Washington Capitals prospect Aliaksei Protas had the busiest season of any player in the Capitals organization during the 2020-21 season. While most players were isolating during the pandemic and then scrambling to find a few meaningful games when play finally resumed, Protas was booked solid with hockey for the entire year.
Protas was set to play in the AHL for the 2020-21 season, but the pandemic delayed the start of the AHL season. As a result, on August 7, 2020, the Capitals loaned Protas to Dinamo Minsk in the KHL where he played a full season (58 games) and even competed in the postseason (5 games), totaling 63 games in Russia’s top league. The KHL was never on Protas’ development track, but in hindsight, it was a very fortunate change of plans.
Once Protas completed his KHL season, he quickly made his way to Hershey in early March for the second half of the delayed AHL season. He played in 16 games with the Bears before making his way home to Belarus to play for the Belarus National team in the IIHF World Championship.
Protas played a total of 91 games during the 2020-21 season, while most other prospects played in a handful of games, and others prospects sat completely idle. The busy 2020-21 season allowed Protas to accelerate his development at the pro level and prepared him well for a shot at the Capitals roster to start the 2021-22 NHL season.
Protas impressed Capitals coaches during the team’s prospect development camp in September as well as during the Capitals main training camp in September and October. However, he would ultimately begin his 2021-22 campaign in Hershey.
Fortunately his detour to Pennsylvania would be short lived, as Protas was recalled by the Capitals and made his NHL debut on November 1 against Tampa Bay. “The only thing I was worried about was not to fall during the warm-up when I went out to skate alone [traditional for a rookie’s first game]. And the rest was fine,” Protas told Hockey.by.
— Tom Hunsicker (@TomSportsWUSA9) November 1, 2021
“Although that game was unsuccessful. There was a very strong opponent, a tight game, I got some playing time. But that’s not a problem at all. I am grateful to the coaches at least for giving me a chance to play and feel this atmosphere. I know what to strive for, what is needed for this, and now I am doing it.”
After playing 33 games for the Capitals (3g, 6a), Protas returned to Hershey for the conclusion of the AHL season and the Bears postseason run.
“I was always told that there would be a chance, the main thing is to work,” said Protas. “Nobody knows what might happen in the next moment. I worked hard and believed in myself. I knew that everyone in the club was constantly watching and analyzing, so every day you need to prove that you are worthy. This circumstance did not put pressure on me in any way, it only motivated me to work, knowing that a chance could present itself at any moment, and I had to be ready for it.“
Protas said that that he met with head coach Peter Laviolette before returning to Hershey, and that the Capitals bench boss conveyed a positive message to him.
“Work hard and be ready. You came here, stayed for two months, did a great job,” said Laviolette. “We are grateful to you, you became part of the reason that this team is fighting for the playoffs. You never know what will happen, just work.”
Laviolette’s message to Protas resonated with the 21-year old. There was no discernible dip in his level of play when he returned to Hershey, common in NHL rookies returning to the AHL.
“I took everything in a positive way. I know what to work on, I felt it all. Now, in the summer, I’m trying to squeeze out the maximum in order to become a full-fledged NHL player next season.”
On a personal note, Protas was grateful to get to know Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin during his callup last season.
“I wanted to meet him for a long time, but I couldn’t get close. When it happened, I said that here, I was drafted. He replied: “Yes, I saw it, congratulations.” Later I congratulated him on his birthday,” said Protas. “When they sent me down to the AHL with another guy, he (Ovechkin) called and said: “Don’t worry, work, everything will be fine.”
As for his rookie NHL experience, Protas came away with good feelings for the city of Washington.
“I liked it very much, a cozy city. Despite being the capital, Washington is not very densely populated and very spacious. In the evening, you can easily get to a desired point. It is clear that traffic is traffic, and there are traffic jams, but in general they are not as crazy as, for example, in New York.”
Protas also said he has enjoyed his time in Hershey.
“These are two completely different cities. Hershey is much smaller in population, they cannot be compared. I like both Hershey and Washington. I can’t compare them. Of course, I aspire to the NHL, but I also like the AHL, it’s a cool time. The team, the fans are great.”
By Jon Sorensen