WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Washington Capitals forward Hendrix Lapierre scored his first career goal in his NHL debut, veteran T.J. Oshie celebrated as if they won the Stanley Cup. His gloves came off and he deadlifted the 19-year-old from the ice, grabbing him in a bear-tight hug.
That electric excitement went beyond the ice, traveling through the bench, the full-capacity crowd at Capital One Arena, social media and beyond.
“I don’t know why I did that, I was just super excited for him,” Oshie laughed. “Coming into camp here, we’ve got a veteran team and he fought his way into the lineup and earned the respect of the coaches to go out there night one, earned the respect of his teammates, of his linemates and just in general, just an all-around good kid to be around.”
It’s that very hype around No. 29 that gives a glimpse of what this season could be — and should be — for the Capitals: a promising glimpse at their future.
“I think the whole thing is when a young player comes in like that, inside of a home opener and in your own building, and your parents are in the building, that’s pretty special,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “That is something you dream about, you hope you get your first NHL game and score a goal like that and that’s pretty cool, and I think he was really excited… it was one of those moments — that’s sports, though. It just creates certain moments, whether it is a big win or a first goal. Sports can do that and that is something he will remember forever.”
With their veteran core still leading the way, Washington is relishing the chance to see their next generation of stars in action — and it couldn’t come at a better time.
READ MORE ON WHN: Lapierre Nets First NHL Goal, Ovechkin Stays Gr8 In Season Opener
Based on opening-night rosters, Washington is the NHL’s third-oldest team (29.34). However, four freshman under-25ers cracked the opening night roster: Lapierre (19), Connor McMichael (20), Martin Fehervary (22) and Beck Malenstyn (23). The Capitals also added Dennis Cholowski (23) to the mix, claiming the Kraken defenseman off waivers and loaning Malenstyn to Hershey.
Both netminders in Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov are also in the U-25 club.
“We have a lot of young pieces in my sight,” Laviolette explained earlier in camp. “…There’s still a really good core here, a veteran core that has carried and made the way for this organization for a lot of years. There’s still really good players. But this year, it is a little bit different, because there is an influx of youth of 25-and-under that I feel like will be contributors this year.”
Looking at the new additions to the lineup, Lapierre has been arguably the most interesting storyline for Washington. The QMJHL forward dropped in the 2020 NHL Draft due to multiple head and neck traumas, leading Washington to trade up to select him at No. 22 before anyone else could.
After that night, Lapierre was eager to show that the Capitals made the right choice, one that led him to stun the organization and going from a longshot this season to a sure thing by the time Washington submitted its opening night roster.
“I really wanted to show everyone what kind of player I was, that even if I had a tough year, it wasn’t going to affect me,” Lapierre said . “I came into camp with a goal in mind, and everyone is really helpful here. I’ve grown a lot not only as a player, but as a person too in the past months. It’s really fun to be around those guys.”
FOR WHN+ READERS: Who Stood Out, Missed Out At Capitals Training Camp?
McMichael was getting time in as the team’s top-line LW when Alex Ovechkin was day-to-day but has otherwise been interchanging with Lapierre at 3C. He showcased his speed, strength and scoring prowess in the preseason and also appears ready to make the full-time NHL jump.
“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, adding, “I think my overall game is really good.”
Fehervary, meanwhile, has taken on a major role for the Capitals, skating on the top pairing with John Carlson and helping fill the void on the left side. The 6-2, 199-pound blueliner has gotten bigger, stronger and faster, and has impressed so far with his skating and awareness at both ends of the ice.
“I’m two, three years older and I feel way more experience,” Fehervary said of his development. “I know how the things go and I played a lot of minutes in the minors in AHL, you know in Hershey, and I feel ready and know I can be here.
“You know that confidence helped a lot on the ice. You know with those little things you kind of learn… when you’re older, and you know where you should be and how you should do it,” he added. “So obviously I feel way, way more ready than three years ago.”
And now Cholowski, a 2016 first-round pick, will get to help bolster the Captials’ blue line and earn a spot in the lineup.
“[He’s] a young player, first round pick, good size to him, good skating, good mobility,” Laviolette said. “And so just an opportunity to have him become part of our organization and see where he fits in.”
As for the young guys, they’ve been given a great example to follow. Ovechkin, 36, still leads the way and doesn’t appear ready to slow down based on his opening-night performance and durability over the years. Alternate captains T.J. Oshie, 34, and John Carlson, 31, are also prepared to maintain the same level of offensive acumen and consistency. In addition, Evgeny Kuznetsov, 29, came to camp in excellent shape and hopes to bounce back and return to his All-Star form after a tough 2020-21.
Nicklas Backstrom, 33, is still rehabilitating from a hip injury and will be out until at least Nov. 6, but his consistency over time should still be present when he hits the ice again. As he recovers, he said it’s great to see that Lapierre and McMichael have been able to step up and help fill in while he’s sideliend.
“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.”
Ovechkin agreed, and while insisting he was still young, too, instilled some words of wisdom for the team’s young guns.
“They just have to enjoy the moment, not thinking too much,” he said.
As time goes by, Ovechkin and the Capitals sitll assert that their Stanley Cup window is sitll open and have faith in their core. However, the next generation will be vital when Ovechkin and Backstrom’s contracts end and they go to hang up the skates, so having some kids in the mix now is an opportunity they can’t take for granted.