Photo: Lehigh Valley Phantoms
A little over 12 months ago Washington Capitals center prospect Aliaksei Protas was in the middle of his second season with the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League (WHL). The team was doing well and looking forward to defending the Ed Chynoweth Cup in the postseason.
Then the hockey world came to a screeching halt in mid-March because of the COVID pandemic. After a summer at home in Belarus, Protas was eventually loaned by the Capitals to his home team in the KHL, the Dianmo Minsk Bison, on August 7. The WHL was on pause indefinitely and the KHL was his next best option, considering the pandemic.
Protas played 58 regular season games with the Bison, recording 10 goals and eight assists and was named rookie of the week in November. He would also play in five postseason games and receive the best rookie award for the first round of the Gagarin Cup playoffs on March 15.
🤩Протас забрасывает девятую шайбу в КХЛ! pic.twitter.com/kIuXQIRL2P
— Хоккей Беларуси | Hockey.by (@hockey_blr) February 18, 2021
Three days later Protas was officially recalled by the Capitals and re-assigned to the Hershey Bears. He would travel to Hershey and serve his required quarantine before participating in his first practice with the Bears on Friday, March 26. He would then make his AHL debut on March 31.
Protas said it was tough going for him the first few days in Hershey, but with help from his teammates, he began to find his way.
“It’s pretty awesome, you know. First couple of days in Hershey was kinda tough for me, like after quarantine. You gotta get used to it a little bit. Every game (I’m) getting better, actually, thanks to my teammates, awesome group. Everybody helps me a lot,” said Protas following the Bears 2-0 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Sunday.
Protas, who turned 20 in January, scored his first career AHL goal on Sunday at Giant Center, in just his fourth career game in the AHL.
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) April 11, 2021
As for adapting to his third different league in the last 13 months, it’s been a challenge for the 6’-6” center.
“It’s actually really tough, really hard league. It’s actually hard to play here, said Protas. “Gotta skate, gotta be ready for every shift. To play here, you always have to be ready. One of the best leagues in the world. I’m so proud to be here, to play with these guys. I try to do my best every game, every day.”
Bears head coach Spencer Carbery was asked about the status of Protas’ AHL game on Sunday.
“I’ve seen some positives. He’s obviously (got) great size, got a long stick, obviously. He’s got a good skill set. He’s got good awareness, offensively, of where guys are. He can make small little area plays. So there is talent there and at his size and his skating down the middle, that’s a very valuable, valuable commodity in professional hockey, that’s sought after.”
Carbery likes what he sees. But make no mistake, he says there is still plenty of work to do for Protas.
“Coming from Europe, it’s an adjustment. He’s having to adjust. It’s just a completely different game,” said Carbery. “There’s a period of adjustment, and it’s longer for some than others. You see the skill set, but it is gonna take time.”
Carbery said the other area Protas needs to work on is his strength on the puck. Something fairly typical for a 20-year-old who should really be playing major junior hockey.
“He’s gotta get strong. He has to get stronger, when you watch him in puck battles. And he’s a kid. He shouldn’t even be playing in the American League. I’m sure coaches around the league have said this a hundred times or more. Young players that you have that should be in major junior and are playing (in the AHL),” said Carbery.
“It’s tough for him to win puck battles, to win face-offs, to get underneath guys sticks, and as a centerman, that’s a prerequisite. You have to do those things as a centerman. So he’s gonna have to get stronger and get used to the strength of the opposition at this level and then obviously when he goes up to the NHL level.”
But Protas has faced many challenges over the past year, and managed to conquer them all. It’s been a demanding year, hockey wise, but that’s allowed him to advance his game ahead of schedule.
Protas’ season in the KHL was a tremendous development experience for him. He struggled a lot in the early going, falling to the fourth line and receiving reduced minutes. But after a mid season meeting with Bison coaches, including former Washington Capital forward Mikhail Grabovsky, Protas eventually began to excel, learn the new league and found his way in the KHL.
Protas would set the record for most goals by a 19-year-old for Dinamo Minsk and was awarded the KHL’s rookie of the week by mid-November. He would also work his way up to center the second line and first line on occasion by the time the postseason rolled around.
Protas’ KHL coach, Craig Woodcroft, discussed his development at the end of the KHL season.
“I think first and foremost, we helped him to become a responsible, 200-foot player. We taught him about the importance of his play away from the puck. I’d like to believe that we held him accountable to a high level. We spent an awful lot of time building up his physical strength and his conditioning so that he could unleash and unlock his potential at the KHL level. The opportunities that we provided him, you have to earn them—and he earned them. The opportunity to get powerplay time, to get time playing with some of our top players.”
Protas has made the most of the last 12 months and capitalized on his atypical opportunities. Hopefully he will find some time this summer to reflect on his crazy year and smile with pride over his accomplishments.
By Jon Sorensen
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More on Aliaksei Protas can be found on out “Prospects” page in the top menu.