With the Washington Capitals facing tough decisions with the season quickly approaching, fierce competition continues to brew at training camp. And perhaps the biggest battle is taking place down the middle.
Nicklas Backstrom is still rehabilitating from a hip injury and said that it’s more of a “long-term” than “short-term” injury. He didn’t rule out opening night, but it’s not looking good. Taking that into account, there’s a large void to fill at center, and two strong candidates have emerged in prospects Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre.
“They both look great,” Backstrom said of the two. “I mean, I think they’re very mature for their age, how they play and very responsible. So it’s good for us. I mean, it’s all about depth in this league. I think, when you have guys like that, we can step up and fill that role.”
Both have had incredibly strong camps and are coming off impressive 2020-21 campaigns and offseasons. McMichael fit in seamlessly while making the jump from juniors to the AHL. He was Hershey’s leading scorer with 27 points in 33 games and showcased tremendous speed and offensive awareness.
Over the summer, he got the opportunity to train with Gary Roberts Performance alongside pros like Steven Stamkos and Connor McDavid, and also gained some weight and muscle. He had a strong rookie camp and also netted an impressive preseason goal against the Devils while looking strong and kicking his game into a higher gear over the preseason.
“I keep getting stronger and stronger every year and that’s just one thing I touched on before that I got to keep getting better at,” McMichael said of his play earlier in camp. “I think that’s my main thing to make the next jump, I think my overall game is really good.”
Meanwhile, Lapierre has gone from a long shot to the shortlist. He shined with the QMJHL’s Chicoutimi Sagueneens with 31 points in 21 games, which would equate to a 100-point campaign in a regular 68-game season. Over the summer, he said he put on a couple of pounds of muscle, but wants to remain lean and emphasize speed.
The 19-year-old has been stellar through rookie and main camp. He was a vocal leader among prospects and showcased strong skating and playmaking ability. That translated into practices at main camp and further into exhibitions; he leads the Capitals with five points (all assists) through three preseason games.
“I’m playing with a lot of confidence… I still got a lot of things I want to work on, just little details that I think make the difference in the end at this level especially,” Lapierre said. “I would say I’m kind of happy, but I still got lots of things that I want to show. Again, I really want to prove that I can be a player that can be used in all situations, not just offensively. I really want to prove that I’m consistent, that I can show this effort on a daily basis.”
With Washington’s training camp roster now down to 27, there are four cuts left to be made. Opening night rosters can have no more than 23 skaters. If Backstrom is in fact put on the LTIR (he would have to miss the first 10 games of the 2021-22 season), there could be space for both McMichael and Lapierre.
“I think it’s a big opportunity for both of us, and we’re pushing each other hard,” McMichael said. “Just skating with the big group every day, it’s good for both of us and we’re looking forward to the competition we might have.”
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However, only one of them would fit into the Capitals’ lineup as one of the 12 forwards, and that’s currently where things are coming to a head. Both interchanged last week skating between T.J. Oshie and Conor Sheary, which could be a potential third-line combo for Washington.
“Me and Connor know there’s a spot and we’re trying everything in our power to get that spot,” Lapierre said.
Despite the competition, Lapierre and McMichael aren’t letting that affect their bond on and off the ice.
“We got a really good relationship. We don’t really talk about it, but I think we kind of know in the back of our heads that maybe it’ll come down to this,” Lapierre said. “So we just try to push each other every day. You know, we did a play in practice and we both went to see each other [and say], ‘good play, good play,’ so it’s really a healthy competition. You know, he’s a tremendous hockey player, so I’m sure it’ll be a good battle and we’ll see what happens.”
“He’s a great kid. It’s a really healthy relationship,” McMichael agreed. “Me and him talk every day. We don’t really talk about what’s going on on the ice. He’s a great kid, we get along well and we’re having a lot of fun.”
In the end, both Lapierre and McMichael know there are only so many spots up for grabs, and that it’ll take a lot of work down the stretch to prove they belong up with the Capitals.
“That’s everyone’s goal. We all know what’s at stake and we’re all working hard,” McMichael said. “We’re all trying to show the staff that we’re ready to make the next jump, whether it’s me or the next guy.”