Welcome to the second edition of the Washington Capitals Mailbag here at The Hockey Writers. If you missed the first instalment, this series is about allowing our writers to field your questions about D.C.’s team.
With the start of training camp just around the corner, we answer your queries about the development of Washington’s young players under head coach Peter Laviolette, including forward Connor McMichael and defenceman Martin Fehérváry. There is a lot to mull over.
Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and style.
I’m worried that the Caps have filled all their roster spots with veterans. Many of us questioned trading for Marcus Johansson and handing him an extension… Will Laviolette finally keep rookies on the ice or will he continue to ignore them?
There is a lot to unpack, here – but let’s start with the Marcus Johansson trade and extension. Washington acquired the 31-year-old back in March from the Seattle Kraken in exchange for Daniel Sprong, a 2022 fourth-round pick, and a 2023 sixth-round pick.
Johansson produced six points (three goals, three assists) in 18 regular-season appearances following his return to Capital One Arena, before adding two points (one goal, one assist) in six games to his account in the playoffs. He signed a one-year, $1.1 million contraction extension with the club in July.
Sprong also accumulated six points (six goals) after the trade and remains in Seattle on a professional try-out (PTO) agreement. Thus, the only major difference between the pair last term was their age and defensive capacity. In the context of our first question, it is easy to see why a section of the fanbase is unhappy with the trade: it made an old team even older and set fire to a couple of draft picks. But, at least to a certain degree, it made sense at the time.
The Capitals were far from their best in the second half of last season and desperately needed to shuffle the pack. MacLellan wanted to replace the defensively irresponsible Sprong with a sturdier alternative and found a trade partner in Seattle. Also of note: the Kraken retained half of Johansson’s cap hit.
Johansson’s new contract is also fine: $1.1 million for a bottom-six forward who is familiar with the franchise represents fair value on both sides. More importantly, it is only one-year long.
However, that does not speak to the organisation’s management of young players. MacLellan has made no secret of his mantra concerning rookies: they have to earn their roster spot; he won’t gift them anything.
“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.”
With that said, there is no reason to believe Laviolette and MacLellan will change course this season. Washington’s youngsters will hit the ice when they deserve to, which often boils down to how defensively aware they are.
Will Connor McMichael take a step forward in his development because of the extra ice time he could receive as a result of Nicklas Backstrom’s absence?
The nature of McMichael’s role depends on whether the coach trusts him and how well the team performs to start the season. If the Capitals are below the playoff line on American Thanksgiving, history suggests Laviolette won’t be inclined to hand young players the reigns. Also of note: Connor Brown and Dylan Strome joined the team this summer, mainly as injury cover for Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson. There might not be very much “extra ice time” to hand around.
However, Washington’s front office is optimistic about McMichael and his importance to the club ahead of the new season. “I think Connor’s going to come in and he’s going to be better than he was last year,” MacLellan said earlier this offseason. “It’s going to be, ‘How do we best develop him? How do we do what’s best for our line-up?’
“I mean, he’s probably a year ahead of schedule. He came into the American [Hockey] 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 [centre or on the wing].”
The 21-year-old has already accrued 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 69 top-flight appearances. While he is not viewed as an everyday top-six forward yet, time is on the Canadian’s side.
With that said, Washington should expect McMichael to take a step forward in his development this season – regardless of where he slots into Laviolette’s plans. The former 25th overall pick still has plenty to prove at the highest level, and that includes fighting his way up the line-up.
Martin Fehérváry had a great first full season in the NHL last year: will he continue to solidify his status as a top-four defenceman in 2022-23?
Fehérváry was excellent last season, recording 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) in 79 appearances as a rookie blueliner. He also received one Calder Trophy vote and was selected by Slovakia to participate in the Men’s World Championship in Finland.
He skated with John Carlson for most of the season, creating a partnership that led the Capitals in time on ice and expected goals scored. But it was not all plain sailing: they combined for a negative expected goals share, and Fehérváry struggled offensively. However, the 22-year-old spent his offseason working on his game and returns to North America with renewed vigour.
“At the moment, I’ve completed eight weeks of strength training and I’ve been going on the ice for a few weeks,” Fehérváry told Hockey Slovakia. “It may be different in the new season, but now I have my place and it’s definitely a better position than a year ago. I knew I had it and I just needed to get a chance. It came and I didn’t let it go. The goal was to give my best during every possible opportunity.
“I always try to play my own game, be tough and skate well. Now, I’m trying to work on further improvement. I would like to be even more useful in the offensive, and the goal is also to increase the consistency of performances. I simply want to be a better defender again.”
If the Bratislava-born defenceman continues on the trajectory he set last season, there is no doubt he will solidify his spot in the top-four role – not least because the Capitals have structured their backend around his continued improvement.
Capitals’ Training Camp is Just Around the Corner
Finally, the start of preseason is near. Washington will return to the ice on Sept. 25 for a matinee exhibition fixture against the Buffalo Sabres, before travelling to Pennsylvania to square off against the Philadelphia Flyers four days later.
Until then, make sure you keep up with the latest analysis at The Hockey Writers for all your Capitals and hockey needs. If you would like to feature in our next mailbag, hit us up with your questions in the comments.
Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators 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.