Connor McMichael was drafted by the Capitals in the first round of the 2019 draft and almost instantly became the team's top offensive prospect. After a magnificent season with the London Knights in the OHL in which he scored 47 goals and 55 points in just 52 games, there's a lot of excitement surrounding McMichael and his NHL future.
But don't pencil him into the lineup just yet, there's still more work to do.
After two consecutive first-round playoff exits, it is worth discussing all options the Caps may have for improving their roster and, because of his incredible season, McMichael is a player worth mentioning. But it is far too early to think he has earned himself a spot on the NHL roster.
When a prospect is just 19 years old, it is his job to play to such a degree that the NHL team has no real justification for not putting him in the NHL lineup. Lighting up a junior league against players all his age, many of whom are not NHL caliber players, is not enough. That's not to say that McMichael can't work his way into the Caps' lineup for 2020-21, but just that he has more to prove. Perhaps he has an incredible camp and there is no way for the coaches not to include him on the NHL roster, but his 2019-20 season alone is not enough to seal the deal, especially considering the centers Washington already has on its roster.
With Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller all on the roster, where exactly does McMichael fit in? On the fourth line? Barry Trotz did play Kuznetsov on the fourth line frequently in his first full NHL season, but I would argue that's not the best way to develop a player you see as a top-six forward. As great a coach as Trotz is, one weakness he had in Washington was the lack of trust he showed younger players. He once told the media after practice one day that the NHL was not a development league. Fair enough, but I'm not sure that's the model I would go with.
With Nic Dowd also on the roster, McMichael probably would not even be an everyday player. Not that I see Dowd as necessarily better or having the higher ceiling, but his skill set is certainly better suited for a fourth-line role than McMichael's.
And no, McMichael has not suddenly made one of the team's top three centers expendable. After seeing how the loss of one center completely crippled the lineup during the playoffs, Washington needs more centers under contract, not fewer.
The best thing for McMichael is for him to get as much playing time as possible. You don't help him by keeping him around to be a healthy scratch or a fourth-line center.
In the age of the salary cap, youth is becoming more and more important for teams with championship aspirations. Players on their entry-level deals or even their second contracts come with cheaper cap hits allowing teams to spend money on other players to bolster the lineup. That will be especially important going forward with the league having a flat salary cap for at least the next two seasons.
Those young players can have a huge and unexpected impact as well, Jake Guentzel of the Pittsburgh Penguins being a notable example. In his rookie season, Guentzel played a huge role in the team's Stanley Cup win in 2017, scoring 21 points in the postseason.
But 2017's Guentzel is not an apples to apples comparison for 2020's McMichael.
Here are some fun facts about Guentzel. He was 22 in his rookie season (McMichael is 19). He also did not start the season in the NHL. He began in the AHL, was a call-up in November, was sent back down to the AHL even after scoring three goals and one assist in five games and was recalled for good in January.
Remember when I said it was a prospect's job to force his way into the lineup? Guentzel wasn't just anointed an NHL player because he played well at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He was sent to the AHL then forced the NHL team to keep him by how he played when recalled.
McMichael's cap hit is less than $895,000. The Caps should be able to find a way to recall him if his play warrants it, but planning where he will fit into the lineup next season is wildly premature.
There are only three ways I can see McMichael sticking with the Caps in 2020. First, he has an incredible camp and preseason and even then, it seems doubtful he would stick because, again, recalling him won't be that hard, especially as the season goes along and his cap hit is prorated. Second, there's an injury to one of the team's centers and McMichael is deemed the best option. I don't see Brian Pinho is not an NHL player and I think Travis Boyd will not be back with the team next season. I am not sure where exactly on the depth chart that will leave McMichael, but he will be higher than last season. Third, and this is a complete wild card, if the NHL allows some roster flexibility for prospects or depth players because of the uncertainty of the coronavirus.
It could be a while before we see junior teams or North American minor leagues back in action. That will leave every NHL team with a lot of players with nowhere to play. We have already seen a number of prospects loaned overseas -- the Caps loaned Axel Jonsson-Fjallby to the Vastervik IK of the Swedish HockeyAllsvenskan League on Monday -- but every NHL team is in the same boat and it's not as if there are an unlimited number of spots available overseas against prime competition. Will the NHL allow teams to keep some players as "black aces" who do not count against the salary cap? This is highly unlikely as NHL teams will be looking to spend less money, not more with more players who won't play, but I'm just putting it out there because teams will have to find somewhere for their prospects to play and train.
The overall point, however, is that, barring something unexpected, McMichael is not going to be in the Caps' lineup at the start of the season because the Caps' have a short championship window and are not going to pin their hopes on a 19-year-old because he had a good season in juniors. He still has more to prove before he can be considered an option for Washington.