Peter Laviolette is reportedly likely to get an extension from the Capitals, but his leadership, headed into the future, concerns me.
As we discussed before the season, the Capitals are the second oldest team in the NHL (30), and this summer they are going to have 13 players who are free agents.
The team appears headed towards a huge crossroads. Unless GM Brian MacLellan signs and acquires a bunch of free agents (again), the team will have to introduce some organizational youth to the team next year.
The problem is — if things keep going the way they are — there won’t be any credible young players they can introduce. And it’s a problem of their own making since the Laviolette Era began.
We write a lot about Connor McMichael on this site. Some readers interpret that coverage as we think he’s going to be a superstar. As Peter said the other night, it’s less that (no offense, Best Connor Mc) and more that he’s a barometer of the organization’s direction and focus:
I’m fascinated by McMichael – not because he’s a future phenom, though I do think he’ll eventually do well in the NHL – but more because how the team uses him (or does not use him) is revealing.
Last season, Connor McMichael showed, once he was given the opportunity, that he was an NHL center with his play toward the end of the season.
Via RMNB’s Chris Cerullo:
The 21-year-old McMichael had a particularly great stretch playing down the middle last season that garnered praise from the coaching staff. In the eight-game spell with the youngster on the ice (5v5) at center, the team saw 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 led everyone on the team that played in all eight games and it wasn’t close.
That’s a small sample size, but that’s elite underlying play, especially from a rookie.
With Nicklas Backstrom out due to offseason surgery and Lars Eller’s skill seemingly eroding, McMichael appeared deserving and a shoo-in to get a center spot on the team. McMichael would bring energy, creativity, and results that would get better and better over time. But the Capitals went in another direction (again). The team signed Dylan Strome over the offseason from the Blackhawks — a great signing (!) no doubt — but did not make room for McMichael anywhere on the roster except the wing.
McMichael, who put on five pounds of muscle, worked hard over the summer to take the next step. He was assertive about what he wanted to be during training camp.
“I want to be a centerman, that’s my natural position,” McMichael said.
Now it appears, from afar, that the player is lost on what he needs to do to be an NHL player.
McMichael got inconsistent minutes and had one of his worst games as a pro during the Capitals’ 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Thursday. That came after Laviolette scratched McMichael the first four games of the season. But it’s what McMichael tried during the game that raised my eyebrows – both good and bad.
After John Carlson took a big hit, McMichael dropped the gloves with Parker Kelly and wrestled the Senators forward to the ice.
McMichael, who doesn’t wear emotion on his sleeve, showed some fire and stood up fearlessly for a star teammate. That’s the type of character that brings a team closer together and gives you respect.
But the thing that concerned me is that McMichael is more of a finesse player, weighs under 200 pounds, and has only fought once in his career going back to junior. He is so desperate to show Laviolette he belongs that he’s turning to sideshow antics to try and impress. These are the types of things a player does whose confidence has cratered.
That appears to be normal for a young player being coached under Laviolette though — at least during his time in Washington. Results aren’t rewarded. Tiny mistakes are magnified and get you benched. Prospects get stuck in their own heads.
And indeed, that fight wasn’t rewarded. McMichael was once again bounced out of the lineup on Saturday and is set to miss his fifth game of six this season.
McMichael’s tale is not much different than the others that preceded him.
A few names:
What do these players have in common? These are all young, talented players who either floundered under Laviolette’s leadership or are no longer in Washington arguably due to decisions Laviolette made. That’s three of the team’s first round picks since 2014. This is unsustainable.
Siegenthaler, who asked out due to Zdeno Chara’s signing, is one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL and would have been a pillar of the 2023-24 team. Vrana was turning into a superstar in Detroit — but earlier last week entered the NHL’s player assistance program. (We’re thinking and rooting for you, Jake.) Samsonov is undefeated for the Leafs early and has a 1.96 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
(It’s also worth noting that the young players who are playing right now are struggling to produce. Aliaksei Protas has no points and eight shots in five games and Martin Fehervary has been removed from the first pairing.)
If McMichael is not going to play in the NHL, he should be in Hershey and away from this leadership. He should be getting big minutes from the Bears and put in hard situations. He should be getting experience and being readied for when there is a spot in Washington where he’ll play every game.
With the team committed to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for the rest of their careers, the Capitals were always going to be a veteran-heavy team. That makes sense. But that doesn’t mean the team has to choose veterans over prospects in almost every case where there’s a coin-flip situation further down the lineup.
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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