December marks six months since the Washington Capitals selected four NHL hopefuls in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.
The Capitals drafted forwards Connor McMichael, Brett Leason, and Aliaksei Protas along with defenseman Martin Hugo Has at the draft in Vancouver this past June. The following weeks saw each pick attend Washington’s development camp and all three forwards ink their first NHL contracts. Since then, the four prospects have gone their separate ways to continue their development.
It’s understandable if fans haven’t kept up to date with the team’s most-recent draft class. After all, Washington’s league-best 23-5-5 start to the 2019-20 season has been time consuming by itself.
However, with three of the four prospects chosen to participate in their nations’ respective selection camps ahead of the fast-approaching 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship, now is the perfect time to break down each player’s first six months in the Capitals organization.
McMichael Dominating the OHL
The Capitals knew they were investing in a special player when McMichael was selected with the 25th pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The centerman entered the draft coming off of a career-best season, finishing the 2018-19 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season ranked 39th with a career-high 72 points in 67 games for the London Knights. He also recorded career highs in goals and assists, ending the season with 36 each and establishing himself as a first-round pick.
The Canadian had already proved himself worthy of his first NHL contract and NHL ice time during preseason, but his performance throughout the OHL season has led some to claim that he is the best junior hockey player in the world.
McMichael is absolutely tearing apart the OHL this season. The 18-year-old leads the league with 59 points (25 goals, 34 assists) in just 27 games—13 points shy of last season’s total—and he is ranked third across the CHL in points. He has only been held without a point in two games.
The former first-round pick is well on pace to have his best season to date. He is tallying an average 2.19 points per game, and he is scoring just under a goal per game. At this rate, McMichael would finish the season with an estimated 63 goals and 85 assists for a total of 148 points—tied for the 15th-most points in OHL history.
His 25 goals this season are second-best only to Arthur Kaliyev with 28. However, the league-leading goalscorer has played in three more games than the Capitals’ prospect, giving McMichael the opportunity to easily overtake the lead down the line.
With those numbers, it’s no surprise that McMichael was selected for Team Canada’s World Junior Championship selection camp on Monday, Dec. 2. He is one of 31 players competing to fill the 23-man roster for the tournament.
Given how well he has performed this season, it is hard to imagine head coach Dale Hunter not selecting the two-time OHL Player of the Week for their trip to the Czech Republic in the coming weeks.
Leason Underperforming in Hershey
There were many questions surrounding Leason leading up to the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The 20-year-old Canadian was entering his third draft after being overlooked the previous two years due to his under-developed skating ability and lacking offensive production.
A breakout 2018-19 season for the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League saw his draft stock rise, but many professional scouts believed he had reached his developmental peak. Nevertheless, the winger was a projected first or second-round pick.
Leason slipped to the Capitals late in the second round with the 54th-overall pick. He signed a three-year, entry-level contract in July and made his way onto Washington’s preseason roster.
Despite a strong preseason in which he tallied a goal and an assist and saw first-line ice time alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, Leason was assigned to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League (AHL) for the regular season.
The winger’s start to the AHL season has rather underwhelming, recording just two assists in his first 19 games for the Bears. However, Leason began to heat up at the start of the month. He scored his first AHL goal—an overtime game-winner against the Hartford Wolf Pack—and recorded two assists on Sunday, Dec. 1 to raise his season total to five points.
It’s safe to say that Washington’s second-round draft pick has underperformed for a majority of his first professional season. However, he demonstrated in his three-point display against Hartford that he is fully capable of generating offensive production. As long as he can stay consistent, the Bears might begin to see shades of the Leason of old throughout the rest of the season.
Protas Having Career-Best Season
Besides snatching McMichael at 25th overall, the Capitals landed their biggest steal of the draft after trading up to select Protas in the third round with the 91st pick.
The Belarussian centerman—another Prince Albert product—received the recognition of NHL scouts during the 2018 WHL playoffs. He recorded 10 goals—including two back-to-back hat tricks in the Eastern Conference finals—and 12 assists to help secure the WHL title.
Protas signed his first NHL contract and made the Capitals’ preseason roster following the draft. He registered a three-point game against the Chicago Blackhawks in his preseason debut and tallied his first NHL goal.
Despite an impressive preseason in the NHL, the 18-year-old was sent back to the WHL to continue his development into one of the league’s best players.
Protas is already having the best season of his career just 27 games into the regular season. He is tied for fourth in both goals (18) and points (42) in the WHL, and he is also tied for sixth in assists with 24. At this rate, the center will finish the season with an estimated 45 goals, 60 assists, and 105 points.
His performance this season has earned him the praise of pundits across the hockey world. Mostly notably, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman labeled Protas as “the top early riser from the 2019 draft.” (from ‘Pronman: Biggest risers from the 2019 NHL Draft,’ The Athletic, 11/25/2019)
In November, the 18-year-old was selected to represent Belarus in this month’s World Junior Championship Division 1A. As of Wednesday, Protas has recorded one goal in two games so far in the tournament.
Has Gaining Experience in Finnish Senior Leagues
The Capitals traded up to select Has—the only defenseman in their forward-heavy draft class—in the fifth round of June’s draft. The Czech Republic native entered the draft ranked 68th overall and Central Scouting’s 38th-best European skater available, but he fell down to the 153rd pick.
Has participated in Washington’s development camp following the draft. He then returned to Finland where he was called up from Tappara’s U-20 team to compete for the senior team in the Liiga—Finland’s top league. However, he was loaned to Koovee of the Mestis—Finland’s second-best league—after five games for Tappara. He has recorded 2 points (1 goal, 1 assist) for Tappara, and 1 goal for Koovee this season.
The defenseman was selected earlier this month to represent the Czech Republic in the upcoming World Junior Championship. He is expected to be named team captain for the tournament.
Christopher Williams is a junior journalism student at Emerson College in Boston. He fell in love with the Washington Capitals at an early age, and it’s been his dream ever since to cover hockey as a journalist. Christopher is a staff writer for Emerson’s student newspaper, The Berkeley Beacon, where he writes the Boston Bruins column. He is also a sports reporter for Emerson’s TV station, WEBN-TV Boston, where he has covered the Boston Bruins, Beanpot Tournament, and Boston University men’s hockey.