Connor McMichael’s usage and development have become topics of concern amongst fans of the Washington Capitals. The 21-year-old has made 47 appearances this season, averaging 10:24 time on ice (TOI). What’s more, he’s registered 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) despite only playing a peripheral role under Peter Laviolette.
“He’s had a good year,” Washington’s head coach told reporters earlier this month, “if the minutes aren’t there on any given night that may not be on him, and it may not be a reflection on the way that he’s playing.
“Recently, we may find ourselves in a position where we’re chasing the game and I’ve got players that are fresh, that are a little bit more experienced. But he’s had a good first year, a solid year where he’s come in and contributed.”
Despite the 57-year-old’s comments, some Capitals fans are still unconvinced – arguing that McMichael, a first-round pick from 2019, should be playing higher in the line-up. As the debate is complicated, let’s breakdown both sides of the discussion:
Connor McMichael’s Case for More Ice Time
Before focussing on McMichael’s individual contributions, it’s worth pointing out that the Capitals’ have struggled of late. They rank 23rd in the NHL for points percentage (.474) since New Year’s Day, slipping to fourth in the Metropolitan Division. Furthermore, Laviolette’s team are now just three points ahead of the Boston Bruins and at risk of dropping into the Eastern Conference’s second wildcard spot.
In other words, Washington’s season has unravelled, creating an almighty mess for Brian MacLellan to fix before the trade deadline on March 21. However, in lieu of any deadline acquisitions, it’s valid to consider whether some of the organisation’s problems could be addressed internally – including the team’s dip in offensive production.
Of course, that’s where McMichael comes in. The 21-year-old’s TOI has fallen over his last five appearances, dropping to 7:51 in Washington’s 5-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens on 10 Feb. Despite scoring in the game, his ice time was limited to the eighth lowest tally of his fledgling career.
There are, however, valid reasons to argue that McMichael should be playing higher in Washington’s lineup. For most of the season, the Ajax, Ontario product has bounced around the Caps’ bottom-six despite his positive influence on the team.
According to Money Puck, McMichael ranks fourth amongst Washington forwards for on-ice expected goals share (56.5%) and eighth for goals per 60 minutes (0.86). He also passes the eye test. Despite standing at just 6-foot (which is relatively short by the Caps’ standards), the Canadian competes hard on every shift, is energetic on both sides of the puck, and isn’t afraid of taking risks to create chances.
He’s also versatile. McMichael has slotted into Laviolette’s team sheet in almost every role and position available – although his lack of physicality and weakness in the face-off circle undermines his ability as a centre.
Clearly, there are reasons to be optimistic about McMichael. He’s become an everyday NHLer in his rookie season, is a popular member of the dressing room, and has taken positive steps in his development.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the answer to Washington’s current issues – nor does it suggest that increasing his ice time would aid his individual growth. Let’s discuss.
McMichael’s Ice Time Isn’t Unusual
It’s worth pointing out that the Capitals have high hopes for McMichael’s development. The organisation selected him 25th overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft and believes he has the upside to become a top-six forward in the future.
Moreover, prospects tend to take a slow, meandering path to the NHL in D.C. When Jakub Vrana first cracked Washington’s line-up, he averaged 11:07. They were also patient with Andre Buurakovsky, who ended his rookie season with an ATOI of 12:55. In subsequent years, both players have developed as forecast.
In other words, McMichael’s path with the Capitals isn’t new. He isn’t the guinea pig in an obscene prospect experiment – his journey is pretty much par for the course.
What Does the Future Hold for McMichael?
Ultimately, there’s space for the Canadian to carve out more opportunities at Capital One Arena. Washington’s power play has been notoriously awful this season and it’s about time McMichael is awarded the chance to make an impact.
He’s only played five minutes of five-on-four in his NHL career – which simply isn’t enough given his skillset. If there’s something the Capitals are missing on the power play, it’s the unpredictability that a rookie of McMichael’s quality offers in bucketloads.
However, experience counts for a lot in the NHL and that’s something the 21-year-old is still working on. With that in mind, it’s worth returning to Laviolette’s comments.
“He’s put up some points, he’s learning, he’s been here the entire year,” the Capitals’ coach said of McMichael’s rookie season. “This year has been really beneficial for him; you see at practice he’s plating at an NHL pace. He’s handled it well and he’s done a good job.”
Truly, there isn’t anything to worry about with McMichael. There’s scope for him to be playing higher in the line-up – or perhaps on the power play – but his current situation isn’t a disaster. He’s still got room to grow – especially when it comes to puck battles – and it’s sensible for the Capitals to avoid throwing him in at the deep end.
McMichael will come good with time, it’s simply a waiting game.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.