Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan doesn’t believe the Capitals need a sudden injection of speed into the lineup after the team's loss to the younger, quicker Florida Panthers.
He does believe, however, that they need a youth injection.
The Capitals are now in their fourth-straight offseason after a first-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and with a few major decisions coming this summer, here’s a look at who the Capitals could insert into the lineup to get younger:
Connor McMichael, center
This feels like cheating considering McMichael played 68 games in his rookie season, but the 21-year-old seems very likely to have an increased role next season at full-time center.
Both MacLellan and coach Peter Laviolette indicated they prefer him at center, and would like to find a spot for him in the lineup there.
Reading between the lines, the Capitals have Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd all under contract up the middle. Even questions about Backstrom’s hip, though, those comments certainly are interesting.
“He was in and out of the lineup, we liked him best when he was playing center,” coach Peter Laviolette said at breakdown day. “He seemed like he found more speed through the middle of the ice and he was able to attack the game more through the middle. For me, moving forward, I definitely think that the center position is where we need to find him a spot.”
McMichael scored nine goals and nine assists last year, but considering the Capitals want to find an increased role for him, that means someone who is a veteran center is going to be replaced or have their minutes reduced.
Alexander Alexeyev, defenseman
The 22-year-old Russian defenseman could be making the jump to the NHL full-time next season.
The Capitals have five defenders set to return next season: John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Martin Fehervary. All but Fehervary are at least 30-years-old, and all but Carlson will enter a contract year in the 2022-23 season. This is a position that could use some youth, and certainly some long-term stability.
Enter Alexeyev. The 2018 first-round pick has played three seasons for the Hershey Bears — 58 games in 2019-20, 12 games in 20-21 (and was on loan to a KHL team) and 68 games in 2021-22.
As a left-handed shot, it could make sense to bump van Riemsdyk back to the right side and slide Alexeyev up in the lineup to give the Capitals their six defensemen.
Lucas Johansen, defenseman
Johansen has seemingly become a forgotten man in the Capitals’ prospect pool, but the 24-year-old and former first-round pick had a nice bounce-back season with the Hershey Bears and put up 28 points in 62 games.
In the previous three seasons, he’d played just 59 games combined due to a bevy of injuries. Now fully healthy, he could be ready to make an impact at the NHL level. Johansen, a left-shot, is a restricted free agent but the Capitals could be inclined to let him, Alexeyev and perhaps another defenseman battle it out for a spot on the blue line.
“Johansen had a real good year down there, which was really good for us to hear and see,” Laviolette said. “When he came up here, he played a good game for us as well.”
Aliaksei Protas, forward
The silver lining of a Capitals season that included so many injuries and COVID absences is that they got an extended look at some forwards they likely otherwise wouldn’t have. Protas seems to fit that bill.
The 21-year-old 6-foot-6 center played 33 games for the Capitals in the 2021-22 season and scored three goals with six assists. He then finished the year with Hershey and put up eight goals and 24 points in 42 games.
With McMichael at center, could Protas compete for a slot in the lineup as one of those versatile forwards coaches love to have around? It certainly appears possible.
Hendrix Lapierre, center
Perhaps the sexiest choice of the lot is the 2020 first-round pick, who flashed early in Washington before returning to his junior team for the remainder of the season.
Lapierre was given a shot to make the NHL roster last season and did so, even scoring in the team’s first game of the season against the Rangers. The 20-year-old played six games (and scored no more points) before returning to his team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
It feels unlikely, but could the talented and speedy Lapierre impress so much that the Capitals are almost forced to make him and McMichael the team’s two middle-six centers? Perhaps. Lapierre feels destined for Hershey at some point, but he’ll certainly be given the shot to make the NHL roster again.
Other candidates to see (more) time in the lineup
-Joe Snively, left wing
-Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, left wing
-Brett Leason, right wing
-Tobias Geisser, defenseman