Photo: Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals fully understand the importance of strength down the middle, as for many seasons, the team had a revolving door to try and support franchise pivot Nicklas Backstrom. It wasn’t until the arrival of Evgeny Kuznetsov in 2014, along with the addition of Lars Eller in the 2016 offseason, did the team have the ability to flex some strength down the middle. With Backstrom and Eller both now 30-years old or older, and Kuznetsov having developed into the team’s first-line center over the last two seasons or so, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan began the process of pooling forward prospects with this in mind by taking center Connor McMichael of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights with the team’s first-round selection in June. NoVa Caps’ OHL Analyst Marcus Boutilier takes a closer look.
The Capitals drafted the Ajax, Ontario native 25th overall with the hope and anticipation that McMichael can fill a spot in the lineup at some point in the future. Coming into the draft, McMichael was ranked 11th overall among North American skaters and 20th overall by NHL Central Scouting, so it’s unsurprising that there were a few teams that had the 5’11″, 185-pound forward on their radar before the Capitals selected him.
With some of the London Knights’ key leadership figures advancing in their careers this past summer, it’s expected by many that McMichael will have a vast improvement over his 36-goal, 72-point season (in 67 games played) in 2018-19, with a likely increase in ice time and an amplified role. McMichael himself has expressed he would like to see an improved season with 35 or more goals and 100 points while taking on a leadership role. McMichael served as captain of his AAA-midget team in Ajax/Pickering in 2016-17, so being a player others lean on won’t be new to him.
Playing last season in a secondary role on a powerhouse London team did not seem to faze the second-year junior, however, as he exploded offensively to lead the team in goals, primary assists, and shots. When one looks at former London Knights’ goal totals in their second season, he is skating in good company as neither Corey Perry nor Rick Nash were able to light the lamp as many times as McMichael did in his sophomore season (a rookie season – 2017-18 – in which he finished with a modest total of eight goals and 16 points in 60 games). It is important to note that McMichael’s rookie season was split between two teams, as he was traded during the season from the Hamilton Bulldogs (he was traded to London for current St. Louis Blues forward Robert Thomas) who drafted him in the 2017 OHL Draft with the 11th overall, to the Knights in a blockbuster deal at the time. Such a situation could have been difficult for a young player to deal with but as evidenced by last season, it’s clear McMichael has mental strength and desire.
McMichael is a fan favorite and seems to thrive in the limelight: He won the Race to the Coulter’s Three Star Cup, as he was selected as one of a game’d Three Stars of the Night, more than any other Knight in 2018-19. During a game attended last season in London, he scored a goal during the local “Mac Attack” promotion, which gives everyone in the crowd a free McDonald’s Big Mac whenever a London player scores during a random two-minute span in a game; McMichael scored seven of the 11 so-called “Mac Attack” goals during the course of the season.
With greater accountability comes more responsibility and McMichael is being groomed in London by Capitals’ legend and former Head Coach Dale Hunter, in playing a strong two-way game, speaking highly of his time with Hunter. This bodes well for the Caps, as their game plan requires this type of play and with his potential to add some offense it’s easy to see why they are thrilled to have him in the organization; so much so he was signed almost immediately to an Entry-level contract on July 12.
Capitals fans may get a chance to see the 18-year old compete on the world stage, as he was invited to Canada’s National Junior Evaluation Camp this week in Plymouth, Michigan with a goal in mind of making the team and representing his country at the prestigious World Junior Championships this Christmas/New Year’s in the Czech Republic. He was a member of Team Canada’s Under-17 Team White last year, registering one goal and four points in six games and also played for Team Orr in the Sherwin-Williams CHL/NHL Top Prospects game last season.
Recognized as a smart and gifted player with a high hockey IQ, McMichael looks to get stronger this year and work on his skating and defensive positioning, in addition to his responsibilities as a center. While he isn’t one to shy away from the corners or “dirty” areas, some more muscle and strength will only heighten his potential as a solid, two-way NHL player. While some have suggested he needs to improve on his skating, he seems to move around the ice just fine; his first few strides may be slow but he has decent speed once he gets going.
With the Capitals strong down the middle of the ice in the short-term, it will give some time for the team to develop their new asset and like most Washington prospects before him, fans will likely see him in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears, gaining valuable professional experience next season, as this will be his last in the OHL. McMichael may not be an elite player destined for super-stardom, though his goal scoring potential is high, but he is almost certainly a surefire NHLer with a strong, two-way game.
I look forward to covering the upcoming OHL season and watching London Knights games including seeing McMichael live at least seven times, including games at his home rink in order to provide as close a representation as I can of his final junior season. I’ll be providing updates on his status and ongoing development in London monthly and you will also find info on Twitter under the username tag @SportMajor.
By Marcus Boutilier