Connor McMichael heads into 'competitive situation' with Capitals' center depth

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McMichael faces 'a competitive situation' with Caps' center depth originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Connor McMichael is "ahead of schedule," according to Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan, but the 21-year-old forward faces a fight if he wants to stick at center in the 2022-23 season.

After a solid rookie season where he appeared in 68 games, McMichael looked like an obvious internal replacement as Washington waits on the status of center Nicklas Backstrom after his hip surgery in May.

But the Capitals added center depth when they signed free agent Dylan Strome to a one-year contract earlier this month. And while McMichael profiles best at center, there is now a crunch at that spot with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Strome, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd all there heading into training camp. That doesn't mean McMichael will see a reduced role, but it does mean a fight for playing time at his best position.

’s situation with the Washington Capitals has been an ambiguous one throughout his first two seasons within the organization.

MacLellan provided some clarity on McMichael's role during a talk with reporters on Wednesday.

“I think it’s a competitive situation. I don’t think we’re coming in guaranteeing young guys spots in the lineup. I think, you know, part of it is you have to earn it to a certain degree,” MacLellan said. “I think Connor’s gonna come in and he’s gonna be better than he was last year, and it’s gonna be, ‘How do we best develop him? How do we do what’s best for our lineup?’”

McMichael provided young legs on an aging forward group in Washington last season. He gained confidence as the season progressed, creating more and more scoring chances for his lines as time went on. He finished the campaign with nine goals and nine assists in his 68 games.

But the Caps have a bit of a good problem when it comes to the center position: they have too much depth even with Backstrom out indefinitely. Luckily, part of McMichael’s talent is that he can alternate between center and wing. He does find himself more comfortable at the former, though.

“I think he’s an option on both [center and wing], but based on last year’s performance, I like him in the middle more,” MacLellan said. “He seems to be more involved, he seems to skate more. So I like his game more when he plays center.”

McMichael was the youngest Capital last season who found consistent playing time in the NHL. Washington boasts a bevy of young forward prospects (Aliaksei Protas and Brett Leason both earned NHL time last season). But McMichael, Washington's 2019 first-round pick at No. 25 overall, proved himself a better fit up front. Part of that came from McMichael taking advantage of extra opportunities during the pandemic, which limited junior hockey during his final season with the OHL's London Knights and allowed him to turn pro earlier than expected.

“I mean, he’s probably a year ahead of schedule,” MacLellan said. “He came into the American League a year early because of COVID. We like where he’s at, we think he’s gonna be a good player and he’s gonna make some strides this year. We can play him at both positions.”

MacLellan noted that Strome, too, can play some on the wing and injuries are a good bet no matter what. Already Washington is without right wing Tom Wilson (torn ACL) until at least December. Either way, McMichael is going to have an opportunity somewhere in the Capitals' versatile top-nine forward group even if that's not at center right away.

“Whether we play him at center or we play him at wing or we play him higher in the lineup or lower in the lineup—I think he’ll get a shot at all of it,” MacLellan said. “If he plays well, you know, it’ll be a tough decision for the coaches.”