One of the quieter storylines coming out of Washington Capitals camp is the health of Nicklas Backstrom, as the center is still nursing a hip injury that stems from a procedure back in 2015, according to The Washington Post (“The Capitals are without Nicklas Backstrom as they open training camp,” The Washington Post, 9/23/21)
Backstrom, a mainstay with Washington since his arrival in 2007, which is a stretch that has seen the team miss the playoffs just once, would leave the Capitals with a void in the middle should he not be able to play. While the team hopes he will be back for the regular season opener on Oct. 13, he is officially week-to-week and it seems more and more unlikely he will be on the roster to start the season.
After practice on Saturday, Backstrom told reporters there was “no timetable” for his injury, adding that surgery was not on the table. With less than two weeks until the opening of the season, he has yet to skate in training camp. Should Backstrom not be able to go, it does mean an opportunity for Washington’s last two first-round picks, Connor McMichael, the 25th-overall selection in 2019, and Hendrix Lapierre, who went 22nd overall in 2020 (the team traded their 2021 pick to the Detroit Red Wings for Anthony Mantha), to get on the opening night roster.
The Case for Connor McMichael
McMichael made a strong case for consideration on this season’s team last season; thanks to the special rules in place for teenage players due to the disruption of Canadian junior hockey by the pandemic, and he was able to get a taste of professional hockey as a 19-year-old in the American Hockey League (AHL) instead of heading back to the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights.
With the Hershey Bears, McMichael played very well, notching 27 points in 33 games in the AHL during the shortened season, including scoring eight game-winning goals—more than half of his goal total production of 14. McMichael also got a brief taste of the NHL in January, playing a game against the Buffalo Sabres with the team short of forwards.
Now, McMichael enters his second season with the Washington organization looking to earn a spot on the big club, and with Backstrom out, the now 20-year-old center will have a better chance to make the Capitals’ roster out of the gate than a return to Chocolatetown.
“Yeah, I mean, that is everyone’s goal that is at camp,” McMichael said Sunday after playing in the Caps’ preseason opener against the Boston Bruins. “We all know what is at stake and we are all working hard and we are all trying to show the staff that we are ready to make the next jump, whether it is me or the next guy, I’ll be ready.”
The advantage for McMichael to make the roster now is he will not be returned to junior, and will have a spot in either Washington or Hershey as a potential short-list call-up should he be sent down. He has been solid, although unspectacular, in his two preseason games so far, recording four shots in 29:41 of ice time, and also took an unsuccessful penalty shot against Boston.
The Case for Hendrix Lapierre
Lapierre is an interesting prospect, as he fell to the Capitals at the 22nd spot in the 2020 NHL Draft largely due to a spinal injury, and has only played in 40 games the last two seasons for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s (QMJHL) Chicoutimi Saguenéens due to the injury in 2019-20 and the pandemic in 2020-21. When healthy, he has shown a lot of skill and flash, and Capitals fans certainly have seen that in the team’s two preseason games so far.
Lapierre recorded a pair of assists in Sunday’s shootout loss to Boston, and then he added another two, including a beautiful stretch pass to T.J. Oshie that led to a breakaway goal in a loss to the New Jersey Devils Wednesday.
He has been the story of the young prospects so far, with some nifty passes—including one to McMichael on Sunday—and certainly may make a case to get an extended look before the team decides on returning the 19-year-old to the QMJHL.
“I thought he was better tonight than he was last game,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said of Lapierre after Wednesday’s game. “He was good last game. I thought he did a better job competing on pucks. I thought he did a better job in the faceoff circle. You could notice his speed with the puck and how he attacked the game, able to generate some offense. Another good showing.”
Lapierre is adjusting to the NHL as well, particularly to the speed of the game as the preseason rosters slowly start to resemble those of regular-season ones.
“I still got a lot of things to prove out there and I really want to be the best player I can be every day,” he told reporters. “So, I was still a little nervous. It’s always fun to play in front of those fans and be on a stage like that. I was playing with two really good linemates, too, so I just wanted to make sure chemistry was clicking. But overall, as the game went on, I think the nervousness kind of calmed down and everything slowed.”
Capitals’ Options if Backstrom Can’t Play
If Backstrom does miss the start of the season, Washington can certainly take advantage of it salary cap-wise by placing his $9.2 million contract on long-term injured reserve, and giving them ample room to open the season as they want. Both McMichael and Lapierre are currently on their entry-level deals (Lapierre would be a slightly higher cap hit, but both would be a hit below $900,000), but reverting back to junior rules this season makes it a bit trickier.
Should Lapierre continue to impress in the preseason, the Capitals could opt to keep him up in Washington to start the regular season and then would have nine games to play him and decide on keeping him or returning him to his junior team, now the Acadie-Bathurst Titan after a June trade.
If he plays in 10 NHL games, it would trigger his entry-level deal even if they decide after that point to return him to juniors, meaning he would have to stay on the NHL roster unless the team makes a costly decision to send him back. Hershey would not be an option due to his age, so it’s NHL or juniors after that point, and the Capitals would have to make an expensive wager that he was ready to stay.
McMichael would not have the issue of not being able to go to the AHL, as the Capitals would be able to send him back and forth as needed due to his age and contract status. Certainly, he was impressive at that level last season, and he certainly will get a chance to be in a Washington sweater at some point this campaign regardless of his opening night status.
Most likely, if the Capitals opt to keep Lapierre on the roster, it could just be a short-term fix with Backstrom out, as keeping a prospect in the press box—particularly one with limited playing time the last few seasons—isn’t a workable option, and the NHL is a tough league to learn on the fly. Should Lapierre stay with the Capitals, he would need to be playing almost every night, and if he isn’t on the roster every night, it could stunt his development and would be better to put him in a place he could play, which is the QMJHL.
McMichael, although less flashy this preseason than Lapierre, certainly figures to be in the Capitals’ plans this year and will get a stronger consideration to be on the season’s long-term plans. Most likely, Lapierre will be sent to the QMJHL at some point soon, although he could extend his stay a bit longer with his solid play, perhaps getting a taste of the NHL to start the regular season. McMichael is certainly a solid bet to be part of the team’s plans this year, and even if he isn’t on the opening night roster, he will get a shot to play in Washington. However, with one of their stars out, the Capitals are fortunate to have two solid young options down the middle in case Backstrom can’t play.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.