With a flat salary cap, some expiring contracts and the Seattle expansion draft, this is going to be a busy offseason for the Capitals. To get you ready, Capitals writers Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan are breaking down the biggest offseason questions with their thoughts.
Today's question: Does Connor McMichael factor into the Caps’ plans next season?
Andrew: 100 percent. McMichael is the organization’s best prospect and by most accounts, he appears ready to make the jump to the NHL — perhaps even immediately.
If the Capitals are looking for more center depth, they’ll have it with McMichael as a young, cheap and talented option to insert into the lineup if injuries should occur early in the season. Or, frankly, if he shows up to camp and outplays more entrenched members of the lineup, he’s going to be part of the plans. It's really up to how well he plays in training camp to decide how quickly they'll make their moves.
The Capitals are not in a rebuilding situation, meaning the needs of their top prospects aren’t going to be at the forefront of the organization's goals. But if McMichael proves he can contribute to the lineup in any sort of meaningful way, the Capitals will find room for him to play NHL games.
I wouldn’t be shocked if McMichael starts the season with the Bears in the AHL, but I would be shocked if he doesn’t find himself in the lineup for a significant part of the season.
JJ: Yes, but not prominently.
If Evgeny Kuznetsov is back next season, then the Caps will have Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd at center. I don't McMichael him supplanting any of those players, even Dowd considering the job of a fourth-line player is different than the skillset McMichael has. The Caps have been thin at center in terms of depth, but their top four is actually very deep so there's no real room for McMichael.
Could they bring him in to play winger? Possibly, but I don't think they would want to do that. It is better for McMichael to play in Hershey and develop as a center than turn him into a winger.
Where this question gets complicated is if MacLellan decides to move on from Kuznetsov. Ideally, this would happen in a trade that would net the Caps a top-six center, but if not, then you have to wonder if it was a move that was made with the expectation that McMichael would be on the NHL roster.
Expecting McMichael to step into the NHL in a top-nine role is a tall task considering he has played one NHL game and one shortened AHL season. This is not the route I expect them to go considering the team still hopes to make another Stanley Cup run. The Caps are better suited for a Cup run, as of right now, with Kuznetsov in the lineup over McMichael. That won't be the case forever, perhaps not even by next season considering how good McMichael is, but as of now, that's the truth. I have a hard time believing MacLellan wants to go all-in for another Cup run and do it with McMichael on the roster in place of Kuznetsov.
A much more realistic scenario is that the team views McMichael as part of the center depth. He's good enough that they should not need to force T.J. Oshie to play center and use someone like Brian Pinho. Having said that, MacLellan has expressed his desire to get center Garrett Pilon some NHL time as well, so I don't think it is a slam dunk that we see McMichael at all next season, even as a call-up. I think he will be considered anytime the Caps need center depth, but this is not as automatic as fans may think after McMichael's spectacular AHL debut.