It is undeniable at this point: the Washington Capitals are staring down the barrel of a difficult season in a competitive Metropolitan Division. They will start the campaign without Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, with the Swede facing an arduous recovery from hip resurfacing surgery. His future is unclear.
According to CapFriendly, the Capitals have the second oldest roster in the NHL. That is despite general manager Brian MacLellan’s best efforts to rejuvenate his squad this offseason.
Alex Ovechkin will celebrate his 37th birthday in September, meaning Washington’s window to lift another Stanley Cup is closing. Rapidly.
But, after four straight first-round playoff exits, is there light at the end of the tunnel? There might be. Connor McMichael is one of several 2022-23 Capitals on the cusp of a major career breakthrough. The 21-year-old has 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) and 68 regular-season appearances to his name and has a chance to climb up Washington’s depth chart this term.
“I think it’s a competitive situation,” MacLellan said of his forward group in a July 20 media availability. “I don’t think we’re coming in guaranteeing young guys spots in the line-up. Part of it is [that] you have to earn it to a certain degree.
“I think Connor’s going to come in and he’s going to be better than he was last year, and it’s going to be, ‘How do we best develop him? How do we do what’s best for our line-up?’”
With that in mind, what should the Capitals expect from McMichael next season and how close is he to taking the next step?
Is Connor McMichael’s Future at Centre or on the Wing?
Since entering the professional ranks in 2019-20, McMichael has split his time between the centre, wing, and press box. However, he is not expected to be a healthy scratch in the fall, with Washington’s injury situation elevating his importance to the team.
As a result, the debate surrounding the former 25th overall pick’s best position rumbles on. Should he start next season playing up the gut or by the boards?
“I think he’s an option on both [centre and wing], but based on last year’s performance, I like him in the middle more,” MacLellan said. “He seems to be more involved; he seems to skate more. So, I like his game more when he plays centre.”
For what it is worth, McMichael is naturally a centre. He played the bulk of his junior career through the middle and enjoyed success there, registering 102 points (47 goals, 55 assists) in 52 appearances during his final Ontario Hockey League season.
But the NHL is like a different sport, with centres taking on greater defensive responsibility and physical challenges. McMichael was shifted to the wing for that reason and because he was behind the team’s four veteran centres – Evgeny Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Lars Eller, and Nic Dowd – in the pecking order.
Now, the situation is different – even after Dylan Strome’s arrival. McMichael is a year older, wiser, and battle-tested. With Backstrom sidelined, it is time for head coach Peter Laviolette to assess the Canadian in his favoured role.
Connor McMichael’s Second Season Targets
While McMichael’s debut arrived in 2019-20, all but one of his NHL appearances came last season. The Scarborough-born forward is therefore on the cusp of his second proper campaign in the show and faces rising expectations as a result.
If he stays injury-free, McMichael’s primary target is surpassing his 18-point haul from last season. That, however, is easier said than done. To develop his offensive production, he must fight his way up the line-up, win more ice-time, and make good on his opportunity.
In other words, McMichael needs to boost multiple aspects of his game to give himself the platform to register more points. Improving in the face-off circle is key. He only won 42.9 percent of his draws last season, which played a factor in his shift to the wing.
“I mean, he’s probably a year ahead of schedule,” MacLellan commented. “He came into the American League a year early because of COVID. We like where he’s at, we think he’s going to be a good player and he’s going to make some strides this year. We can play him at both positions.”
All factors considered, McMichael’s season will be considered a success if he notches 30-40 points and keeps his head above water in the circle. Tying down a top-six role and consistent looks on the power play would be a bonus.
What’s Next for Connor McMichael and the Capitals?
The Capitals are in for a difficult season, they have a tough schedule and multiple teams breathing down their neck. The New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, and New Jersey Devils will be more competitive next time around.
But there are reasons to be optimistic about Washington, and McMichael is one of them. His versatility and enthusiasm helped the Capitals start 2021-22 on the front foot; Laviolette will be hoping for a similar impact in the months ahead.
Time is also on McMichael’s side. He has plenty of untapped potential and enters the new season assured of his importance to the franchise – both now and in the future. If he kicks on, it will influence the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, starting in D.C.
McMichael is looking a breakout season in the face. His bloom cannot come soon enough for the Caps.
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.