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Capitals top prospect Connor McMichael an option to play in postseason, according to Todd Reirden

Capitals top prospect Connor McMichael an option to play in postseason, according to Todd Reirden

When it comes to the playoffs, rarely do black aces generate much excitement. Black aces are players a team recalls from the minors to serve as depth/practice players during the postseason. Most of them are brought in with the expectation that they won't play and, even if they do, it is only out of necessity. And then there are players like Connor McMichael.

The Caps' first-round draft pick from 2019, McMichael is coming off a brilliant season in the OHL with the London Knights where be recorded 102 points in 52 games. Teams will often bring up players they see as future NHLers to serve as black aces even if they are not going to play, just for the experience of being with the team during the postseason. After a productive training camp in September, it is no surprise to see McMichael back with the Caps as the team prepares for the playoffs.

"It was really cool, just coming in and seeing all the pros like [Alex Ovechkin], [Nicklas Backstrom] and those guys, guys I grew up watching," McMichael said. "It was really cool to be around them and to see how they approach the game every single day. So, I took a lot of that back to London. Just here, black acing it, it's a cool experience watching them play in the playoffs and how they treat their bodies every day to be ready to go. So, I'm really excited."

In a typical season, there were be essentially no chance the 19-year-old, 181-pound McMichael would get into the lineup. But this is not a typical season.

RELATED: CONNOR MCMICHAEL A BLACK ACE CANDIDATE FOR PLAYOFFS

The first three games for Washington will be round robin games and, though they matter in terms of seeding, they don't matter in terms of being do-or-die. The Caps could lose all three games and still be in the playoffs. Because of that, it leaves head coach Todd Reirden the opportunity to experiment with his lineup if he chooses. Could that leave an opening for McMichael to possibly crack the lineup for a game?

It's not a subject the coaches have breached with the young forward just yet.

"No, they haven't talked to me about that too much," McMichael said. "The coaches were just telling everyone to be ready. You never know what can happen in the playoffs. You need depth in the playoffs, especially. I'm just ready to go whenever I get my name called."

When asked if McMichael could possibly play in the postseason, however, Reirden made clear that he wouldn't be with the team if he wasn't seen as at least an option.

I AM THE PROSPECT: CONNOR MCMICHAEL'S PATH TO THE NHL

"I think that's something that we're going to continue to evaluate," Reirden said. "If we didn't think that he was an option to be able to be played then that would be a player we wouldn't probably bring to the hub city with us. He's going to be there and he's going to be in Toronto, then to me, he's an option because so many things can change so quickly with what's going to happen inside this bubble."

Lars Eller has already expressed his intention to leave the bubble for the birth of his second child which will force the team to replace him in the lineup. Also, the longer the Caps go in the playoffs, the more likely it is that there will be an injury somewhere forcing in someone else. If that opportunity comes along for McMichael, he said he will be ready.

"I'm just really happy to be here," McMichael said. "I'm going to do everything to prove to the coaches that I can play in the lineup and, if not, I'll always be ready in case someone gets hurt or other things happen. So, I'm just really excited to be here and it should be really fun."

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Even with Nicklas Backstrom injured, now is not the time for Caps to turn to prospect Connor McMichael

Even with Nicklas Backstrom injured, now is not the time for Caps to turn to prospect Connor McMichael

It's been a pretty crazy year for Capitals prospect Connor McMichael. In June 2019, McMichael was selected 25th overall by the Caps in the NHL draft. He would return to the juniors and dominate the OHL with 102 points in 52 games. He also won gold in the World Junior Championship with Team Canada, scoring five goals and two assists in seven games in the tournament. After the OHL shuttered the rest of the season due to COVID-19, it looked like that would be the end of his hockey season, but now he is in Toronto in the bubble with Washington for the playoffs as a black ace. Wouldn't making his NHL debut in the playoffs be a fitting end to his hockey season?

No. No, it would not.

There is understandably some excitement within the fanbase for McMichael and any opening on the offensive lines has led to a number of questions from fans as to whether McMichael could slot in. With Nicklas Backstrom in the league's concussion protocol and out for Game 2, this would be a perfect opportunity to get McMichael in, right? It's not a bottom-six role which would not allow him to utilize his skill. Backstrom's absence leaves a hole at center on the second line. Surely a Caps team with only three 5-on-5 goals in four postseason games could use a forward like McMichael?

The skill was evident in his brief time in Washington for training camp. He pulled off an incredible no-look pass in the preseason that set-up an easy goal. My jaw dropped when McMichael tried to pull the between the legs shot on the defending Cup champion goalie, Jordan Binnington. But bringing McMichael to Toronto was never about getting him into the lineup, it was about giving the experience of what life is like in the playoffs. It's about learning how star forwards like Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin prepare. It's about learning how much time is spent scouting opponents and learning how to practice, how to eat, how to rest, etc. Getting him in was not a priority and that should not change now with Backstrom out.

Let's think about why Backstrom is out in the first place. He was knocked out of the game by a late hit from Islanders captain Anders Lee in a Game 1 that featured a combined 40 PIMs. There was one fight, five roughing penalties, four interferences and one boarding call. This is going to be a very tough, very physical series. Someone is going to have to explain to me why inserting a 19-year-old, 183-pound McMichael  who has no experience even at the AHL level would be a good idea.

RELATED: LOSING NICKLAS BACKSTROM WOULD BE 'HUGE TROUBLE' FOR THE CAPITALS

The Stanley Cup playoffs is the most physical, most intense hockey there is. Against a team that quite clearly showed they want to play physically against the Caps, putting McMichael in a second-line role is not setting him up for success. I am not saying the Islanders would be looking to injure him, but they are not going to ease up on the hitting and physical play either.

Let's not forget, defense is an important part of playing center. In Game 1, the second line matched up primarily against Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey. Beauvillier is about the same size as McMichael, but Bailey is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and Nelson is a massive 6-foot-3, 212 pounds.

How does McMichael clear Nelson out of the crease when the defense is pulled away and it's his job to maintain net-front presence in front of Braden Holtby?

None of this means that McMichael can't or won't play. We are not even allowed to watch practice while the players are in the bubble so perhaps McMichael is dominating out there and Reirden knows he can handle whatever the Islanders throw at him. OK, great, but I believe he is much further down the depth chart than you may think.

We already know Travis Boyd is the 13th forward and he has been in since Lars Eller left the bubble to be with his family for the birth of his second child. He will now likely continue to be in with Backstrom out. Beck Malenstyn and Daniel Sprong are both young players with some NHL experience. Recently, when asked about other players who could get into the lineup if needed, head coach Todd Reirden referenced Philippe Maillet and Brian Pinho, not McMichael.

Call me crazy, but I just don't think it's a good idea to take a 19-year-old player who weighs only 183 pounds with zero professional experience and throw him into the second line in a Stanley Cup playoff game against a team that has shown they want to play the Caps as physically as possible. McMichael's time will come, but that time is not now.

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This won't be the first time Capitals turn to Lars Eller at 2nd-line center in playoffs

This won't be the first time Capitals turn to Lars Eller at 2nd-line center in playoffs

When the Capitals take the ice for Game 2 against the New York Islanders on Friday, they will be without center Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom is in concussion protocol and is unclear when he will be able to return. No team can lose a player of Backstrom's caliber and not feel that loss, but Washington does at least have a contingency plan in the form of Lars Eller. The team has had to turn to Eller on the second line in the playoffs before and, though the results were far from perfect, things did end up working out for the Caps. That year was 2018 and the Caps would go on to win the Stanley Cup.

One of the priorities of general manager Brian MacLellan is center depth. He puts a great deal of emphasis on the position and making sure the team is well-stocked in case of injury. That depth was put to the test in 2018 when Backstrom suddenly was out of the lineup in the playoffs with an upper-body injury. That injury turned out to be two fractures in his right hand and it kept him out for four games, starting with Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

With Backstrom out, Eller was called upon to center the second line in his absence.

“I love when those challenges happen because I think I don’t change the way I think about the game or the way I prepare myself," Eller said. "It will basically mean I will be playing more minutes probably than I otherwise would. My mentality is the same, trying to go out there and play a strong two-way game and create offense in every shift."

RELATED: LOSING NICKLAS BACKSTROM WOULD BE 'HUGE TROUBLE' FOR THE CAPITALS

Offensively, the results were great. In those four games, Eller recorded two goals and three assists. There is not much more that could have been asked of him in that respect. Defensively, however, it was another story.

Eller is a good defensive player, but Backstrom is one of the team's best defensive forwards and has been one of the top two-way forwards in the league for much of his career. When you are on the second line you are typically going to get more difficult defensive assignments and Eller struggled at times against those assignments. In Game 6 against the Penguins, Washington allowed only one goal. It came off a faceoff that Eller lost in the defensive zone. In Game 3 of the Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Eller took three bad penalties, one for closing his hand on the puck, one for slashing and one for cross-checking. Tampa Bay would score on his first penalty and earn their first win of the series.

This is not to suggest that Eller was or is a defensive liability, it's just a reflection of the difference between him and Backstrom. Eller is a high-end third-line center. That is where he is at his best and he makes the Caps one of the deepest offensive teams in the NHL. He can plug into the top-six when needed, but he is a third-line center. The Caps are very fortunate to have a player like him who can step into the top lines, but the longer Backstrom is out for, the more noticeable his absence becomes and 2018 is evidence of that.

Now, fast-forward to 2020. Eller will once again be called upon to play on the second line due to an injury to Backstrom. He even is expected to play with the same linemates -- Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie -- as he did in 2018.  If it's just for a game or two, you may not even notice a difference. With every passing game, however, the absence of Backstrom will loom larger, not because of Eller, but because of how good and important a player Backstrom is.

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