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A deep dive into all of the Caps' rookies we've seen originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
With so many regulars out, a veteran-heavy Capitals team has been forced to turn to several new faces. It can be hard to keep track of all the rookies we have seen this season so let's take a deeper dive into who they are.
Here's a look at all the rookies who have played for Washington this season, how they have fared and what the outlook for them might be going forward.
D Martin Fehervary
17 GP, 2 goals, 3 assists, 18:41 TOI/GP
Let's rewind to the start of training camp. One of the major storylines was who was going to play left defense? After the departures of Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara, that left Dmitry Orlov as the only left defenseman from last year. Peter Laviolette made it clear early in camp that Trevor van Riemsdyk, a right shot, would be moved to the left leaving one spot open. We legitimately did not know if Fehervary or Kempny would win the job and, regardless of who did, there were serious doubts over whether a rookie with 6 games of NHL experience and a player coming off his second major injury would even be able to handle a top-four role. Fehervary ultimately won the job and was not just put in a top-four role, he was put on the top pair with John Carlson. The results have been phenomenal.
The role has not looked too big for Fehervary at any point this season. He compliments Carlson well, but he is earning that spot with his own play, not just by playing second fiddle to Carlson. Fehervary plays a very strong defensive game, he is well-positioned and he has good closing speed on puck carriers. His physicality and his offense have been two pleasant surprises for me. He plays a much more physical style than I anticipated. While no one is going to mistake him for Mike Green, he also can contribute a lot more offensively than expected.
At this point, there's no reason to take out Fehervary. He has established himself as an everyday NHL player and i don't see that changing.
G Zach Fucale
1 GP, 1-0-0, 1.00 save percentage, 0.00 GAA
First, it should be noted that while this article is about Caps rookies, Fucale does not technically qualify by NHL rules as he is 26. Since he made his NHL debut this season, however, I am going to include him anyway.
When you look at Fucale's numbers in the AHL, they jump off the page. In the 2021 season, Fucale played in 11 games for the Hershey Bears with a .932 save percentage. In his five games with Hershey in 2021-22, he picked up right where he left off with a .933 save percentage.
With performances like that, I knew the Caps would want to at least try him in an NHL game to see what he could do. With Vitek Vanecek out for maintenance, Fucale was called up and got his first NHL start on Nov. 11. He became the first goalie in franchise history to record a shutout in his NHL debut.
DId Fucale's performance warrant another look? Sure, but the Caps have two goalies and he was reassigned back to Hershey before he got a chance at another start.
The Caps' goalie situation is a bit tricky right now. The team has Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov and, so long as both are healthy, recalling Fucale does not help anyone. There are only two nets in practice and there is always someone who does not get as much practice time as they may need or want.
While the Caps may have two NHL goalies already, it is fair to ask if either has established themselves as being good enough for a lengthy playoff run. Even if the answer is no and general manager Brian MacLellan determines goaltending is a need for this team, does it even make sense to consider Fucale as a possible option? In what could be this generation's last shot at Cup contention, would you really gamble that on a 26-year-old with one game of NHL experience? What could Fucale realistically do between now and the end of the season to make MacLellan feel he could be a playoff option?
Fucale deserves another look in the NHL, but I don't see him getting onewith both Vanecek and Samsonov in tow.
F Axel Jonsson-Fjallby
6 GP, 1 assist, 11:53 TOI/GP
Consider this. Jonsson-Fjallby's offensive zone start percentage is only 40.74% which ranks 19th out of 23 skaters on the team. What that means is Jonsson-Fjallby is put on the ice in more defensive situations and still, his Corsi-For percentage is 52.21%, good for 6th on the team. Even though he is being put in more difficult situations, he is still coming away with a positive Corsi, so the Caps are generating more offense with him on the ice than they are defending.
Jonsson-Fjallby's main asset is his speed which he has certainly put to good use. In the AHL and in Sweden, he has been inconsistent offensively as he tends to score in bunches. In the NHL, however, Jonsson-Fjallby projects to be a bottom-six penalty kill specialist. While producing offense is always a plus, his offensive inconsistencies are less concerning in an NHL role where he will be put in more defensive situations.
The bottom line is that watching him play, I see a player ready for at least a fourth-line role at the NHL level. At full strength, it may be hard to keep him in the lineup, but I think he could plug onto the fourth line without any dropoff to the team.
F Hendrix Lapierre
6 GP, 1 goal, 9:35 TOI/GP
While there was a lot of excitement surrounding Lapierre after he scored in his NHL debut, things quieted down considerably after the opener. The offensive potential was clear from the preseason where he was very impressive, but he struggled to make much of an impact over the next five regular-season games. Ultimately, sending him back down to the QMJHL was the right move.
Between injuries and the pandemic, Lapierre played only 49 total games from the 2019-20 and 2021 seasons combined. That's not very much. He needs playing time and you just can't justify keeping him in Washington to play every other night for less than 10 minutes a game.
The good news is that when you consider where Lapierre was when he was drafted, falling down the draft board with questions over his health, it seems clear that Lapierre is already ahead of schedule in his development.
F Brett Leason
10 GP, 2 goals, 1 assist, 8:24 TOI/GP
Leason's three points in his first four games were a pleasant surprise for a player still finding his way in the AHL. At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Leason had NHL size from the moment he was drafted in 2019. But he is still learning how to use that size effectively. Just because you are big does not mean you have to play a physical game and push people around, but Leason is continuing to work on how to use his size effectively when it comes to protecting the puck and winning puck battles. He was able to do that in the WHL, but the more physical AHL has been a difficult transition.
I see the ceiling for him as being an Anthony Mantha type -- a big-bodied, scoring winger. He still has a ways to go to maximize his potential, however, and I don't see him sticking around when the Caps get back to full strength.
F Connor McMichael
15 GP, 2 goals, 4 assists, 11:59 TOI/GP
McMichael has long been heralded as the team's top prospect and he has not disappointed with the unexpected opportunity he has been given this year with Nicklas Backstrom's injury. McMichael generates a lot of offense and his 59.06 Corsi-For percentage leads the team. He has a quick shot and a very good offensive acumen. As he continues to grow in confidence, his play continues to improve as well.
The issue for McMichael is that he is still not great without the puck and that limits how Laviolette can use him. That is a hard thing for an offensive-minded player like McMichael to learn and it is often a skill that takes a while to develop. As he generally gets a top-six role, he usually generates enough offensive opportunities to justify his spot in the lineup. But what happens when Backstrom is ready to return and the team is back to full strength?
I don't think there is any question that McMichael has shown he can handle an NHL role, but I also do not think he is good enough without the puck yet to be effective in a bottom-six role. That's the conundrum for Laviolette. If you have Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd, where does McMichael fit in at that point? Do you try him at the wing? Perhaps, but it should be noted that whenever the team needed another winger earlier in the season, Laviolette would turn to Lapierre and keep McMichael at center.
McMichael is good enough to stay in the NHL, but I don't know if he is good enough yet to force his way into the top six when the Caps are healthy.
F Garrett Pilon
2 GP, 1 goal, 9:25 TOI/GP
It has been a limited sample size for Pilon with only two games, both of which came as a result of Eller's unexpected absence due to COVID-19 at the start of the western road trip. I want to see more from him before I really comment on his game, but at this point, I think he falls behind McMichael and Protas on the organizational depth chart at center.
F Aliaksei Protas
6 GP, 10:09 TOI/GP
Since he was drafted in 2019, Protas has quietly impressed at every level he has played in. In 2019 he was an unheralded third-round draft pick, but went on to have an extremely impressive preseason for the Caps. He then went back to the WHL and posted a casual 80 points in 58 games. In 2021, he went to the KHL and scored 18 points in 58 games with Dinamo Minsk. When that season ended, he went to Hershey where he scored seven points in 16 games. He had five points in eight games for the Bears before he was called up by the Caps and, again, he has just hung around and continued to look more and more impressive with each passing game.
Protas played 3:53 in his NHL debut, but his ice time has gone up in each game since then all the way up to 13:52 against the Los Angeles Kings. That game was his best in the NHL to this point.
Protas projects to be a bottom-six player with some offensive upside. I am not sure I see a role for him on a full-strength Caps team just yet, but he is the type of player who could be plugged into the bottom six without issue as evidenced by the growing trust Laviolette seems to have in him.