Connor McMichael’s ability to develop into a reliable NHL center could have a transformative impact on the Washington Capitals in the years ahead. Although the Canadian, who turns 21 in January, is likely to start 2021/22 in Hershey down in the American Hockey League (AHL), there will be opportunities for him to break into Peter Laviolette’s line-up in the long run.
As has been well-documented, the Caps are getting old. Three of Washington’s four everyday NHL centers are the wrong side of 30 – and even Evgeny Kuznetsov is 29. If age curves (and/or injury) start to bite at the Capital One Arena, opportunities will arise for the organization’s prospects to play a prominent role in the NHL.
As it stands, McMichael is Washington’s next great hope through the middle (although he can also play on the wing) – which puts him in a prime position to claim more ice time with the Capitals.
Projecting the Washington Capitals’ Offensive Lines
Digging into who is currently at Laviolette’s disposal paints a clear picture of what the future could hold for the Capitals. First and foremost, it’s worth noting that Washington’s offensive options for 2021/22 are as they were for the previous campaign.
Now locked in a race against age, fitness, and Wayne Gretzky’s scoring record, Alexander Ovechkin will lead the charge for the Capitals from the left, with Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and Anthony Mantha, T.J. Oshie, and Kuznetsov combining to make up the top six.
The bottom half of Laviolette’s forward group is similarly settled. THW’s Carl Knauf has projected that Conor Sheary, Lars Eller, and Daniel Sprong will combine on the third line, with Carl Hagelin, Nic Dowd, and Garnet Hathaway propping up the rear.
Excluding Dowd (2022, unrestricted free agent) and Sprong (2022, restricted free agent), general manager Brian MacLellan has his forward group under contract for at least two years. However, a shakeup in 2023/24 is likely with Eller, Hagelin, Hathaway, and Sheary’s contracts due to expire.
In other words, Washington’s forward blend has to change at some point – and we’re quickly advancing towards that moment.
Who is Connor McMichael?
The Capitals picked up McMichael in the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft, using their 27th overall pick on the then-London Knights forward. In 2017, the Ontario native was selected 11th overall in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Priority Draft by the Hamilton Bulldogs. He registered 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 32 games before being traded to the Knights with Robert Thomas for five draft picks.
In London, McMichael’s offensive production bloomed. After registering just six points (three goals, three assists) in his opening 32 appearances for the Knights, the Ajax-born forward became a dominant figure in the OHL. In his final two seasons of major junior hockey, he registered 179 points (85 goals, 94 assists) in 130 appearances.
McMichael was particularly prolific during the winter of 2019/20, following up his first OHL hat trick with two four-point games in a 16-day stretch.
McMichael made one appearance in the NHL in his first year as a professional, adding to his 33 games and 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) for the AHL’s Hershey Bears. He has also featured for Team Canada in consecutive World Junior Championships, registering seven points (five goals, two assists) in as many games on route to the title in 2020. A year later, the 5-foot-11 centreman notched eight points (four goals, four assists) in seven games as Canada lost to the United States in the gold medal game.
What Are Connor McMichael’s Strengths and Weaknesses?
If not in 2021/22, McMichael will be called upon as a full-time NHL center in the near future. However, there is no need for the Capitals to rush their top prospect’s elevation to the majors – life in Hershey isn’t so bad.
In his rookie season in the pro game, McMichael backed up an impressive point-scoring clip with eight game-winning goals. The kid is clutch, possesses the kind of scoring potential that most general managers would overpay for, and has developed well since entering the system in Washington.
In other words, McMichael’s trajectory is promising – and the organization must do everything it can to keep him on course.
“He’s a young guy that we’re not going to force into the line-up,” MacLellan said in July. “We’ll see how he does in (training) camp and what he can handle. But he had a really good year. He finished up the year on a high (and) improved in all areas. So, we’re going to look for opportunities to play him, but we’re not going to force him into a situation he can’t handle.”
In terms of his impact on the ice, McMichael is a near-constant threat. His shot is his most valuable asset – not only because he can find the corners of the net but also because he can score from anywhere in the offensive zone. For a 21-year-old, he’s a strong playmaker, too. He passes well and is comfortable with the puck on his stick.
Skating is the only significant gap in McMichael’s game. The former London Knight operates with a slightly clunky stride for a player of his size – a fault that negatively impacts his speed and agility. Even so, he has the upside and professionalism to become an important player in the NHL – either on the wing or at center.
Make no mistake, McMichael’s future is bright in Washington.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from the UK, covering hockey, soccer, and Formula 1. He is a recent graduate from the University of Warwick and is currently studying a postgraduate degree in Newspaper Journalism at City, University of London. To stay up-to-date with Luke’s work, you can find his tweets via @LukeJames_32.