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Breaking Down Capitals’ Plan For McMichael: ‘How Do We Best Develop Him?’



Capitals forward Connor McMichael

Just days before the start of 2022 NHL Free Agency, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan was adamant that the name of the game heading into the new season was injecting youth into the lineup and promoting from within with the team facing several questions heading into the new season. However, that mindset appeared to change entirely just 48 hours after the market opened.

After saying he would rely on Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre, Aliaksei Protas and more to step up and fill voids up front with Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and Carl Hagelin on the shelf, MacLellan made quite a splash in free agency and brought in quite a few forwards. He not only acquired Connor Brown and signed Dylan Strome, but also inked Henrik Borgstrom as a depth center and re-signed Marcus Johansson.

“We’re happy. We accomplished what we wanted to do… we added some forwards that are pretty complementary players to what we already had,” MacLellan explained. “I’m anxious to see the forward group.”

Despite the clear upgrade up front, the Capitals signings do raise some questions. What happened to promoting from within and giving the younger guys more opportunities? And if Backstrom ultimately does return, who will be the odd man out?

“It’s a competitive situation,” MacLellan said, backtracking from earlier comments about giving the youth a bigger role. “I don’t think we’re coming in guaranteeing young guys spots in the lineup. I think part of it is you have to earn it to a certain degree.”

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Looking at the depth chart and new acquisitions, it looks like the second-line center spot belongs to Strome. He is versatile and can play center or wing. Also, Strome can win draws, play a strong two-way game and has great playmaking ability and scoring prowess that make up for No. 19’s absence.

So, if Strome is in that spot, where does that leave McMichael?

Well, the Capitals have a plan.

“Connor’s going to come in and he’s going to be better than he was last year,” MacLellan said. “It’s going to be, ‘How do we best develop him? How do we do what’s best for our lineup?'”

McMichael is coming off a rookie season filled with ups and downs. The 21-year-old made the NHL jump after a seamless transition to the AHL back in 2020-21. Playing mainly at wing and sometimes at center, he showed a lot of upside finishing the year with nine goals, nine assists, a 42.9 face-off win percentage and a +/- rating of minus-3 through 68 games while averaging 10:28 minutes per night.

Heading into the 2022-23 campaign, MacLellan has made it clear that he wants to see McMichael flourish in the center role. And ultimately, he believes that he is better equipped at pivot.

“Based on last year’s performance, I like him in the middle more. He seems to be more involved, he seems to skate more, so I like his game more when he plays center,” MacLellan said, but then specified, “It doesn’t mean we have to play him there all the time. We can play him there sometimes and we can move him around.”

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Looking at the center role, McMichael does have a chance to be the full-time third-line center, but faces tough competition in Lars Eller. The 33-year-old veteran is coming off one of the “most challenging” seasons of his career yet amid bouts with COVID, adversity and inconsistency. Eller has been the team’s primary 3C option for years, and he likely won’t hand it over without a fight. Plus, anything can happen, and if Strome ends up being a better fit on the wing, No. 24 can still win a top-6 center role.

So, going into the year, McMichael will get his fair shot. Per MacLellan, Washington plans to give him multiple opportunities in different spots. Just like the other young players, he will have to earn his ice time, and also prove that he belongs in the lineup full time. And, after seeing that, the team will go forward with deciding where he’ll best fit.

“The coaches will balance that out. Whether we play him at center, whether we play him at wing, whether we play him higher in the lineup or lower in the lineup,” MacLellan said. “I think he’ll get a shot at all of it. If he plays well, it’ll be a tough decision for the coaches.”

In the end, the Capitals are confident in where McMichael stands in his development and believe that he is on the verge of being a key contributor at the NHL level, whether that be down the middle or on the wing.

“He’s probably a year ahead of schedule… we like where he’s at,” MacLellan said. “We think he’s going to be a good player and that he’s going to make strides this year, and that we can play him at both positions.”