Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan has a reputation of scoring more misses than hits with his NHL draft selections. In the past five years, only one homegrown talent, 2014 first-round selection Jakub Vrana, has achieved significant ice time with the Capitals.
MacLellan has instead relied on free agency and deep pockets to build his squads, neither of which will be at his disposal this off-season. After the draft, the league announced the salary cap for the 2019-20 season as $81.5 million – far lower than the projected $83 million figure that the league’s general managers have used as a baseline. According to CapFriendly.com, Washington has under $9.25 million of cap space to work with, fifth-worst in the league. Several key players, such as Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, and Brett Connolly remain unsigned, making this draft essential in case any of those players decide to walk.
Of course, with only five draft picks going into day one, there was little margin for error.
ROUND 1: Connor McMichael – C, London (OHL)
Not to be confused with the NHL’s other “Connor Mc,” but during his career with the OHL’s London Knights, he has been known to show traces of the Oilers standout’s pure scoring ability.
One of the top scorers on the OHL’s Midwest Division champs, McMichael has been noted for his keen offensive mind and his ability to score from “high danger” areas. This paid dividends in his second season, as the 17-year-old improved dramatically from his rookie season with 72 points. He also played on Team “Canada White” at the 2017 World U-17 Hockey Challenge, where he picked up four points in six games.
While most mock drafts had McMichael pegged as a second-round selection, the Capitals likely had him on their radar due to their lack of offensive depth at forward. Critics such as Corey Pronman (from ‘2019 NHL Draft pick-by-pick breakdown of the first round,’ The Athletic NHL – 6/21/2019), who ranked him 52nd, note his “average” skating ability, a flaw which can be ironed out by good coaching.
As soon as McMichael moves up the ranks, expect him to settle into a position on the third line, where the Capitals desperately need help.
ROUND 2 – Brett Leason – W, Prince Albert (WHL)
Not content with McMichael, the Capitals chose another Canadian Hockey League forward in the second round.
Despite being picked 31 spots after McMichael, Leason’s experience may propel him to the big league before the rest of the Caps’ picks. In fact, at 20 years old, Leason is already eligible to enter the AHL with the Caps’ affiliate, the Hershey Bears, should the team be confident enough to take that chance right away.
After the previous two drafts passed by without his name being called, Leason spent the 2018-19 season building up his draft stock in Prince Albert, all the while taking part in an unexpected championship season. He more than doubled his previous career high with 89 points during the regular season, and carried the momentum into the playoffs, where he scored 25 points in 22 playoff games – including the only goal in their 1-0 victory in Game 4 of the league finals.
Scouts such as Pronman, who had him pegged as high as 34th, noted his keen offensive sense and his ability to move the puck through sharp creases – a neat compliment to the sharpshooter McMichael if they were to ever share a line. On top of that, as NBC Sports’ J.J. Regan notes, his 6-foot-4, 210-pound build is beneficial for protecting the puck against the glass.
ROUND 3: Aliaksei Protas – C, Prince Albert (WHL)
MacLellan must have seen something special in the 18-year-old Belarusian forward – or maybe he wanted to form a lineup with two Raiders teammates – as he traded both of the Capitals’ fourth-round selections to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for their third-round pick.
Ranked as high as 44th (ISS Hockey) among NHL prospects, and as low as 137th (Future Considerations), Protas picked the best time to show his best stuff. Graduating from the Belarusian under-20s, he picked up 40 points in 61 appearances in his first season with Prince Albert, proving himself as a dependable skater come playoff time. But he showed his true goal-scoring capability in the postseason, where he managed to outdo his regular season total with 12 goals and 10 assists in 23 games, and was one of the driving forces behind the Raiders’ championship run.
In fact, Protas may not have come off the board so early were it not for his shining moment in the WHL’s Eastern Conference finals, where he posted two consecutive hat tricks to push Prince Albert to victories over the Edmonton Oil Kings in Games 5 and 6.
If Protas can keep up the momentum from his late-season heroics, the Capitals may have a future star in the making with this third-round steal.
ROUND 5: Martin Has – D, Tappara (Finland Jr.)
Once more, the Capitals traded up, acquiring the San Jose Sharks’ fifth-round pick in exchange for their seventh-round selections this year and next year.
The Czech defenseman is expected to spend one more year in the Finnish system – this time with the senior Tappara team – before making it stateside. At 6-foot-4 and 192, Has cuts an intimidating figure for his age, but has shown great ability on both sides of the ice. Last season he put up 16 points in 37 appearances for Tappara’s U-20 side, while also racking up 11 points in 20 games for the Czech U-18 team.
Perhaps the most serious knock on his game is a lack of discipline. For both the national team and his club, he picked up more penalty minutes than points – something that he would need to work on if he wants to find a place in the big club. After all, the Capitals already have a bruising defender who passes through the penalty box seemingly every game, and his name is Tom Wilson.
Incidentally, as Caps blogger Mike Vogel points out, the defenseman already has a connection with one of his new teammates.
Preliminary Grade – B
With the players selected, the Capitals addressed their most pressing need – offensive depth – a need unlikely to be patched by the free agency market due to their cap situation.
However, almost as important as the selections MacLellan made was the one move he did not. In a draft unusually devoid of blockbuster trades, one possible deal involving Burakovsky never surfaced, leaving the Capitals stuck with his contract situation for the time being. Unfortunately, with forwards taking up three of the four selections, it’s not hard to interpret as MacLellan either pushing the free agents out the door or muscling them toward a quick and dirty deal.
While no team’s draft can possibly be judged until the players hit the ice and show what they’re capable of, it seems that the Capitals made sound choices with the limited resources at their disposal.