season by winning battles and improving on his strength. Meanwhile, Snively had a nice stint up in the NHL last season, dishing seven points in his first 12 games, but wrist surgery ended his campaign early. Now, he’ll get to build off of that.

Also, Aliaksei Protas, who made the roster following a stellar training camp, has shown that he can play top 6 minutes too. The 6-5, 235-pound forward has gotten faster and stronger, and he has also shown chemistry working with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Dylan Strome and more.

Speaking of Ovechkin and Strome, the two are X-factors who can make things happen. Strome has four points in his first four games and has been a catalyst for the top 6. He also clicks with pretty much anyone, which should help when it comes to filling in for Brown. And Ovechkin, who has five points in four games, has shown that he can build off his breakout performance on Monday. That will be a major help.

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Beyond that, Washington has a lot of assets down with the AHL’s affiliate Hershey Bears, even after losing Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Brett Leason to waivers. New signee Sonny Milano is pegged for a likely call-up and has shown that he can play top 6 minutes on the wing. However, Laviolette wants him to get a few games to get back in the swing of things before he comes up to the big club, as he hasn’t played since the preseason when he was trying out with the Calgary Flames.

After Milano, there’s Hendrix Lapierre, who is off to a red-hot start to his AHL career. Beck Malenstyn is currently up with the big club as a call-up with the team needing a 13th forward for their upcoming tilt with Ottawa, and he could be an option too. The 6-3 200-pound forward is a proven penalty killer and utility player, as well as a physical presence who can play with that fourth line and deliver big hits while winning puck battles.

In the end, Washington has been here before, and the Capitals know what they have to do. In the first part of last season, nearly half of the roster consisted of Hershey skaters, and those players carried the team through what was arguably its best stretch of 2021-22. The club has the resources to get by in the moment, and if it doesn’t work, the trade market is an option.

For now, though, losing Brown does hurt.

“We were really excited to have him here and be part of our organization,” Laviolette said. “Disappointing for us, disappointing for him. It’s unfortunate.

“Sometimes that happens… sometimes, things just happen on the ice and all of the sudden they have long-term effects to them. So he’ll be missed while he’s out.”