It hasn’t taken very long for Hendrix Lapierre to make his presence known at the NHL level.
In just two preseason games, he’s assisted on four of the Capitals’ six total goals in just shy of 29 minutes on the ice. And in the Capitals’ 5-4 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday at Capital One Arena, he impressed in more areas than just the scoresheet.
He made slick passing plays, used his speed to draw a penalty and controlled the puck for a large portion of his time on the ice. His playmaking ability, and improvement in the faceoff dot, haven’t gone unnoticed by anyone. In fact, it’s fair to say the youngster is jumping onto everyone’s radar as the regular season quickly approaches.
And through it all, the 19-year-old is still a bit nervous about suiting up in the NHL.
“Still pretty nervous,” Lapierre said postgame with a smile. “I still got a lot of things to prove out there and I really want to be the best player I can be every day. So I was still a little nervous. It’s always fun to play in front of those fans and be on a stage like that. I was playing with two really good linemates, too, so I just wanted to make sure chemistry was clicking. But overall, as the game went on, I think the nervousness kind of calmed down and everything slowed.”
Lapierre’s first assist of the night was a beauty, when he found teammate T.J. Oshie behind the defense and led him in for a breakaway goal. As a line, Lapierre, Oshie and 2019 third-round draft pick Aliaksei Protas tilted the ice in their favor more often than not and created scoring chances aplenty.
“He skated really well, he moved the puck really well,” Oshie said of the young center. “I thought for the most part we weren’t really in our own end and a lot of that was because of his skating through the middle, making great plays. He actually had two super nice plays to me in the middle and I didn’t quite read them fast enough. I had to get used to his hockey IQ, which seems pretty high. I thought he did a great job.”
His improvement was quantifiable in the faceoff circle. On Sunday against the Boston Bruins he went just 2-of-11 in a shootout loss. Wednesday against the Devils, Lapierre dominated and went 10-of-14 on the draw.
“I thought he was better tonight than he was last game,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “(And) he was good last game. I thought he did a better job competing on pucks. I thought he did a better job in the faceoff circle. You could notice his speed with the puck and how he attacked the game, able to generate some offense. Another good showing.”
Lapierre, who spent the last three seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, has proven he deserves a long, hard look during this preseason whether or not he belongs in the NHL sooner rather than later.
Late in Wednesday’s game as the Capitals trailed 5-4 and pushed for the late tying goal, Laviolette put Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Anthony Mantha and John Carlson on the ice to try and tie the game. Lapierre was the one chosen as the extra skater with the goalie pulled.
It’s unclear how realistic Lapierre making the NHL roster is right now. Under NHL rules, a 19-year-old prospect may dress in up to nine NHL games before it triggers a player’s entry-level deal for that season. In theory, the Capitals could keep him in the NHL for that amount of time and see how he handles the rigors of the NHL game for a few weeks before deciding whether to send him back to the QMJHL for more development.
Things get especially interesting when considering the increasing likelihood of center Nicklas Backstrom missing games to start the season, and even more so when a quick look down the lineup shows Connor McMichael, the 2019 first-round pick, waiting in the wings as another seemingly NHL-ready center. McMichael has the pro experience Lapierre doesn't. He led the Hershey Bears in points last season in the American Hockey League.
Backstrom’s potential absence would undoubtedly hurt the team on the ice. But the Capitals have no shortage of intriguing options to fill out the middle of their lineup.
“It’s tough to say,” Lapierre said when asked about making the team. “My job as a hockey player is to be the best player I can be each and every day and I feel like right now I’m doing a good job at that. My goal when I came to training camp was to make that roster and I think I just have to keep playing and good things will happen. But definitely my goal, yeah.”
Lapierre will have four more preseason games to showcase what he could bring to the NHL before the team has to make its final roster decision. And the more he keeps scoring points, the more likely his dream will become reality.
“Just to be around those guys, even when you’re not on the line, just to see how they prepare, how they react every day in practice and stuff like that, it’s pretty impressive,” Lapierre said of the Capitals’ veteran forwards. “For me, I’m still young, so I still try to learn each and every day and it’s fun to be out there. I guess it’s a dream, kind of.”