The Capitals have just four more preseason games to make several key decisions regarding their opening night roster. One of the biggest questions remaining is how will the team replace Nicklas Backstrom in the lineup.
With Nicklas Backstrom out for the near term, the most likely move will see Lars Eller move up to Backstrom’s position centering the second line, and see Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre, Garret Pilon, or somebody else, play in Lars Eller’s position centering the third line.
The lines on Friday morning are beginning to resemble what they might look like on opening night, although there are several big decisions that still need to be made.
Capitals lines/d-pairs at Friday’s practice:
*Lapierre took first line rushes as 3C, McMichael in the second time around
— Samantha Pell (@SamanthaJPell) October 1, 2021
While the duel between McMichael and Lapierre appears to be set, digging deeper into the numbers, advantages and disadvantages, it fairly clear that Connor McMichael currently has the early edge.
We know this much, a 13th forward role for Lapierre shouldn’t occur. Lapierre, who has played a total of 49 games over the last two seasons and less than 100 games over the last three seasons, needs games. Sitting on the bench in Washington would be a mistake.
The rub, if Lapierre does not land a spot with the Capitals, he will have to return to Acadie Bathurst in the QMJHL, as he is ineligible to play in the American Hockey League (AHL) this season. That’s a significant step back, or at least sideways, and not an ideal scenario for his development this season.
Lapierre has been all the talk in training camp, recording two assists in each of the first two preseason games. He displayed his passing skills by nailing a beautiful center-ice feed to T.J. Oshie for a breakaway goal against the Devils on Wednesday night.
Connor McMichael has no points on the scoresheet, but has been quietly getting the job done in his first two preseason games. He has been strong along the boards and on the backcheck, but has more importantly demonstrated his excellent abilities in front of the net. It’s a matter of time before he collects his first loose puck for his first preseason goal.
While Lapierre spent more than 60 days in quarantine last season, McMichael was very active, playing for Team Canada in the World Juniors (Lapierre was cut from the team) and playing 33 games for the Hershey Bears where he led the team in goals (14) and total points (27)
Pros and Cons/Discussion Points
- Connor McMichael is currently better on the backcheck/defensively than Lapierre. The third line in the Laviolette system is heavily focused on defense and gets a higher percentage of defensive zone starts than the top two lines. If you look at the offensive zone starts for all four Capitals lines last season, it’s clear Laviolette heavily relies on the third line for defense, more than the average NHL coach.
- McMichael has more pro game experience. He has 33 AHL games and one NHL game to his resume. Lapierre has played just 49 games (all in the QMJHL) over the last two seasons.
- McMichael has been more than 10% better at faceoffs thru the first two preseason games. (8 of 15 and 5 of 7 for 13 or 22 = 59.1%); Lapierre (2 of 11 and 10 of 14 for 12 of 25 = 48.0%).
- McMichael can play anywhere in the lineup, which is an advantage over Lapierre, who is strictly a center. He may be able to assist at other positions when Backstrom returns.
- McMichael has shown his ability to play down low and in front of the net, and aided a goal via goaltender screen against the Devils.
- McMichael centered the third line (Jonsson-Fjallby and Vecchione) while Lapierre centered the second line (Oshie and Protas) in the last preseason game. This is more indicative of the Capitals current real world needs on the third line, and a possible indication of where things stand. Remember, Laviolette needs forwards with defensive skills on the third line, something that has been an issue in finding Daniel Sprong a consistent spot in the lineup.
- McMichael knows the Laviolette system, as the Bears deploy the same system in Hershey.
- McMichael, having experienced the pro game last season, is better prepared for the season ahead. He added 6-8 pounds of muscle this offseason, and worked on areas needing improvement with Steven Stamkos and Connor McDavid this summer.
- Lapierre is a slightly larger hit to the salary cap than McMichael. Lapierre makes $894,167, McMichael makes $842,500, so the difference is minor. (Divide by 200 for daily cap hit). A minor advantage, but right now all pennies count for the Capitals.
- Both players are waivers exempt, so this is a wash as far as ability to move a player up or down within the Capitals system.
The following graphic presents the ‘corsi for’ percentages (CF%), ‘scoring chances for’ percentages (SCF%) and ‘expected goals for’ percentages (xGF%) for each of the Capitals prospects that played in the first two preseason games.
Possession stats against the Bruins (above) were less than ideal, as both McMichael and Lapierre were below 50% in SCF% and xGF%. Lapierre was slightly better in Corsi with a 52.63%.
The second preseason game (below) was a different story for both players. Connor McMichael led all prospects (by far) in all three categories.
The Capitals may have a better feel for Backstrom’s projected term of absence than is being publicly presented. Is this a matter of just a few games at the beginning of the season? Or is this a move to rest Backstrom and also gain significant salary cap space, a la Steven Stamkos from last season, and the absence is intended to go for a longer period of time? We don’t know, but the decision will affect who they ultimately select to play in Eller’s spot on the third line.
The first two preseason games were against plenty of players that won’t start or even see games in the NHL this season. However, we still have four more preseason games, likely against stronger competition, to assist in the final decision-making. At this point it’s fairly clear that Connor McMichael has the edge over Hendrix Lapierre, but that could change.
Either way, these are the kind of ‘problems’ we’ve been longing for here at NoVa Caps. Two very promising prospects battling it out for a forward roster spot. It’s been a while.
By Jon Sorensen