Connor McMichael is a “shoot-y forward” who has created a lot of offense individually this season. In a January story, RMNB’s Peter Hassett found that McMichael was a top-ten forward in individual expected goals per hour, but ranked 278th out of 293 NHL forwards in five-on-five ice time per game.
Fast forward to March, McMichael continues to push play, featuring a 52.2 shot attempts percentage, 54.3 scoring chance percentage, and a 54.6 high-danger chance percentage per Natural Stat Trick. But the 2019 first-round pick has been on the ice for more opponent goals (24) than the Capitals have scored (21) at five-on-five when he’s been on the ice.
Part of that is how McMichael has been deployed (i.e. the all-rookie line) and part of it is he’s a weaker player defensively and along the boards.
“McMichael, he’s a young player,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “He is still finding his way. I would have had him penciled in the American League at the beginning of the year. Because of injuries, he had a real good start. Probably stalled a little bit. Has done a great job for a young player. His skating’s improved, his pace of play has improved. It’s just a matter for me, his physical maturity, he’ll be more effective as he gets older. Puck battles, board battles, stuff like that.”
The forward was noticeably more dangerous during the Capitals’ west coast Canadian road trip where he was placed on the left wing of the third line with center Lars Eller and right winger Tom Wilson, who is an accomplished forechecker and defensive player. Against the Canucks on Friday, McMichael had the highest shot attempts percentage at five-on-five on the Capitals (72.7 percent) and was on the ice for four high-danger chances, while not being on the ice for any for the Canucks. Several of the opportunities were Grade A chances for the 21-year-old rookie, but McMichael could not convert.
“Well, the opportunities are good,” Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette said. “That’s what you’re looking for. He’s a guy that’s capable of scoring those goals and making plays. I thought his line was good. He, Lars, and Tom I thought had a real strong game. He generated some chances and generated some looks. They didn’t drop, but you like to think eventually they will. He played well.
“He creates offense. He’s learning and trying to be responsible defensively. I think his year has been good. He’s played. He’s developed. He’s learned. He’s had good games, bad games. I think that’s all part of it when you’re a first year player.”
With Lars Eller out due to COVID-19 protocol, Peter Laviolette will slide McMichael over to Eller’s center spot, Connor’s natural position, over giving Hershey Bears’ callup Mike Vecchione the opportunity Tuesday against the Islanders. McMichael will center Daniel Sprong (LW) and Wilson (RW).
“Vecchione’s just here right now,” Laviolette said. “He’s had a good run down there. He’s had a great year. Call down, you talk to the coaches, you find out who’s playing well. Right now, with only 12 forwards and three games in four nights, we feel more comfortable having somebody up here. Our lineup will stay the same. He’s here and part of the group right now and available to us.”
Laviolette sees Connor’s history as a pivot a strength for the team as it looks to lock down a playoff spot and possibly make a deep run.
“As you saw when we got to the playoffs last year, we only had the four centermen in the lineup,” Laviolette said. “To be able to put a couple centermen on the wings inside of your 12, 13 forwards gives you the option to cover that if something were to come up in the playoffs. To get him some reps at center, I think that’s a positive. It’s his natural position. That’s what he grew up playing. He’s moved to the wing and be able to handle that. He’s adjusted to play wing. To have five or six centermen in your lineup, I think is a strength to have on your team.”
MacLellan believes that the center spot is where McMichael could end up in the future though it’s still to be determined. While the Capitals are locked in to Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Nic Dowd through the 2024-25 season, McMichael could compete with players like Aliaksei Protas for a vacant center spot in 2023-24 if Lars Eller is not re-signed.
“I think he can do [wing and center],” MacLellan said. “I definitely know he can play center at the American League level if we put him back in the American League. I think up here, because of his age, it would be a lot harder for him to play center. But I think he could get to that point for sure. He’s a natural centerman, but the option is to go both ways.”
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong/RMNB
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