WASHINGTON, D.C. — Heading into training camp, Hendrix Lapierre was eager to show the Washington Capitals that he was more than a prospect. And, with the team’s center situation in flux, the 19-year-old has put himself on the radar as he looks to provide some clarity.
With Nicklas Backstrom listed as week-to-week and potentially out to start the 2020-21 campaign, there’s a vacancy to fill down the middle. And a week into training camp, Lapierre has gone from a bit of a long shot to the Capitals’ shortlist.
“I’m confident, I had a really good summer… I really want to prove that I’m not only a junior player right now, that I can play at the next level,” Lapierre said at rookie camp, adding, “I know it’s gonna be tough, it’s the National Hockey League, there’s lots of really really good guys, but I mean, I have nothing to lose. I just want to go for it and be the best player I can be, and we’ll see what happens.”
Looking back a year ago, there were still question marks surrounding his potential. Bob McKenzie had coined the QMJHL forward a “top-10 talent,” but several injuries, including head and neck traumas, that dropped his draft stock. Washington didn’t let that deter them though, trading up to take him 22nd overall in the 2020 NHL Draft. That decision has appeared to pay off big time so far.
Lapierre’s coming off a strong 2020-21 campaign with the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, where he dished eight goals and 31 points in 21 games, which would have put him on pace for 100 points in a regular 68-game season (1.48 PPG). He carried that momentum over to D.C., starting off with a standout rookie camp.
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The Quebec native was a vocal leader on the ice, showing smooth skating and putting in good work on the forecheck. Fast forward to main camp, and he’s still making his presence known. He’s displaying strong playmaking ability, opening space for himself and generating chances in practice as he puts himself on the radar.
In his NHL preseason debut against the Bruins, Lapierre centered the third line with Joe Snively and Garrett Pilon and picked up two secondary helpers. However, there were a couple of areas of his game he wanted to improve on, including his draws after going 2-for-11 in the faceoff dot.
T.J. Oshie said he gave the forward some input on winning draws, and Lapierre added that he worked a lot on specific drills and techniques at practice. He definitely responded and came back with a vengeance against New Jersey on Wednesday, winning 10 of 14 faceoffs.
Lapierre ended the night with two primary assists, three shots, two takeaways and a drawn penalty. He also pulled off a couple of highlight-reel plays and even got time on the hero line — and a shift with Alex Ovechkin — toward the end with the net empty.
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“It’s always fun and just to be around those guys even when you’re not on the line, you’re just to see how they prepare how they act every day in practice and stuff like that, it’s pretty impressive,” Lapierre said. “For me, I’m still young so I still try to learn each and every day. I guess it’s a dream kind of, you know?”
“He was great. He skated really well, he moved the puck really well. We weren’t really in our own end, and a lot of that was because of his skating in the middle,” Oshie added of Lapierre’s performance, while also praising his hockey IQ and playmaking.
Ultimately, Lapierre said he’s comfortable at the center position and is getting accommodated to the pace of the game at the higher level. That’s something the coaching staff wants to hear from him at this point, especially if Backstrom is out to start the year.
“It’s definitely a different game than I guess, what I’ve played in the past years, just because the guys are the best in the world, but I think I can adjust to it,” Lapierre said of adapting to the NHL speed. “It’s hockey at the end of the day, right? So you got to play your game, and I think if I do that, and if someone else do that, he’s gonna be good.”
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Without No. 19, this is what the current center situation looks like:
However, the salary cap makes things tricky. There’s not a lot of money to go around, and the team only has $668,739 remaining. Lapierre carries an AAV of about $894K, and Connor McMichael, who was a favorite to make the NHL jump heading into camp, costs $863K.
Washington also still has a lot to figure out on the blue line as the team looks to fill Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara’s voids as several defensemen look to secure a role on the d-corps.
As head coach Peter Laviolette mentioned, there are wingers who could transition to the role of pivot if need be, but there are also other options to consider. A move could be made to clear some space before camp, or Backstrom could potentially go on the LTIR to give the Capitals flexibility.
And, while Lapierre’s still young, he’s certainly turning heads so far.
“He’s young, but that’s what training camp is for, for people to come in and make a case for something,” Laviolette said. “He looked good through camp. Now he gets an opportunity inside of the games and situation play, and so far he’s done a good job.”
For the young center, he’s ready to continue his game plan and hopes that takes him to the NHL to start the 2020-21 campaign.
“It’s tough to say. My job as a hockey player is to be the best player I can be each and every day and I feel like right now, I’m doing a good job of that,” Lapierre said. “My goal when I came to training camp was to make that roster, and I think I have to keep playing and you know, good things will happen.”