It's been a pretty crazy year for Capitals prospect Connor McMichael. In June 2019, McMichael was selected 25th overall by the Caps in the NHL draft. He would return to the juniors and dominate the OHL with 102 points in 52 games. He also won gold in the World Junior Championship with Team Canada, scoring five goals and two assists in seven games in the tournament. After the OHL shuttered the rest of the season due to COVID-19, it looked like that would be the end of his hockey season, but now he is in Toronto in the bubble with Washington for the playoffs as a black ace. Wouldn't making his NHL debut in the playoffs be a fitting end to his hockey season?
No. No, it would not.
There is understandably some excitement within the fanbase for McMichael and any opening on the offensive lines has led to a number of questions from fans as to whether McMichael could slot in. With Nicklas Backstrom in the league's concussion protocol and out for Game 2, this would be a perfect opportunity to get McMichael in, right? It's not a bottom-six role which would not allow him to utilize his skill. Backstrom's absence leaves a hole at center on the second line. Surely a Caps team with only three 5-on-5 goals in four postseason games could use a forward like McMichael?
The skill was evident in his brief time in Washington for training camp. He pulled off an incredible no-look pass in the preseason that set-up an easy goal. My jaw dropped when McMichael tried to pull the between the legs shot on the defending Cup champion goalie, Jordan Binnington. But bringing McMichael to Toronto was never about getting him into the lineup, it was about giving the experience of what life is like in the playoffs. It's about learning how star forwards like Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin prepare. It's about learning how much time is spent scouting opponents and learning how to practice, how to eat, how to rest, etc. Getting him in was not a priority and that should not change now with Backstrom out.
Let's think about why Backstrom is out in the first place. He was knocked out of the game by a late hit from Islanders captain Anders Lee in a Game 1 that featured a combined 40 PIMs. There was one fight, five roughing penalties, four interferences and one boarding call. This is going to be a very tough, very physical series. Someone is going to have to explain to me why inserting a 19-year-old, 183-pound McMichael who has no experience even at the AHL level would be a good idea.
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The Stanley Cup playoffs is the most physical, most intense hockey there is. Against a team that quite clearly showed they want to play physically against the Caps, putting McMichael in a second-line role is not setting him up for success. I am not saying the Islanders would be looking to injure him, but they are not going to ease up on the hitting and physical play either.
Let's not forget, defense is an important part of playing center. In Game 1, the second line matched up primarily against Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey. Beauvillier is about the same size as McMichael, but Bailey is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and Nelson is a massive 6-foot-3, 212 pounds.
How does McMichael clear Nelson out of the crease when the defense is pulled away and it's his job to maintain net-front presence in front of Braden Holtby?
None of this means that McMichael can't or won't play. We are not even allowed to watch practice while the players are in the bubble so perhaps McMichael is dominating out there and Reirden knows he can handle whatever the Islanders throw at him. OK, great, but I believe he is much further down the depth chart than you may think.
We already know Travis Boyd is the 13th forward and he has been in since Lars Eller left the bubble to be with his family for the birth of his second child. He will now likely continue to be in with Backstrom out. Beck Malenstyn and Daniel Sprong are both young players with some NHL experience. Recently, when asked about other players who could get into the lineup if needed, head coach Todd Reirden referenced Philippe Maillet and Brian Pinho, not McMichael.
Call me crazy, but I just don't think it's a good idea to take a 19-year-old player who weighs only 183 pounds with zero professional experience and throw him into the second line in a Stanley Cup playoff game against a team that has shown they want to play the Caps as physically as possible. McMichael's time will come, but that time is not now.
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