When the Capitals took the ice for practice on Friday, the two groups looked very different. Rather than a mix-and-match of NHL players and prospects in each group, head coach Peter Laviolette put all of his NHL players in one group.
"Our guys have got to get together and start working and start doing the things that we need to do so that we can be ready when the season opens so, at some point, you have to break it off," Laviolette said.
Among the NHL players in Group A were the team's top two prospects, Hendrix Lapierre and Connor McMichael.
While nothing is guaranteed at this point and Laviolette cautioned that other players remain in consideration as well, the implication is clear. Lapierre and McMichael are in serious contention to make the NHL roster for the start of the season.
"I thought that they both have had a really good start to camp," Laviolette said. "Obviously we're in a position where right now, as of today in practicing and games, we're needing to look at centermen and I thought that they did a really good job inside the practice, but certainly inside the scrimmages. Both of them had a real good offensive impact last game and so we'll continue to look at it."
Heading into training camp, there appeared to be little room on offense for any new additions. The lineup could essentially be written out in pen with virtually everyone returning from last season. With Nicklas Backstrom out injured and with no timetable to return, however, the Caps suddenly have a hole in their lineup at a position in which they have little NHL depth unless you consider young prospects like Lapierre and McMichael.
"We both have an opportunity with Backy being out for now and not knowing when he'll return," McMichael said. "I think it's a big opportunity for both of us and we're pushing each other hard, just skating with the big group every day. It's been good for both of us and I'm looking forward to that competition that he and I have."
"Me and Connor know there's a spot that's free and we try and make everything in our power to get that spot," Lapierre said. "It's going to be a good, but healthy battle and we'll see what goes on from there."
Lapierre was considered a high to mid first-round talent in the 2020 draft, but he began to fall due to injury concerns. General manager Brian MacLellan decided to roll the dice and traded up to 22 to select him. With no preseason in 2020, Lapierre is making the most of his first taste of action with the Capitals, tallying four assists in his two preseason appearances.
"My game is to make plays, be creative, skate the puck and so I think right now, I think I've still got a lot of things to work on," Lapierre said. "But I think right now it's going relatively well. Those points are just the fruit of the effort that I'm making each and every day to be a better hockey player."
McMichael was the team's first-round selection in 2019. After a prolific 2019-20 season in the WHL, McMichael took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to play in the AHL a year early. In 33 games with the Hershey Bears, McMichael scored 14 goals and 13 assists.
"I think every period that goes by I'm getting better and better," McMichael said. "Just finding your legs after the offseason and getting more comfortable on the ice and just finding my stride. It took a couple periods to get going after the summer, but every period that goes by I'm feeling better and better."
Both players are center prospects, though some wonder if McMichael is better suited on the wing, and now both players appear to be under consideration for a center role as Backstrom's status remains in question.
If Backstrom is not ready for the start of the season, the Caps can afford one call-up under the salary cap if Martin Fehervary -- who is waiver exempt -- is reassigned to Hershey. At that point, the Caps could afford either Lapierre or McMichael, but not both.
"We don't really talk about it," Lapierre said. "But I think we know in the back of our heads that maybe it'll come down to this. We just try to push each other every day. We did a [good] play in the practice. We went to see each other, 'Good play, good play.' It's a really healthy competition. He's a tremendous hockey player. I'm sure it'll be a good battle and we'll see what happens."
There is another scenario, however, that could see both players make the roster. If Backstrom is going to be out long-term, the Caps could place him on long-term injured reserve. He would have to miss a minimum of 10 games and 24 days, but LTIR allows the team to go over the salary cap by the amount of the missing player's cap hit. That would allow Washington to easily afford both Lapierre and McMichael so long as the team stays under the 23-man maximum roster.
There would have to be some shuffling once Backstrom is ready to return, most likely sending Lapierre back to the QMJHL and McMichael back to Hershey, but this is a possibility if the Caps think Backstrom will need another month or longer to nurse his hip injury.
But first, Lapierre and McMichael have to show that they are ready.
Playing well in the preseason against lineups half full of junior and minor league prospects is one thing. Playing against a more skilled, more physical NHL roster is much more difficult. Lapierre and McMichael will have to show they can handle it before Laviolette can feel comfortable with putting them in games that matter in the standings.
"[Lapierre's] going to find out that the competition's going to get tougher, both him and McMichael and others as well," Laviolette said. "... Any of the young players that come up and jump in, especially when it gets to like a Game 5 when it'll be a lot of our lineup and a lot of the opposition's lineup maybe minus a player or two, that it becomes a little bit more difficult to do things out there. And that's when you can continue to evaluate where they're at."
But the fact that Laviolette separated the NHL players from the rest and Lapierre and McMichael remain in that top group means that, for now, they remain in consideration to make the NHL squad putting them one step closer to getting a Capitals sweater for the opener on Oct. 13.
"Obviously it's something that I look to and use as a motivation," Lapierre said. "If I want to be in that opening lineup, I have to push my ass every day and make sure I'm ready and do the small things correctly. It's there for sure but right now my goal is to keep improving and learning new stuff each and every day and just keep playing my game. If I do that I have a lot of faith that good things will happen here."