Why Connor McMichael Currently Has The Edge Over Hendrix Lapierre For The Final Center Position

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.

Current Lines

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.

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.

Hendrix Lapierre

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

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.

Advanced Stats:

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

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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16 Responses to Why Connor McMichael Currently Has The Edge Over Hendrix Lapierre For The Final Center Position

  1. Anonymous says:

    Good assessment and a good problem to have.

  2. Barry S Landew says:

    Jon’s analysis is usually spot on, but his bias for McMichael is clouding his judgment. I don’t think it’s clear at all that McMichael has the edge. Wny? Simply because Lapierre has significantly outplayed him…and everyone watching and every coach knows it. I’d like to see both come up as we need youth and speed, but if you can only take one, then based on play and impact potential, the answer is clearly Lapierre.

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      To be honest, I don’t have a preference for either. As for why, I think the reasoning is detailed fairly well in the article above.

    • Anonymous says:

      This analysis works for me as a window into Caps’ management possible thinking. Many of the factors cited in McMichaels’ favor seem trivial (weight, 33 games in AHL, slight preseason Corsi etc. differentials) or questionable (better on the backcheck, knows Lavs’ system better). Maybe they all add up to “tiebreaker” considerations — but it hasn’t been a tie so far. Lapierre has significantly outplayed McMichael. Nothing is lost if Lapierre stays here and McMichael goes back to Hershey.

      • Anonymous says:

        Those are significant factors in determining player value. I don’t think you are looking deep enough at the real factors related to player analysis. To say Lapierre outplayed McMichael “significantly” is simply baseless at this point. It sounds like maybe you are taking a quick glance at the factors, maybe going by mainstream media buzz. Let’s hear your list of reasons.

        • Anonymous says:

          The reason I left a comment is because I thought that the “mainstream media buzz” seemed tilted in favor of McMicheal. Which is consistent with the official messaging put out by Caps’ pr writer Mike Vogel, who wrote the first iteration of the “there’s a competition between McMicheal and Lapierre but McMichael has the edge” theme.

          But I was at both games, and it didn’t look like a close competition to me at all. Lapierre seemed the quickest Caps’ skater, he looked good skating with the puck (unlike Ovi, who seemed slow and easily defended), he made good decisions passing the puck ahead, and it always seemed like something good could happen when Lapierre was out there.

          Having 4 assists in two games is proof positive that the player is forcing the play and working well within the system. In my opinion, you can throw out just about all the factors mentioned by Jon in his analysis. Pro experience, knowing the system, versatility, weight, Corsi (the differences are trivial between McMichael and Lapierre) are only valued because — in theory — they translate to being an effective player who puts points on the board. As for McMichael being a better backchecker, ok maybe, but it wasn’t noticeable to me. And I’ve watched plenty of Caps loaf back into the defensive zone — Lapierre isn’t even close to that.

          I wish there was a way to inject more youth into this team. Lapierre, McMichael, and 2-3 others as well wouldn’t bother me. The Caps’ stars aren’t the players they used to be. There’s not going to be much excitement at the rink if the older guys turn in a middling season. To me, finding reasons to not have Lapierre in the lineup is a mistake.

          • Jon Sorensen says:

            I think you are placing WAY too much stake in preseason games against AHL-caliber players (not NHL-level talent). As the piece points out, there are a lot more factors to consider, more important than early preseason games, that give the edge to McMichael.

            • Anonymous says:

              Yes, it is just two games. That’s the admittedly silly game that’s being played here. It’s what fans do. In a few days or weeks, the situation will look completely different.

              For reasons that I don’t understand, human beings tend to adopt a particular mindset and then cherry-pick the available evidence to support the mindset they had all along. In this town, the prevailing mindset is “Caps management knows what it’s doing and they’re wisely keeping the gang together for another exciting run at the Cup.”

              My mindset, without meaning any disrespect to the great but aging athletes we’ve been lucky enough to root for, is “Caps management is over-invested in slow, older, injury-prone players and has done a poor job developing its young prospects.” So I’m a sucker for any sort of evidence that a younger player should be in the lineup right now — not two years from now, when the Caps’ stars are two years older and two years’ worse. And when everybody is making the “we’re-building” excuse. It doesn’t have to be that way.

      • Barry S Landew says:

        I agree with the comment about how “Mgmt” might think about McMichael v. Lapierre. Two games is hardly a basis for definitive judgment, but in just watching the games closely, I don’t think anyone would question that Lapierre has looked the best among his peers trying to make the team. Rating play is not just a matter of statistics, but also subjective judgment related to “ice sense,” making plays (including those that don’t result in goals/assists), opening up the ice, effectively rushing the puck and successfully entering the offensive zone, lack of unforced errors (giveaways), forechecking, etc. I suspect you too were at the game and you couldn’t help but hear him on the ice talking to his linemates like a veteran.

        McMichael has played well and he might make the team this year, and if not, surely next year. But so far, Lapierre in my judgment has looked even better. In my informal straw poll of other season ticket holders, all had the same opinion. And importantly, it’s not as though that opinion was based on a flashy goal, gut-wrenching check, impressive fisticuffs, or any one thing. He brings a high level of energy to his game; he looks for the puck and isn’t afraid of traffic; he doesn’t take dumb penalties; and he seems (to me) to be very self assured, confident, and willing to take chances. Those are my reasons. I know it’s just preseason, and things could change. But as of now, he’s been impressive and for a team that could use more youth and speed, he’s at the top of my list of new additions to the starting lineup (albeit likely bottom 6).

        • Jon Sorensen says:

          Barry, with all due respect, I think you missed the the primary focus of the assessment – “why Connor McMichael currently has the edge over Hendrix Lapierre…”, (not who has played the best in the two preseason games) and dismissed all of the bullet points in the assessment. There is more to the story, so to speak.

          When I began this piece, I started out with the title “McMichael vs. Lapierre” – without any preconceived notions of who should get the spot at 3C. As I began to dig into all the factors, it was clear McMichael had the edge.

          You are right they’ve played just two preseason games, which is more to my point. We need to dig deeper to see what are the other factors, pros and cons, etc. The play has been against AHL players for the most part, and AHL linemates (Lapierre had Oshie for last game, where McMichael had Hershey Bears for linemates) for the game have also been affected by those results.

          We can’t dismiss information outside of the first two preseason games, and that’s where it become clear regarding McMichael.

        • Anonymous says:

          I think you said it. “Two games is hardly basis for a definitive judgement”. – particularly against scrubs in an early preseason game. The “four assists’ speak is media buzz when you consider three were secondary, far away from the play. He was on a line with NHL-ers while McMichael was on a line with Hershey Bears. There are more important factors consider. Edge= McMichael

        • Jon Sorensen says:


  3. Anonymous says:

    I think Jons assessment is spot on. You have to remember these decisions are mostly made by management (GM) with whole picture in mind.

    With $9.2M in Caps space with Backstrom on LTIR, we can do a lot of things with roster. But remember when Lapierre gets sent back to the Q it is final. He can’t come back to the NHL where as CMM can go back and forth to Hershey waiver free. I think there is a chance that Lapierre could stick for 6-8 NHL games but ultimately it will be CMM in the third center slot until Backstrom comes back.

    One thing for sure is that Lapierre has skills and a lot of intangibles such as attitude, smarts, playmaking, eyes, and even leadership on/off the ice. He needs to work on faceoffs, strength, and develop his overall game. Lapierre needs games AND minutes and he will get all kinds of those in the Q.

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