If not for an illness that felled Connor McMichael shortly before puck drop on Wednesday, the Washington Capitals would have had three of their last four first-round draft picks in the lineup against the New York Islanders.
Winger Ivan Miroshnichenko, the 20th pick in the 2022 draft, made his NHL debut that night. Center Hendrix Lapierre, the 22nd pick in 2020, played his 12th game of the season with the Capitals after being recalled from the American Hockey League on Wednesday morning — and turned in his second two-point game of the year, with a goal and an assist in the overtime win. And though McMichael, the 25th pick in 2019, was a late scratch from the lineup, he’s been one of Washington’s most consistent forwards across the balance of the season. McMichael’s 13 points (six goals, seven assists) rank him seventh on the team in scoring, and the line he centers with Anthony Mantha and Aliaksei Protas has been one of the Capitals’ best.
On opening night, Washington’s expected full-strength lineup — including defenseman Joel Edmundson, who was out with an injury, and goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who missed the game after the birth of his first child the night before — had an average age of 29.65 years. Just over two months later, the average age of the group that was set to dress against the Islanders, including McMichael, was 28.
The Capitals remain one of the older teams in the NHL, but the youth movement is starting to arrive.
“I think our young guys are pushing the envelope,” Washington Coach Spencer Carbery said Wednesday. “What I mean by that is there’s a mind-set to just come into the NHL and just play games, gain experience, and [think], ‘My time will come.’ And you’re seeing right now … they’re not just happy to be here. They want to make a difference. They want to have a positive impact on the game and help the team win.”
It isn’t just the former first-round picks who are contributing so far this year. Protas, who was drafted 91st overall in 2019, didn’t dress for the first game of the season. When the Capitals needed to call up a backup to goalie Charlie Lindgren, because Kuemper was unavailable, Protas was the expendable option who didn’t require waivers to be sent down to the AHL, allowing Washington to clear the necessary salary cap space.
Twenty-nine games later, Protas leads the Capitals in five-on-five scoring with 14 points, from three goals and 11 assists. With 15 total points — he has one shorthanded assist — Protas has already equaled his career-high in points, which he set while playing 58 games last season.
“He’s playing unreal hockey,” Mantha said Thursday, after scoring off an assist from Protas. “He’s winning all his battles. He’s seeing those plays. I saw a stat, I think, before the game that he’s tied for the most points since November or something like that. Big props to him. He’s playing unreal, and hopefully, it keeps going.”
So far, early in his tenure behind the bench in Washington, Carbery has overseen the rapid development of players who are important pieces of the Capitals’ future. McMichael entered the year desperate to prove that he could stick in the NHL; he’s now centering the second line and has earned Carbery’s trust to play in all situations. Protas started to put things together last year, but his play has risen significantly this year under Carbery.
“[Protas] is playing at a high level,” Carbery said. “I’ve really liked his progression this year. Started the year playing six, seven, eight minutes. He was inconsistent. Now, he’s one of our most consistent forwards. He competes. He moves his feet. He makes the right plays. His wall touches are usually spot on. The consistency in his game has really excelled quickly, and that’s nice to see, for a young player to be thriving.”
Lapierre has been back and forth between Washington and its AHL affiliate in Hershey, Pa., this year, but each time he returns to the Capitals, he seems to pick up where he left off. He’s perhaps still not quite ready for a full-time NHL role, but he doesn’t look out of place at the level and fits in seamlessly when he gets opportunities in Washington.
Even Miroshnichenko, the newest addition to the forward group and just 19 years old, has settled in quickly. As expected, he hasn’t played a lot of minutes in his first two NHL games — 10:14 against the Islanders and 9:36 in Columbus on Thursday — but he’s been able to keep pace and came within inches of scoring a goal in his debut.
Seeing the younger players come into the lineup has a rejuvenating effect on the Capitals’ veteran core, too.
“It’s tough as a young kid, at times, to break into the NHL and solidify yourself,” center Nic Dowd said Wednesday. “For a lot of guys, it takes a while to do. I like the fact that [Lapierre] came up and he’s a really cheerful kid. He had a good night tonight, and honestly, he’s a very good player. It’s only going to help his confidence grow. He’s going to become a better player, and same with Miro and same with all our young guys.
“Bring on the goals for the young guys. We’re going to need them and it’s just going to make them better players down the stretch.”