Capitals’ Rookies Continue to Step Up For Injured Vets

Health continues to be a concern for the Washington Capitals. Nicklas Backstrom (hip) has yet to play a game this season while T.J. Oshie (foot) and Anthony Mantha (shoulder) will be out for the foreseeable future. This has opened the door earlier than expected for the organization’s prospects.

Winger Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, 23, was the latest to be recalled from Washington’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Hershey Bears, and the winger made his NHL debut on Monday against the Buffalo Sabres.

Capitals’ Youth Picking up the Slack

It’s not just injuries; it’s who is injured. Backstrom, Oshie, and Mantha are among the Capitals’ top-six forwards, and the team was also without Nic Dowd for a couple of games. Washington started the season hot, but they are beginning to feel the absence of their key skaters; they lost four of their last five games heading into the match against Buffalo.

RookieGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusAverage TOI
Connor McMichael10235011:30
Hendrix Lapierre610129:35
Brett Leason521317:53
Aliaksei Protas100003:53
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby100005:44
Capitals’ Rookie Forwards This Season

Injuries have forced the organization’s heralded youth to gain top-level experience sooner than they might have wished. Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre, Brett Leason, and Aliaksei Protas have made one or more appearances for the Capitals this season, and most have performed well. Now Jonsson-Fjallby joins the list.

Jonsson-Fjallby Makes NHL Debut

It was fitting the young Swede made his debut against the Sabres. In early October, Buffalo scooped him up off waivers, but after a quick practice stint with the team, he was reclaimed by Washington. Jonnson-Fjallby is known for his speed, strong hands, and solid play on the penalty kill, like his veteran teammate and fellow countryman, Carl Hagelin.

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Washington Capitals
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On Monday, Jonsson-Fjallby spoke to the media about his opportunity. “I feel comfortable for sure,” he said. “I feel like my game has been good this year. I got some confidence, and it’s fun for that to be acknowledged and to get a chance.”

He had three goals and four assists through nine AHL games before being called up. On Monday, he registered one hit and two blocks in 5:44 of ice time, 23 seconds of which were spent on the penalty kill.

Capitals Youth Has Been Solid

McMichael has played the most games and leads the rookie forwards in ice time. He scored his second goal of the season during the Capitals’ 5-3 victory over the Sabres. Brett Leason has also been a nice surprise, despite that most of the attention has been on McMichael and Lapierre. The winger quietly has three points (2 goals, 1 assist) while averaging just under eight minutes of ice time in five games.

It was a nice move by head coach Peter Laviolette to play his rookies together, and they’ve all produced. McMichael, Jonsson-Fjallby, and Leason skated on the same line last night, which allows for a less steep learning curve or getting a feel with the already-established Washington first line that has been playing together for years. Of course, the goal is to have everyone working together, no matter the line, but this strategy has eased the transition.

Capitals Injury Updates

Still, Washington has struggled to find wins lately, despite the youth movement. While Oshie and Mantha combined for 12 points in 17 games, the five rookies have recorded eight points in 23 games. Also, the elder wingers averaged more than 13 minutes of ice time per game.

There is still no timeline for Backstrom’s return, Oshie remains week-to-week, and Mantha is out indefinitely after having surgery on his injured shoulder. Coincidentally, Jakub Vrana, who was a key piece in the blockbuster deal with the Detroit Red Wings for Mantha last season, is out for the same reason.

Washington and Detroit play each other for the second time this season on Thursday. The Red Wings defeated the Capitals 3-2 in overtime on Oct. 27.

Capitals Injuries Are Concerning

Washington is no stranger to injuries, but this season, it’s been unsettling. First, the injuries have hit their aging stars. Second, fans are revisiting the Mantha trade, not because of the quality of the player but because of his durability. The 27-year-old has never completed a full season in his seven-year NHL career. He came close in 2017-18, and last season’s pandemic-shortened campaign was only 56 games, which he split between Detroit and Washington, so it still wasn’t a regular sample. Finally, inserting their young prospects into the lineup raises questions about whether the Capitals are forcing their development too early out of necessity.

The rookies have played well so far, which means this may work out in Washington’s favor. However, the cost and reason make it bittersweet. The Capitals still believe they are a dangerous Stanley Cup contender and have shown signs of such. If the younger players continue to produce after the elders return, that hope should become a reality.

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