Team USA streamed onto the ice as the clock hit 00:00 having authored a stunning 2-0 upset of Team Canada to win the 2021 World Junior Championship. The screams of joy from the USA players echoed through the rafters of the empty Rogers Place in Edmonton. Watching the celebration unfold on the ice from the bench sat Capitals prospect Connor McMichael.
McMichael had scored four goals and four assists in the previous six games for Team Canada, but, just like the rest of his teammates, he was held off the scoresheet in that final game. Watching USA celebrate, it was a moment made all the worse by McMichael knowing exactly how they felt.
"It was tough seeing them all throw their gloves up," McMichael told NBC Sports Washington. "I know how good it feels because of the previous year."
He'd scored five goals with two assists the year before to help Canada win the 2020 World Juniors. But there was no time to dwell on this loss.
McMichael spent the day after the tournament with his family in Ajax, Ontario. On the following day, the real work began.
As the first-round draft pick of the Capitals in 2019, the main goal for McMichael is to make it to the NHL. He has the skill to do it, but at 20 years old he still has to develop into an NHL player. That process began soon after World Juniors, but was complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic which hung over the entire season.
The 2021 season for McMichael saw him play in his first NHL game and also brought him to the American Hockey League and the Hershey Bears, but it was a journey that began on that night in Edmonton in Canada's shocking loss to USA. Two days later he was on a plane headed for Washington.
"It would have been pretty cool to win back-to-back golds," McMichael said. "Obviously it sucks knowing the team that we had and what we were capable of. Just looking back at it, it obviously sucks, but you've just got to move to bigger and better things now."
Making his NHL debut
Just to get on the ice for practice was an ordeal for McMichael who was subject to a seven-day quarantine when he arrived before he could join the team.
After seven days, four negative tests, binging "Schitt's Creek" on Netflix and playing a lot of "Fortnite", McMichael was finally allowed to get on the ice at MedStar Capitals Iceplex and practice with the Caps once they returned from a season-opening road trip.
"It was good to get out on the ice with the team again, get out of quarantine and get my legs moving again," McMichael told reporters. "I mean, I haven’t skated with the team since World Juniors, so it was good to get back out there again.”
Over the years as the Capitals have considered themselves Stanley Cup contenders, prospects have struggled to get into the lineup. McMichael joined the taxi squad for a team with an active roster that was four-deep at center and dominant offensively.
"From the day I got here, I wanted to get a spot on the team and that's kind of been my goal," McMichael said. "Every day I've just practiced with the guys, I try and do my best and try and crack the lineup. You don't want to think about it too much, you don't want to worry about it, you just do what you can control and if that time comes, it'll be an amazing feeling."
Just recalling McMichael signaled he had a chance. Since he was playing at World Juniors, the seven-day quarantine would take him past training camp. Yet, the team still recalled him to Washington to be on the taxi squad. That was probably where he would stay until his junior hockey season began with the London Knights.
“With so much in the air, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but [head coach Peter Laviolette] just told me to stay ready," McMichael said. "Obviously, with guys going down, you never know what could happen. So just stay ready and work hard in practice and we’ll see what the outcome is."
McMichael did not have to wait long.
Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and Ilya Samsonov were all added to the NHL's COVID-19 protocol-related absence list on Jan. 20. After Samsonov tested positive for the coronavirus and it became known that all four players were together in a hotel room during the road trip, all four players were required to miss at least four games.
A very deep offense suddenly became very thin. In addition to missing the four Russians, in the first game without them Tom Wilson left in the third period with a lower-body injury. With no Ovechkin, Kuznetsov or Wilson for the following game, Washington suddenly ran out of options and McMichael got the nod.
"I got home, back to the hotel from practice and [Caps assistant coach] Scott Arniel gave me a call and just told me I was going to be in the lineup tomorrow and just told me to call my family, let them know," McMichael said.
The debut came on Jan. 24 against the Buffalo Sabres.
McMichael lined up at wing instead of his natural position at center. He played 9 minutes, 54 seconds registering one shot on goal and one minor penalty.
"It was exciting," McMichael said. "Obviously I was a little nervous the first couple shifts but after that, you're just playing hockey. It's like any other game. But yeah, the pace is pretty fast and guys are a lot bigger and stronger. It was pretty tough, but I had fun."
There were no goals, no highlight-reel plays, but there rarely are for 20-year-olds in their first NHL games. There are other reasons to be excited about McMichael's future in the NHL which he demonstrated later in the season while playing in a different league.
A unique opportunity
The pandemic left McMichael's future uncertain in more ways than one. It hung over the hockey season at every level threatening a complete shutdown at a moment's notice with every player just one positive test away from becoming part of an outbreak. The NHL can consider options like playing in a bubble, realigning to reduce travel, frequent testing, etc. But what about minor leagues and amateur/junior leagues that do not have the same financial backing? How would they navigate the pandemic?
This was the reality many leagues had to consider and it ended up leading to a very unique opportunity for McMichael.
The NHL and CHL -- the governing body of Canadian's major junior leagues -- have a player development agreement in place that precludes players who are younger than 20 or who have not played four seasons in junior hockey from playing in the minor leagues. Those players can play for their junior teams or the NHL, but that's it. They cannot play in the AHL.
As a player in the Ontario Hockey League, one of the three leagues that make up the CHL, McMichael fell below the age cutoff and had played only three seasons with London, his junior team. In a normal season, McMichael would have been assigned to the OHL during Caps training camp and likely would have stayed there the entire season, barring a litany of injuries and other player absences.
The 2021 season, however, was not a normal year and McMichael found himself unsure of where exactly he would be playing for much of it with no concrete plan for the 2021 OHL season even as the NHL got back underway.
"It's kind of frustrating," McMichael said. "You just want to know where you're going to be the rest of the season.
But from this frustration arose an opportunity. With the OHL season on hold, players who normally would have been considered ineligible for the minor leagues were granted exemptions and able to play in the minors. On Jan. 30, McMichael was reassigned from the Caps' taxi squad to the Hershey Bears.
"You don’t want young guys not playing and sitting on a taxi squad for the whole year, if there’s availability for them to play somewhere else," general manager Brian MacLellan said to the media in December. "I think that would hurt their development."
Going from junior to the professional ranks was a big step, but McMichael thrived. Just 13 days after his arrival in Hershey, in just his second game, McMichael had his first professional goal.
"You always want to get the first one out of the way pretty quickly so you're not thinking about it too much," McMichael said. "Obviously I got it in my second game so it felt good just to get it out of the way and just focus on playing hockey after that."
As January turned to February which turned to March, there were reports about how close the OHL was to returning and to having a plan in place to start the season. The process, however, dragged on. Because of the development agreement, the moment the OHL returned to action, McMichael would have to leave Hershey and return to his junior team. The uncertainty that left him with was frustrating especially considering just how well he was playing at a higher level. McMichael found himself hoping he would get to stay in Hershey rather than return to London.
"I honestly want to stay [in Hershey] and just play pro hockey," McMichael said. "I think it would be best for my development."
"There's nothing really left for them to prove at the junior level," Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery said. "Once they've gotten to the age they're at, they've been drafted, they've dominated major junior, the OHL specifically in his case, for a couple years now. To be honest with you, he's past that now. Now he needs to be challenged and now he needs to start to integrate pro habits into his game. So this is a really, really valuable time for his career."
Ultimately, the OHL never did return, the only CHL league that did not have a season. That left McMichael in Hershey where he finished the season with 14 goals and 27 points, both team highs, in 33 games.
"He's been really, really good since he's come down," Carbery said. "He's had a great attitude, he's worked really hard. Probably the best compliment I could pay him thus far is he's gotten better each game. He's adapted really, really quickly and some of the things that are a lot different at the pro level than they are at the major junior level, he's absorbing information and adapting and continuing to grow and get better each game."
The uncertainty of where McMichael would play and the looming return of the OHL hanging over his head was not an ideal scenario for McMichael, but being able to play in the AHL was and he took full advantage.
"It sucks I can't go back to junior," McMichael said. "Obviously a great group of guys. London's a lot of fun working with Dale and Mark Hunter. I had a lot of fun there, but making the jump to pro early, it's going to benefit me a lot. Just that extra year ... it's amazing. Even when I was up in Washington working with those guys, just experience. It's great to have experience in pro hockey so when you get older, you have a little bit more experience and can be ready to play as soon as you can."
Said MacLellan, "I definitely think that you could make the argument that the development process is sped up by him playing [in Hershey] this year."
Life in the pandemic and as a pro
When McMichael came to Washington after World Juniors, a 20-year-old with dreams of making the NHL had to sit and wait. He was subject to a week-long quarantine at a hotel upon his arrival.
"You're just trying to find things to do and just make yourself busy so I was playing video games a bit, watching Netflix, stuff like that," McMichael said.
With nowhere to go and nothing to do, McMichael did the same thing most of us did during the pandemic.
"'Schitt's Creek,'" McMichael said. "I binged watched that one."
There was also plenty of time for gaming. "Fortnite" was the game of choice. After that was "Call of Duty" though McMichael found it hard to get into it as "I'm just not too good at it."
Then there was the testing.
McMichael was tested for the coronavirus every other day.
"It is the nose swab, but not the one where it goes right up to your brain," he said. "They kind of take it easy on you."
It took four negative tests over seven days of quarantine just to get on the ice. Once cleared, McMichael was able to join the Caps and was then tested daily.
"You actually don't get the results unless it's positive so if you don't get a phone call or an email, it's pretty good news," McMichael said.
Through all the testing, McMichael managed to stay positive.
"It's been a tough year for everyone, everyone's kind of battled through it so it's nice to have hockey back again," McMichael said. "We knew coming into this we'd have a lot of ups and downs whether it was game postponements or practice postponements. We're just trying to stay positive and any time you can get on the ice with the guys, it's a great time so we're trying to make the most of it."
When reassigned to Hershey, McMichael found the process similar in the AHL as with the NHL. Daily tests became every other day and the nose swab was replaced with saliva tests, but the AHL remained diligent in its effort to prevent an outbreak.
All of these precautions were necessary with COVID ravaging the planet, but, unfortunately for McMichael, it came at a time when he was trying to adjust to life as a pro. For the first time, he was on his own and had to navigate being an adult while also navigating all the league's health and safety protocols.
"Me and a couple guys, we're just at a hotel right now until we know what's going on for the rest of the year," McMichael said. "We're in a pretty nice hotel, we've got a kitchen and stuff so it's not too bad."
In terms of skill, McMichael has all the tools necessary to succeed. He's also a 20-year-old kid and, let's face it, you never know how a 20-year-old is going to handle life in the real world.
McMichael, however, seemed to enjoy his new schedule.
"In junior you've got to wait for the guys in high school to get out of school before you practice so usually you practice around 2," he said. "[In Hershey], we're getting to the rink around 8 a.m. It's a lot of fun being at the rink earlier in the day and, that way, during the rest of the day you're able to do recovery stuff, whatever you want to do."
Though 2021 was not a typical experience, McMichael still did his best to adjust to the professional lifestyle and remain close with teammates.
"The guys are great here," he said. "We've gone golfing a couple times or going out to eat just on the patio or something, just bonding with the guys so it's been amazing."
What does the future hold?
"That kid's going to be a tremendous player for years to come," Hershey teammate Matt Moulson said. "Obviously, his skill set is not something that everyone has. I think he's come a long way from when he first got here."
"He's a gamer," Carbery said. "He is a gamer in a true sense of the word and when games get tight, when the game's on the line, as a 2001-born player that's 185 pounds, he's a dog on the bone."
McMichael has had success at the junior level, he's had success at the AHL level. The only question is when he will get his shot to find success at the NHL level?
McMichael knows there is more to learn. Though his jump to the AHL was successful, he recognized how much faster, more physical and more skilled the game became just from juniors to the AHL. That was an important lesson on how hard it will be to make the jump to the NHL.
"Honestly, when I first came down to Hershey, I had a few of those moments where I was still kind of used to the junior pace," McMichael said. "It's a game of inches up here and, in junior, you can kind of get away with not being as tight on your assignments or whatever it is. It woke me up a little bit and I think that made me realize how difficult it is to play in the NHL and how you've got to be really detailed. I think that I just took a big step forwards in that sense and as the year went on and one I can continue to grow on that."
Those are not just empty words.
McMichael was a first-round draft pick, a star at the junior level and went to Hershey soon after making his NHL debut. But there was no frustration from McMichael on not making the NHL right away and he always remained open to the coaching he received in Hershey.
"[McMichael] is an extremely coachable player," Carbery said, "And what I mean by that is you tell him something once, it's in his game and he's able to integrate that. I'm not going to say that it's perfect and it doesn't get away from it at times, but he's very receptive and can put things into his game that you ask of him and is very, very intuitive and smart when it comes to being coached."
That coaching paid off as McMichael's game seemed to improve over his time in Hershey.
Having success at each level of the game is a good sign for a prospect, but showing signs of improvement is just as important. It can be hard to tell if a prospect's success is due to his potential or if he is simply peaking at a lower level. That's why it is so important to see a player improve at whatever level he is playing at regardless of whether it is in juniors or in the pros to try make sure he's not just peaking.
For McMichael, his skill level was past juniors. There was not much more he could learn from a league in which he scored 102 points in 52 games.
While in the AHL, however, Carbery said McMichael was able to make "huge strides."
"Last two games of the season, league championship on the line or regular-season league championship, division title on the line, best two games he's played all season," Carbery said. "And not just the point production, not just the goals, both ends of the ice, his ability to get in on the forecheck as F1, willing to hold onto pucks and manage the puck and not throw hope plays, being able to play in the defensive zone down low, make those reads, close with urgency, all the detail stuff that's going to be so critical for his game at the next level. Best two games he's played all season."
After excelling in the AHL, what does the 2021-22 season now hold for McMichael? Could he crack the NHL roster?
The Caps are strong down the middle, but lack depth at the center position. There are also questions about the future of Evgeny Kuznetsov in Washington. That could leave an opening high in the lineup for a center.
But if the Caps still consider themselves Cup contenders, can they still be that with Kuznetsov out and McMichael in? Perhaps in the future, but that is a lot to ask of a 20-year-old coming off his first season in the AHL and a shortened one at that.
According to MacLellan, McMichael's chances to make the team will depend on his continued development in the offseason.
"I think he finished up the year well," MacLellan said. "I think it's going to be how his offseason goes, what improvements he makes. He's a young guy that we're not going to force into the lineup. We'll see how he does in camp and what he can handle, but he had a really good year. I think he finished up the year on a high, improved in all areas. So we're going to look for opportunities to play him, but we're not going to force him into a situation he can't handle."
Carbery is more optimistic, though he does acknowledge further improvement is still needed.
"I do think [McMichael's] ready and I think he's going to challenge to play in the National Hockey League next year," Carbery said. "The areas that are going to be a focus are the detailed areas of playing the center position in the National Hockey League so faceoffs, breakout routes, his down-low coverage in the defensive zone."
He added, "It's the little things that are going to become critical to playing the center position, 200 feet in the NHL. He's come a long way with his habits, but something that he still needs to continue to engrain in his game so it becomes automatic. Those little things of playing that position which is as hard as any position to play in the NHL."
While the NHL is of course the goal for McMichael, he said he would welcome a return to Hershey in order to continue improving his game for the next level.
"I know it's cliche, but a lot of people say that they've got to get bigger and stronger," McMichael said. "That's for sure the biggest thing for me is just the jump from junior to pro. Everyone's bigger, faster, stronger. You've got to be able to win puck battles and puck possession's a really big thing in the pro level. It creates opportunities for yourself to score goals or defend. So I want to get bigger and stronger and little bit faster. I think I'm able to do that down here in Hershey."
The crazy journey that was the 2021 season may have only led to one game in the NHL for McMichael, but despite all the challenges it also has better prepared him for his future by providing him the chance to hone his game in the AHL. He took full advantage. Now it is a matter of continuing to push, continuing to improve and continuing to develop in order to become a regular in Washington.
"Obviously when you're this close, you can almost feel it," McMichael said. "You've just got to keep pushing."