ARLINGTON, V.A. — Washington Capitals forward Connor McMichael has been in an ongoing battle for the top-6 center role, but as camp winds down, he may find himself in the throes of a bigger competition: one for a lineup spot.
Right now, the 21-year-old is in a good position at camp. He’s showing his speed and has been with the main group as a regular after his rookie season that saw him dish 18 points in 68 games. However, there are big-time challengers for a roster spot, mainly Aliaksei Protas, that could put McMichael in a tough spot with limited vacancies on the roster.
Protas is coming off a great summer that saw him gain 10 pounds — he is now 6-6, 235 — and improve his skating. He is tenacious on pucks and uses his size and speed to his advantage, while he has also shown ideal positioning and two-way play. The Belarus native also gets to the right areas and can crash the net, and playing different positions in each preseason game so far, he has shown that he can fit anywhere. He has also said that he doesn’t care where he slots in, making him a great option all around.
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In the latest practices, McMichael has found himself on the wing. From the looks of it, Dylan Strome appears to have won the second-line center role, though head coach Peter Laviolette says nothing’s “locked in” yet. Lars Eller has also remained in his natural center role through camp. McMichael has played at center this preseason, but in practice, he hasn’t been there often. In his exhibition outings down the middle, McMichael has struggled in the face-off dot and hasn’t been able to convert or get much going in the ways of offense.
There are still a few practices to go until opening night against the Boston Bruins on Oct. 12. He plays the game with speed and also added five pounds of muscle over the summer. But for him, these last two games of the preseason are vital.
Protas has made quite a statement so far and a case for a jersey each night, and with the way the roster is structured, it looks like McMichael would be the odd man out if No. 59 draws in. And for McMichael, that would mean not only missing out on a top-6 role but being unable to build off his rookie year with more ice time.
So in these final days of camp, No. 24 will be doing everything he can to set himself apart on and off the ice. And right now is the perfect time to do it, with the main group holding separate skates from the “taxi squad” group of fringe players like Protas. So far, Protas is showing what he can do in these smaller skates. Now, it’s McMichael’s turn.