Heading into the season, the Washington Capitals were billed – quite fairly – as an aging team past their prime. It was argued that general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Peter Laviolette faced a double-edged sword: Washington’s old players were too old and their young players too young.
We might’ve been wrong about some of that.
Through 17 games to open 2021-22, the Capitals have come to rely on their prospects to a degree few could have anticipated. First out the gate was Martin Fehrevary, who deposed Stanley Cup-winning defenceman Michal Kempny in training camp. In truth, the Caps needed a blueliner to step up following Brenden Dillon’s trade to the Winnipeg Jets – but it wasn’t obvious that Fehrevary would glide so effortlessly into becoming a top-pairing defenceman in the NHL.
Another rookie tipped for some top-flight success this season was Connor McMichael. The Canadian forward of World Junior Championship fame has appeared in 15 games, registering six points (two goals, four assists). In the preseason, the 20-year-old was considered a free hit. If he made the jump to the NHL, great; if he didn’t, but made progress in the American Hockey League, cool.
So, if Fehrevary’s success was expected and McMichael’s hoped for, then how should we consider the rest of the rookies’ contributions? In my mind, as the Capitals’ story of the season. Here’s why.
Alex Ovechkin and the Rookies:
The Capitals are 10-3-5, second in the Metropolitan Division, and cooking on gas. Alex Ovechkin is on fire, producing offense at a rate nobody foresaw and carrying the team without the help of Nicklas Backstrom.
Ovechkin’s success has largely – and wisely – been attributed to the return of a proper training camp. The 36-year-old looks sharper than he has in years, winning puck battles he often lost in 2020-21, and he is reaping the rewards as a result. He is now the fourth on the NHL’s all-time goals list and has 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists) in 17 games this season. However, he has yet to score a one-timer and hasn’t enjoyed that much success on the power play or in overtime.
Despite his daw-dropping achievements, Ovechkin isn’t the main story coming out of the District of Columbia. The kids are. Seven rookies have skated for the Capitals this year, including 26-year-old goaltender Zach Fucale. In terms of offensive production, they’ve been impressive.
Take Hendrix Lapierre, for example. The 19-year-old turned up at training camp hoping to make a positive impression before playing out his final year of junior eligibility. Instead, he burst onto the scene, became a positive influence in the locker room, and scored in his NHL debut versus the New York Rangers.
In other words, the Capitals received an unexpected rookie bounce to start the season, and they’ve been rolling ever since.
Can the Capitals Keep This Up?
The most impressive thing about Washington’s rookie class of 2021-22 is that they’ve performed well regardless of the situation. Laviolette has often been forced to ice all-rookie lines in clutch moments. On Nov. 6, with the Capitals trailing the Philadelphia Flyers by two in the final period, Lapierre, McMichael, and Brett Leason took to the ice. Leason scored, and McMichael had the primary assist. In the Caps’ 5-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres, Leason and McMichael linked up with Axel Jonsson-Fjallby in his debut.
All-rookie lines are becoming a regular feature in D.C. Ahead of the Capitals’ trip to San Jose to face the Sharks, Aliaksei Protas is the team’s only pointless rookie. But he isn’t playing like it, as his head coach noted after the team’s 2-0 win against the LA Kings: “I thought Protas was excellent,” Laviolette said. “He was skating. He was working. He was heavy on the puck. I thought he was a difference-maker in the game.”
Speaking of Washington’s victory over Los Angeles, the game also saw Garnet Pilon join the team’s goal-scoring club. Understandably, he was pleased: “It’s definitely nice to get that first one out of the way,” he said.
Perhaps McMichael put it best: “We’ve shown that there’s a lot of young guys with talent and that there’s a lot of talent in Hershey. It’s great for these guys to be succeeding, myself included, and that we’re able to step up into the opportunity that we’ve been given with all the guys injured. Now we’re looking to keep things rolling and helping the team win.”
Once Washington’s injury crisis ends, some of their rookies will head back to Hershey to skate for the Bears. But that shouldn’t be the takeaway. The remarkable thing about these young players is that it’s easy to forget that they’re there. With $20 million worth of forwards in the treatment room, Laviolette and Co. are still flying high in the standings. To put it another way, the Capitals’ rookies have almost completely negated the impact of major injury losses. It’s very impressive.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from the UK, who covers the Washington Capitals for THW. He is a recent graduate from the University of Warwick and is currently studying a postgraduate degree in Newspaper Journalism at City, University of London. To stay up-to-date with Luke’s work, you can find his tweets via @LukeJames_32.