Connor McMichael has spent most of his rookie season with the Capitals playing away from his natural position of center. Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette put McMichael on the wing due to the team’s four veteran mainstays down the middle — Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller, and Nix Dowd — and because playing the wing has fewer defensive responsibilities.
But after a recent injury to Nic Dowd and a second COVID protocol stint for Lars Eller, McMichael got another chance to play down the middle and this time has impressed.
In fact, the 21-year-old has impressed Caps brass so much that he may have, for now, forced one of those veterans to the wing he once occupied.
At Monday’s morning skate, Lars Eller skated on the left of a third line that included McMichael at center and Marcus Johansson on the right.
“It’s probably been like six years or something since I played there,” Eller said afterward. “I have played there before so it’s not like completely new to me but obviously, I’m more comfortable at center. But you have to be able to adapt and it’s a good thing to be versatile, bring value to a team to be able to play more positions and up and down the lineup. If that’s what it’s going to be I have to try to do my best there.
Eller has had a rock-solid grip as the team’s third center since the Capitals traded for him before the 2016-17 season. The Danish forward has thrived in a two-way role and was a key member of the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup championship team. Eller scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game Five of the championship series against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Head coach Peter Laviolette termed McMichael’s grip on the third-line center spot as an experiment and praised Eller’s versatility after the morning skate on Monday.
“Lars is one of those players for me that can play anywhere,” Laviolette told reporters. “Left wing, right wing, center. I know he’s a natural centerman. I think one of the things we’re trying to do is put more centerman back into the lineup going into the playoffs. Mikey’s done a really good job in the middle the last six to eight games. Johan (Larsson) plays some center. Johansson plays a little bit of center. Now we’ve got lots of centers inside the lineup, so that’s good. We’ll start here and try it, we’ll see how the game goes. Certainly, Lars can go back to the middle when we need him but just based on the fact there’s now five centermen, six centermen, maybe even seven at some point in the lineup I think that’s a real positive.”
McMichael has been effective over the past eight games. At five-on-five with the young center on the ice, the team has seen 60.9-percent of the shot attempts, 72-percent of the expected goals, 67.9-percent of the scoring chances, and 80.4-percent of the high danger chances. All of those rates lead everyone on the team that has played in all eight games and it’s not particularly close.
“Connor’s done a pretty good job. He’s been a driving force on the ice,” Laviolette finished. “He’s been using his speed through the middle. He’s been generating chances and looks. He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now. Going into the game tonight, going into it, we want to keep him there and keep working on that confidence he’s shown.”
McMichael has been rewarded for his good play by getting on average around two more minutes of ice time in March (11:05) than he was in February (8:50), January (9:09), and December (9:42).
“I just feel like I’ve gained a lot of confidence over the past few weeks going back to center, I kind of found my stride again,” McMichael said after Monday’s morning skate. “Sometimes all it takes is a lucky bounce and I kind of got that in Columbus and ever since then I feel like I’ve been playing a lot better, playing my game.”
McMichael is referring to an own goal by Blue Jackets defenseman Dean Kukan who deked the puck past his goaltender into the back of the net.
Whoopsie 😌 pic.twitter.com/xn9UQHp2iF
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) March 18, 2022
Among rookie players averaging less than 11 minutes of ice time per game this season, McMichael leads in both goals (9) and total points (18). Those numbers could continue to rise if he sticks in the middle.
“My whole life I’ve played center,” McMichael said. “I’m a lot more comfortable up the middle for sure. I kind of like just being everywhere on the ice wherever the puck is. I feel like I’m playing my best when I have a little more responsibility out there. It’s been fun.”
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong/RMNB
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