When Connor McMichael took to the ice Wednesday in the Capitals preseason game in Boston, he was flanked by Conor Sheary and T.J. Oshie, two veteran wingers who play a two-way, responsible game. When the team took line rushes on Thursday. That line was not put together by accident.
"Almost by design," head coach Peter Laviolette joked Wednesday morning about the make-up of his third line.
Earlier in the preseason playing against rosters full of minor league and junior players, the make-up of the lines is not overly important. Now with the regular season on the horizon and teams trying to tailor their NHL lineups, coaches begin to experiment with looks we could see in the regular season.
With Nicklas Backstrom still not on the ice and his availability for the start of the season looking more and more doubtful, someone will need to fill in at center. The two leading candidates are prospects McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre. With both players vying for playing time in the NHL, Laviolette also has to consider who to play them with and he decided he wanted McMichael to play with two veterans he could trust.
"They're both really smart players," Laviolette said of Sheary and Oshie. "They're players that communicate well. They bring a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge to a young player that could help them in practices, before a game, during a game and after a game. They're a couple of players that you would want to see flanked around a young player."
For his part, Oshie recognizes when he plays with the young prospects what he needs to do to make life easy on the ice for McMichael and Lapierre.
"As their linemate, it's mostly just me playing my game as well as I can," Oshie said. "Playing the 200-foot game, trying to make the game easy on them so they don't have to worry about too much defense. They don't have to worry about too many faceoff plays. I like to come to the game being prepared, knowing what every system, everything that we're supposed to do with our systems. Whatever's on the board before the game or whatever's in the pre scout, I try to have all that fresh and ready so that I can help him."
Protecting the young players doesn't just end when they get off the ice. McMichael said fellow Ontario native Tom Wilson has always been looking out for him since he came into the Capitals organization.
"The Toronto boys sticking together," McMichael said.
"He's a quiet kid that puts his head down and works and shows up," Wilson said of McMichael. "I think he's got a ton of skill, I think he's got a ton of upside and the more and more he comes out of his shell, I think you're going to see more of that."
It looks like he may soon get his chance.
With the start of the regular season now less than a week away, Backstrom has yet to skate with the team and remains out with a lingering hip injury. His availability to start the season looks doubtful meaning McMichael, Lapierre or both could be sticking around in Washington for at least the first month of the season if not longer if Backstrom is placed on long-term injured reserve. That means McMichael and Lapierre will continue to lean on veterans on and off the ice to help them adjust to life in the NHL.
Luckily for them, the core and the culture of Washington is set up to help them do just that.
"Behind the scenes the core leadership group since I've been here has been so good at making me feel comfortable and anyone that comes in here whether you've had a tough point in your career, whether you're a kid, whether you're a veteran guy, you just get accepted and able to what you do best," Wilson said. "I don't think that's any different for Mikey and Lapy and those young guys coming in. It's a good group, it's a special group and you just go out there and hopefully fill the net with pucks."