Which Bears are making a case for a Caps roster spot next year? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
The Hershey Bears are off to a scorching start in the Calder Cup Playoffs. The Capitals' AHL affiliate opened the postseason with a 3-1 series win over the Charlotte Checkers, then followed up that performance by completing a sweep over the Hartford Wolf Pack to advance to the Eastern Conference Final
Hershey's roster is comprised of several players who suited up for the Capitals at least once this season. And, after Washington missed the Stanley Cup Playoff for the first time in nine years, significant roster changes could be coming this summer. General manager Brian MacLellan openly stated he wanted to improve the Capitals' top six forwards, but overall depth and help on the blue line are other areas of need, too.
The Capitals plan to explore all avenues to improve their roster, including the 2023 NHL Draft and free agency. But could there already be some in-house options ready to help, as soon as next year? Multiple Hershey players have shined during the Calder Cup Playoff, sending a message to the Capitals brass that they deserve some consideration, at the very least, to be in the mix for a roster spot this fall.
The first name worth bringing up is one the Capitals are already plenty familiar with. Aliaksei Protas played 58 games for Washington this season but was sent down to Hershey so he could participate in the AHL postseason once the Capitals' 2022-23 campaign ended.
Since returning to Hershey, Protas has been one of the Bears' best players. Playing on the wing, Protas has totaled seven points in the postseason, tied with Sam Anas and Joe Snively for the most on the team. Protas' three goals and +5 plus-minus are also tied for the best marks among Bears forwards. Protas has taken a positive outlook on his return to the AHL and his team has reaped the benefits.
"I got the summer to work again and to show I deserve to stay with the team and to be there," Protas told NBC Sports Washington in early May. "I have so much work ahead of me, for sure."
Along with Protas, Snively is another player Capitals fans are familiar with that's also shined in Hershey this spring. Snively has played in 24 total games for Washington over the past two years but has been unable to stick with the Capitals long-term, even though he's performed respectably at the NHL level.
Back in Hershey, Snively is doing everything he can to prove his worth to the Capitals. He's thrived as a playmaker over the past couple of weeks, as his six postseason assists are the most on the team. While it might be tough for Snively to make the Capitals' opening roster, his play this spring should earn him a fair chance in training camp this fall.
Sticking with forwards, Connor McMichael, the Capitals' 2019 first-round pick, figures to be in the mix for one of Washington's bottom-six center spots after spending the majority of this season in Hershey. The beginning of the year was tough for McMichael, as he was sent down to Hershey in November after spending almost the entirety of the 2021-22 season with the Capitals.
McMichael admitted earlier this month that it was "tough" going back to Hershey, but the 22-year-old learned to embrace his role with the Bears. Since then, he's been one of the Bears' best players. McMichael has scored three goals in the postseason thus far, tied with Protas and Mason Morelli for the most on the team. The Bears will need him to continue his high level of play if Hershey hopes to continue advancing deeper in the postseason.
While McMichael and Protas will likely have the first crack at the Capitals' potential open center spots, Hendrix Lapierre is another name to keep an eye on as well. Lapierre, the Capitals' first-round pick in 2020, has centered Hershey's third line throughout the postseason alongside Protas and Anas. The trio has been Hershey's most productive line since their Calder Cup run began.
After playing six games with the Capitals in 2021-22, Lapierre spent the entire 2022-23 campaign with Hershey. The 21-year-old went through plenty of ups and downs throughout his first full professional season but has been playing some of his best hockey over the past month of so, totaling eight points in his past 11 games. Lapierre is one of the Capitals' top prospects and it's only a matter of time before he reaches the NHL level for good.
Another forward that could certainly compete for a Capitals roster spot in the fall is Beck Malenstyn. The 25-year-old was beginning to impress in Washington earlier this season before suffering a broken hand. After recovering from the injury, Malenstyn returned to Hershey and only had a couple of opportunities back with the Capitals before the season ended.
Malenstyn has been forced to deal with plenty of adversity throughout his professional career, yet he's showed promise at the NHL level whenever he's given the chance. This postseason, Malenstyn has made his presence felt by playing a physical brand of hockey, a style that allowed him to almost single-handedly turn around Game 4 against Charlotte, delivering a huge hit and scoring shortly after to completely flip the momentum.
It's also worth mentioning that 25-year-old AHL rookie Ethen Frank could be a potential call-up next year. Frank, who went undrafted out of Western Michigan last year, scored 30 goals for the Bears in his rookie year and was named an All-Star. He has yet to score in the postseason, but his strong play throughout the year earned him a two-year, two-way deal with the Capitals.
Moving to the blue line, the name Capitals fans should keep an eye on is 20-year-old Vincent Iorio. A second-round pick by Washington in 2021, Iorio made the jump from the WHL to the professional ranks this year and even made his NHL debut with the Capitals in March.
At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Iorio has ideal size for an NHL defenseman. However, roster spots on the Capitals' blue line to begin next year appear slim. John Carlson, Rasmus Sandin, Nick Jensen, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Alex Alexeyev are all under contract while Martin Fehervary is a restricted free agent. That leaves one, maybe two roster spots for a defenseman, so another year in Hershey appears to be the most likely scenario for Iorio.
The Capitals appear to be set in goal for the foreseeable future, too, with the pairing of Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren. But Hershey netminder Hunter Shepard is doing everything he can to be the next man up should injuries strike. Shepard has started all seven games for Hershey in the postseason and has been exceptional between the pipes, allowing just 1.71 GAA with a .933 save percentage.
Although it's more likely that only a couple of current Hershey players make Washington's opening night roster in October, the Bears have a strong collection of players eagerly awaiting their opportunity. But for right now the focus is solely on winning an AHL-most 12th Calder Cup.
"The main focus is winning that Calder Cup," Malenstyn said. "If we're able to do that, everybody is going to benefit from that."