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For the Washington Capitals, the kids are more than all right. Prior to this season, there weren’t many vacancies on the Capitals roster. The lineup seemed set, with rookies Connor McMichael and Martin Fehérváry expected to work toward making the NHL jump.
Fast forward a few months, and the Capitals are dealing with injuries and have a new look, featuring usual core members, a young goaltending tandem, and a number of rookies and American Hockey League call-ups. Given the circumstances, the Capitals (10-2-5) are handling things well.
“It’s a good challenge for our group,” head coach Peter Laviolette said last week. “Obviously, we miss those guys, they’re great players … Our guys will have to step up and [there’s an] opportunity for someone to take on some minutes or jump on a power play and contribute. Nothing changes for us.”
Things took a turn at the start of training camp, when Nicklas Bäckström was declared week-to-week as he rehabilitated a hip injury. He has since been on the long-term injured reserve list, leaving a major void to fill down the middle and creating a roster spot. With the absence, rookie centers McMichael and 2020 first-round pick Hendrix Lapierre dominated in the preseason and through training camp to earn spots on the opening night roster.
“I was always really confident in what I could accomplish. When I came to camp, it wasn’t just to be there for fun,” Lapierre said late last month. “I really wanted to make the team and obviously, I was in a situation where I kind of got lucky because of injuries and stuff and unfortunate events. I really tried to make the most of that situation.”
Washington also saw Fehérváry step into a top-four role as blueliner Michal Kempny, who had been through two major leg surgeries and three injuries to his left leg, was sent down to the Hershey Bears following a tough preseason and training camp.
The freshmen hit the ground running. Lapierre scored his first NHL goal in his debut, and McMichael was generating several high-danger chances and getting to the front of the net. Lapierre has since gone back to juniors, but left quite the impression as the Capitals dealt with injuries.
“They deserved a spot. They’re ready for training camp, they’re ready for [the] year,” Alex Ovechkin said in mid October. “Obviously McMichael and Lappy, they both talented … It’s very good [to] see young players to come in and help in the game. So they’re ready and they feel strong and it’s fun to watch what they do with the puck.”
Fehérváry has proven to be defensively sound on the backend, complementing John Carlson well as a shutdown defenseman who can throw his weight around, block shots, and move the puck well.
“I don’t even know how old he is, but he plays like he has been playing so many years in the league,” Lars Eller said of the 22-year-old Fehérváry. “That confidence to jump up into the play on the [penalty kill], just like no hesitation, stuff like that, that is huge for our team.”
Injuries and ailments throughout the season have led to more call-ups. T.J. Oshie got hurt blocking a point blast from Danny DeKeyser on Oct. 27 against the Detroit Red Wings, and has been out since. Days later, Anthony Mantha injured his shoulder against the Florida Panthers on Nov. 4 and underwent surgery, keeping him out of the lineup indefinitely. Nic Dowd, the team’s top face-off man and penalty killer, also has struggled with a couple injuries.
The Capitals put McMichael on the top-six and called up center Aliaksei Protas, right wing Brett Leason, and left wing Axel Jonsson-Fjallby to help fill the void. Prior to their West Coast trip, the team recalled Garrett Pilon from Hershey to serve as an extra forward. All four are 23 or younger.
Things would again take a turn in California. While Oshie and Dowd are on the trip and still working toward recovery, Washington saw another player exit the lineup as Eller entered the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol.
Pilon filled in for Eller at third-line center to kick things off against the Anaheim Ducks, making the most of his opportunity by netting his first NHL goal on Nov. 16. Because Washington currently remains without five of their 12 regulars in the lineup, all who account for roughly $25 million in cap space, McMichael and his fellow young teammates have been seeing more ice time and opportunity and are growing more comfortable and gaining key experience and confidence.
“Every chance [coach] Lavy gives me, I’m growing more and more,” says McMichael, who has six points through 13 games and three points in his last five games. “I feel a lot more comfortable with the puck and am able to make more plays. So I’m fortunate that Lavy [relies on me] in a lot more different situations and I’m looking to thrive off that.”
Hershey Bears goaltender Zach Fucale also got to play his first career game this season as the Capitals monitor Vítek Vaněček after the 25-year-old goaltender suffered an injury at the end of the Nov. 8 game against Buffalo. Fucale dazzled with 21 saves and became the first netminder in franchise history to record a shutout in his debut.
In total, five rookies—Jonsson-Fjallby, Lapierre, Leason, Protas, and Fucale—have made their NHL debuts for Washington this season, with all the skaters except Protas finding the scoresheet so far. Not only are the Capitals benefitting from their newcomers’ play, but the prospects are also gaining confidence as they make the most of their time with the big club.
“I just think last year, from what I was able to do, what I was able to prove and stuff and [had] a big summer,” Leason said after his call-up on Oct. 29. “Just train hard, eating right and stuff and came into camp … I think I had a strong performance there and got sent down to Hershey and just never gave up, just kept giving my all every game, and so far, it’s worked out.”
The Capitals’ rookies, which by NHL terms is a player that hasn’t played in more than 25 games in any preceding seasons or in six or more NHL games in any two preceding seasons, have combined for seven goals and 17 points through 17 games so far, and are proving to be more vital than ever with Washington on an intense West Coast swing.
“I think the guys have done a really good job, the guys that have come up. I think the guys that have been here, the core of the team that’s in the lineup, not out of the lineup, the guys that have been in there, they’ve really made it a point to make sure that we’re moving right,” Laviolette said. “From that point, you need young guys chipping in … Guys are coming in and contributing, which is exactly what you need when you have an injury. We’ll get through this, and I think those young guys keep contributing and playing the way they are, it just takes the burden off a little bit.”