For a small part of the roster, and for at least a few games, there’s a youth movement happening on the Capitals.
Hendrix Lapierre, the team’s first-round pick in 2020, and Connor McMichael, the team’s first-round pick in 2019, made the Opening Night roster and appear ready to not just earn a sweater, but play significant minutes to begin the season on Wednesday night against the New York Rangers.
When the Capitals announced their initial roster, McMichael (due to being waivers exempt) was sent down to AHL Hershey for a little more than 12 hours, before being called back up once Nicklas Backstrom (hip) was put on long-term injured reserve. Lapierre, who has not played professional hockey in the AHL or NHL yet at age 19, made the team outright.
Now, with Lapierre at third line center and (for now) McMichael, 20, holding injured Alex Ovechkin’s spot at first line left wing, some youth is ready to be infused into one of the NHL's oldest lineups.
“I don’t think that neither one of those guys, nor (defenseman) Marty Fehervary, I don’t think that they backed off at all [in the preseason],” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought they looked like they belonged there. They’ve got to continue to prove it on a daily basis, like anybody. But there was nothing that really slipped inside of their game as the competition got better.”
McMichael, the team’s most heralded prospect, making the team came as no surprise. He was Hershey's leading scorer a year ago with 27 points in 33 games. He played in one NHL game last season and by all accounts, appeared ready to join the NHL after two offseasons of full training. In fact, many tried to figure out how he could make the roster before there were any injury concerns in Washington. He’s always been on the radar.
Lapierre, on the other hand, has sped up his NHL timeline. Given his age -- 13 months younger than even McMichael -- and with two consecutive seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League cut short by injury and the coronavirus pandemic, this was still considered a developmental year for Lapierre.
Go back to his QMJHL junior team Acadie-Bathurst, play for Team Canada at the prestigious World Juniors championships in December and January and maybe ready to play some games at Hershey late in the AHL season.
Instead, the injury to Backstrom and his own standout play in the preseason forced the Capitals' hand. Lapierre will be on the NHL roster -- for now.
Lapierre can appear in nine regular-season NHL games before his entry-level contract kicks in. That means before game No. 10, whenever that would occur, the Caps must make a decision on whether or not to send him back to Acadie-Bathurst or keep him in the NHL for the rest of the season. Lapierre is not allowed to play in the American League for Hershey until his junior season ends.
“I’ve always been confident in my abilities, and I feel like Backstrom’s injury kind of helped,” Lapierre said of making the team. “But I feel like sometimes it happens, you get a bounce or an unfortunate event like Backy’s injury and you’ve got to try to make it. I knew it was going to be really tough, it’s a tough league. But I was like, ‘OK, I’ll show what I can do each and every day, I’ll try to get better.’”
His mix of speed and playmaking ability impressed everyone he took the ice with, from coaches to some of the veterans on the team that have played with dozens of centers in the NHL. Lapierre had five assists in four games through the preseason and staked his claim to a lineup spot.
Still, despite the hype and impressive play so far, the two players are young enough they can’t go buy a drink after Wednesday’s season opener vs. the Rangers. Lapierre hasn’t played a regular season game in the NHL or the AHL yet.
McMichael has played just 34 professional games since he left junior hockey behind after his 2019-20 season with the OHL’s London Knights. The pandemic allowed McMichael to play for Hershey at age 19 because the OHL never started its season and under-age players were given a waiver to play in the AHL. That experience helps, but there will be growing pains as with any young player.
McMichael and Lapierre successfully completed one step. Now the challenge is proving day-by-day that they should stay.
“They’re going to start here, they’ve got to continue to work and prove it, they’re young players,” Laviolette said. “But a lot of people come to training camp with hopes of making it to the NHL and there’s a road oftentimes that takes you to the American Hockey League, to development, and you’ve got to go through a process. When you do have that opportunity to find out you’re going to start with a team, that’s an exciting thing for a young player.”
For now, they’ll start the season on an NHL roster in Washington, exactly where they hoped they’d be when camp opened in September. But other factors, like Backstrom’s return from a hip injury and the team’s salary-cap situation, could play a factor in how long they’ll be around.
“I think I’ve been playing pretty well,” McMichael said. “I haven't been showing up on the stat sheet as much as I’d like, but I think I’ve been doing all the little things in the faceoff circle and bringing energy. I’ve been creating a lot of chances, so I’m pretty happy overall.”
The Capitals feel good about where McMichael and Lapierre are as players. There’s no reason for them not to after the way they both played in the preseason. But if the first challenge of figuring out how to get them on the roster is over, next comes seeing what they can bring night in and night out in the NHL.
“I’ve been here for a while and each and every day is really special,” Lapierre said. “Coming to the rink, I feel like it’s a privilege, especially for me as a young guy coming in. I really want to prove that I can be an effective player, that I can play.”