Connor McMichael is primed for his fourth season as a professional hockey player after being drafted by the Washington Capitals in the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft. The Caps opened their Training Camp on Thursday and have made it clear that they believe the 22-year-old forward is finally ready for the full-time jump to the NHL.
Both new head coach Spencer Carbery and general manager Brian MacLellan have spoken about McMichael’s growth as a player. They have also acknowledged his natural position of center which he has rarely gotten the opportunity to play in the NHL.
The praise comes after McMichael took a bit of a step back last year as he got into just six NHL games compared to the 68 he played in his rookie season. But, under a new, more familiar coaching regime, McMichael appears to be set up for more long-term success.
In Carbery’s very first media availability at camp, a radio spot with The Sports Junkies, he was tasked to pinpoint names of younger players that he thought would make the most impact on the Caps this season.
“I would say Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas,” Carbery said.
“From not seeing him over the last two years, you can just tell when I see him, talk to him that he’s just a more mature human being,” he continued. “You can see there’s some growth there. I looked at him and go, ‘That’s an NHL player.’ He looks the part. He’s matured. He speaks like it and he looks like it.”
McMichael posted 39 points (16g, 23a) in 57 games after being sent back to the AHL last season and helped guide the Hershey Bears to the franchise’s twelfth Calder Cup victory. Playing solely at center ice, McMichael led Hershey in playoff goals (6) and was relied on in all game situations and in all three zones.
As things currently stand, McMichael is slated to start the preseason on the wing though as the Caps are still loaded down the middle with more veteran names that hold less positional flexibility. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Dylan Strome, and Nic Dowd have all been slotted in at center in Carbery’s first lineup. McMichael has been skating on Strome’s flank.
“He’s a natural centerman but I want to see him play the wings,” Carbery explained. “So, early in camp he’s going to be over on the left side there and I want to see how that goes. I want to see him play some game action, some five-on-five.”
If MacLellan is to be believed, that current arrangement is not a permanent one.
“I think he’s ready,” MacLellan said of McMichael on Thursday. “He’ll probably start off in different positions. He might be playing wing to start but eventually we’re going to get him to center at some point. I don’t know the timeframe on it. He had a good year last year – really happy about his progress.”
McMichael spoke about that progress in his own meeting with the media on Friday. “I think I’ve just matured into the pro game a lot better,” McMichael said. “I think I worked on my two-way game which is needed up here. A lot of faceoffs and whatever is needed. I think I had a good year in Hershey working on those little details and I think the main thing for me was just building that confidence, which I did.
“I want to make the team and not only make the team but also stay here all year. It’s something I’ve been working hard on all summer and last season working on my game. I’m excited to get going and earn a spot.”
McMichael got his pro career started under Carbery in Hershey during the 2020-21 campaign. Under Carbery’s watch, the then 19 year old led the Bears in scoring with 27 points (14g, 13a) in 33 games and earned AHL All-Rookie Team honors, becoming the first Hershey forward to do so in franchise history. That same season, he also led the league with eight game-winning goals and collected his first professional hat trick.
Given that past success, McMichael was markedly pleased by the news of Carbery’s hiring in June.
“Right when the news came out it was exciting,” he said then. “Knowing Carbs from my first year here it couldn’t have happened to a better guy. He’s a really hard-working guy. I’m excited to hopefully get the chance to work with him again and have that understanding with each other, that familiarity. I’m excited.”
He continued his praise of the new bench boss this week. “He wants the best for everyone,” McMichael said. “He’s not going to just throw you to the wolves. He talks to you a lot and guides you through things. I think that’s been great for me and he’s been a huge help. Just his intensity on the ice is huge. Brings the energy in the room. I think he’s going to be good for this group.”
This season is an important one for McMichael not only for pure development reasons but also because he will be a restricted free agent at the end of it. The three-year, entry-level deal that he signed with the Caps in 2019 is expiring and he’ll be looking to prove he’s worth more than the $863,333 salary he’s scheduled to make in the final year of it.
Headline photo: Katie Adler/RMNB
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