ARLINGTON, V.A. — At the end of Sunday’s morning skate ahead of the Washington Capitals’ tilt with the Minnesota Wild, Connor McMichael stayed behind, working overtime with the team’s extras for more practice. With Washington getting a number of key players back from injury, the 21-year-old appears to be a healthy scratch against Minnesota, marking the first time since Jan. 7 that he will be the odd man out.
It’s somewhat unfamiliar territory for McMichael. Since switching to the center position, McMichael has been playing some of his best hockey yet and finding more of an identity in his game, while also chipping in on the scoresheet. However, head coach Peter Laviolette explained that with the playoff push in full swing and several key names getting healthy, now is the time to tweak the lines and see what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to the lineup. And with that comes these difficult choices.
“There’s obviously tough decisions that have to be made,” Laviolette explained. “That’s one thing about getting your players back and becoming healthy. And so this is a starting point for me where I’m going to go with a lineup and players that have been here and have found success with this team.”
Laviolette had nothing but praise for the rookie, who has proven that he can provide center depth and versatility. Inconsistencies in his game led to a reduction in ice time over the course of the 2021-22 campaign, but of late, he has been getting into a rhythm and utilizing his speed and stickhandling ability to generate scoring chances. Not only that, but he has also improved when it comes to two-way play.
“Connor’s played terrific for us, especially the last 10 games. And that’s a real positive for our team,” Laviolette explained. “He’s got to take the positives and work hard in practice and other players now have to perform.”
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At Sunday’s morning skate, Nic Dowd, Johan Larsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk all took part in line rushes. They also didn’t stay on for extra work, indicating that they will dress against Minnesota after all. Dowd and TVR have missed the last five games due to injuries suffered in a March 18 tilt against Carolina. Meanwhile, Larsson has been recovering from sports hernia surgery. His first game back will mark his Capitals debut. He was traded to Washington from Arizona at the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline.
Laviolette expects Larsson to try and fill in for Carl Hagelin, who is out indefinitely. Hagelin is on the long-term injured reserve after suffering a “serious” eye injury at practice to open March. He underwent two surgeries in March, and there is no timetable for his return.
The Capitals also called up Axel Jonsson-Fjallby from the AHL’s Hershey Bears to try to fill No. 62’s skates. He has been doing a good job generating speed and pressure on the forecheck and also logging time on the PK. And now, Larsson, known for his versatility and ability as a strong defensive forward who can play similar to Hagelin, will get a chance to show what he can do in that role. That, of course, makes AJF the odd man out as well.
“He’s somebody that really fits that role we’re missing with Carl,” Laviolette said. “Again a veteran player. He’s a good checker. He’s quick, he’s tenacious. I’m excited to see him play especially on that line and in that role.”
Both McMichael and AJF then have to compete for not only a role in the lineup but the chance to stay up in the NHL. McMichael can be re-assigned to Hershey at any time, but Jonsson-Fjallby must clear waivers, which makes the decision more difficult.
Still, Tom Wilson and company have faith and confidence in their young players and say that regardless, the potential for success is high for both.
“When he’s playing his game, you can tell he’s a special player,” Wilson said of McMichael, adding, “You see those shifts and those glimpses where you’re like this guy, this kid’s going to be a really good player. He’s got good feet, he’s fast. Just putting it all together in the NHL can take some time. He has done a pretty good job so far this year.”