Aliaksei Protas was sent back to the Hershey Bears, the Washington Capitals’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, on Jan. 2. He was back with the Capitals on Jan. 4. Considering the roster tinkering head coach Peter Laviolette has done all year, the latter move may have been premeditated before the former.
Friday will mark the 23rd game Protas has played in the NHL so far this season, the fourth most among Washington rookies. While others such as Connor McMichael and Martin Fehervary have received the most attention, the young winger is developing well and earning Laviolette’s trust.
Protas Proving He’s Part of the Future
It’s been a strange season for the Washington lineup, as it has been for every NHL team due to the lingering pandemic. However, going in to 2021-22, the Capitals knew they were aging—well, everyone knew they’ve been aging for quite some time—and younger skaters were slated to make their debuts well before roster moves were more of a necessity than a tryout. Thirteen rookies have played their first NHL game this season for Washington.
Alexander Alexeyev and Lucas Johansen were the most recent rookies to make their NHL debuts last weekend, but that was primarily because of the depleted blue line after Washington had a flurry of skaters enter and exit COVID protocols.
Though the defense was the question mark entering the season, Laviolette’s changes and pairings have worked despite the chaos and inexperience, and that is in large part due to the quick transition to NHL play by Fehervary. The offensive contributions from the Capitals’ rookie forwards has been the surprise, and that’s not only because of production, but rather steadiness — something Protas has brought to the ice.
Protas Under the Radar
The Belarusian forward wasn’t anticipated to make his NHL debut so early. He was definitely on the watch list, however, standing at 6-foot-6 and a solid 225 pounds. Protas, 21, was selected 91st overall by Washington in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. He’s big and has a hard shot, but also soft hands and can pass and handle the puck well. And though he already was a versatile forward who could slide from wing to center, development was still needed.
His production was never going to be an issue. From 2018-2020, skating for the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League (WHL), the forward accumulated 120 points (42 goals, 78 assists) and a plus-61 rating in 119 games. Not bad at all.
During a loan stint with HC Dinamo Minsk of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in 2020-21, he registered 18 points in 58 games. He was then re-assigned to Hershey after his KHL season ended, finishing his 2020-21 campaign with seven points over the course of 16 games with the Bears.
This season, he has recorded five points (1 goal, 4 assists) in eight AHL games. Now, it appears he’s more inclined to stay on the NHL roster as much as possible.
Gaining NHL Experience
Protas made his Capitals debut on Nov. 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It wasn’t the greatest of starts for the young forward; he only spent 3:53 on the ice and a faceoff loss and lazy recovery leading to a Lightning tally highlighted, albeit poorly, his performance. He has come a long way since.
He recorded his first NHL point on Nov. 20, an assist against the San Jose Sharks, and then his first goal against the Carolina Hurricanes on Nov. 28. He now has six points (2 goals, 4 assists) through 22 games with Washington.
“He’s just so smart,” Protas’ WHL coach Marc Habscheid told Samantha Pell of The Washington Post. “He has skills. It is obvious how big he is — he’s a monster — but he has got great hands for big man, great shot (from ‘From his host family to his Caps coaches, Aliaksei Protas makes a strong impression,’ The Washington Post, Dec. 9, 2021).”
He’s come a long way, indeed. Since that 3:53 of ice time over two months ago, he now averages 12:25, which is second among Washington rookies who have played more than 20 games, and first among rookie forwards.
Capitals Moving Forward
Currently, McMichael leads all Capitals rookies with 32 games played and nine points. With the production of Protas and Brett Leason, the young Washington forwards are making a needed impact for an old roster.
|Skater||Age||Games Played||Points||Average TOI|
|Axel Jonsson Fjallby||23||8||2||11:54|
The boost, though important, has still just been complimentary considering Evgeny Kuznetsov has found his stride once again, Tom Wilson is progressing even more, and Alex Ovechkin continues his case for the Hart Trophy this season. Also, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are in standard form when healthy and the role players consistently produce and remain solid in their position.
Where help is needed, outside of the unpredictability the virus brings to the roster, is replacing Anthony Mantha who is out for the foreseeable future after shoulder surgery. Players like Protas have stepped up tremendously.
And it is also timely. This upcoming summer, Daniel Sprong is a restricted free agent, as is Leason. The latter is earning his extension. The summer of 2023 is where it gets messy. Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin, Garnet Hathaway, and Conor Sheary are all unrestricted free agents. If Protas, who is signed through 2023-24, continues to develop at the pace he is, he may make the transition for Washington easier.
What was once a concerning notion about the Capitals’ future has become somewhat bright. As of right now, the combination of these aging stars, who continue to test time’s effect on veteran skaters, and the youth that has stepped up when called upon, Washington is in a good position. Taking one season at a time during this stage is vital to the process. As mentioned in previous articles, the goal is to transition from a great generation into a next, not spend decades rebuilding and moving talent around.
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Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?”
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