Generally, organizations garnering special attention towards their prospects are rarely mainstays in the NHL playoff picture. Although the lottery can throw a wrench in things, teams with more high-quality prospects tend to be those towards the bottom of the standings of the past few years. However, some of the top teams in the league can still get their hands on a standout young player if they draft well.
Enter the Washington Capitals. Currently sitting atop the league’s standings, very little focus is drawn towards what is taking place on the farm. Obviously, that makes a lot of sense. The average fan is going to give the majority of their attention to the NHL product. If that team is contending for a Stanley Cup, which Washington is, the need to dive into prospects might just not be there.
As a whole, Washington’s pool of prospects is far from the jaw-dropping variety. Due to the recent success at the NHL level, the Capitals’ farm system is quite thin. In his ranking of each NHL’s prospect pool, The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler has Washington ranked 29th, only ahead of the Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets. (from ‘Wheeler’s 2020 NHL prospect pool rankings: No. 29 Washington Capitals,’ The Athletic, 01/15/2020) Still, that doesn’t mean that every prospect within Washington’s has a low ceiling. On the contrary, the Capitals’ 2019 first-round selection, Connor McMichael, comes with a substantial amount of potential and promise.
Connor McMichael Proving the Capitals Right
When constructing a mock first round of the NHL draft, the latter part of the round is usually the trickiest to sort out. Teams selecting from 20 to 31 can go a variety of ways with their pick, leading to unexpected names being taken and others being left available for the later rounds. Just looking at McMichael’s performance with the London Knights this season, it appears as though the Capitals got their pick right.
During the 2018-19 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) campaign, McMichael put together a respectable draft-eligible year. His 72 points were the most among any Knights player and he ranked 39th in the entire OHL in that category. He was just as much a goalscorer as he was for London, posting 36 goals and 36 assists in 67 games. However, his postseason contributions were a little more on the quiet side, registering only 5 points in 11 games. Still, when NHL Central Scouting released their final rankings heading into the draft, they ranked the Scarborough, Ontario native 24th among North Americans.
Fast-forwarding to this season, McMichael has become one of the most dominant players in the OHL. The 19-year-old has the third-most points (85) in the league, only behind draft-eligible players Marco Rossi and Cole Perfetti. Remarkably, McMichael’s 38 goals and 47 assists have been produced over a span of only 39 games. He also represented Team Canada at the World Juniors, posting five goals and two assists while helping his team bring home a gold medal.
Registering over two points a game, McMichael makes an impact every time he takes the ice for London. Typically, scoring three goals in a game isn’t something that happens often. However, he might argue with that statement. The Knights center has posted a hat trick in six different contests this year and also has 10 multi-goal games. Of course, posting those kinds of numbers at the professional level is much more challenging. Still, one can’t help but get excited about what he might bring to the Capitals someday.
What Does it Mean for the Capitals?
With a team built to win a championship now, such as the Capitals, there is far less focus on rushing its young players to the pros. However, if a player proves that they are at a stage in their development where jumping to the NHL makes sense, any team would be eager to find room on their roster.
For McMichael to receive a legitimate shot at the Capitals’ roster next season, two major things need to happen. First, he needs to demonstrate readiness. He is having a wonderful year in the OHL, but we all know that that doesn’t always translate into being ready for the NHL. For some, it’s more of a learning curve than it is for others. A strong training camp and preseason for the center is key. He needs to prove to Washington that they would be foolish to not at least give him a nine-game trial to start the year.
The other thing that needs to happen is there needs to be room on the roster for him. A lot of Capitals forwards will still be on the books for next season with only Travis Boyd and Brendan Leipsic, both RFAs, in need of new contracts. There definitely could be a roster spot there for McMichael to take but it really depends on where on the depth chart he’d fit in. If the likelihood of him being within the top nine is slim, the Capitals would be better off allowing him one final year in the OHL.
For the Capitals, the focus is on the present. Right now, it’s all about bringing another Stanley Cup to the nation’s capital. Still, McMichael’s continued success in the OHL makes the future in Washington exciting as well.