Connor McMichael sat in the stands at Rogers Arena in Vancouver growing more anxious by the minute as the first round of the NHL Entry Draft ticked by pick by pick on Friday night.
Maybe there was no consensus on whether the London Knights center would be selected in the first round. There was a run on defensemen, after all, and some pretty talented offensive players were slipping. But that's not how McMichael thinks. Finally, at No. 25, the Capitals made his dream come true.
"Every pick that went by I was getting a little bit more worried because obviously you want to go as high as possible," McMichael told reporters in Vancouver. "But at the end of the day it doesn't matter. At the end of the day I'm happy to be a Capital."
A 5-foot-11, 182-pound center, McMichael is a few years away from that. According to Washington assistant general manager Ross Mahoney, who has seen more than his fair share of young players in 20 years running amateur drafts, McMichael will return to London and spend the next two years there developing his game under former Capitals captain Dale Hunter and his brother, Mark. This won't be a pick with an immediate payoff. Few of them in the NHL are.
"He's got a great shot. He can score goals," Mahoney said. "Think he had 36 [goals] and 36 [assists]. But he is a goal scorer. I mean some kids score goals in junior, but this kid is a goal scorer."
McMichael is a known commodity. He was the 11thoverall pick in the Ontario Hockey League draft in 2017. He spent the first 32 games of his rookie season in 2017-18 playing for the OHL's Hamilton Bulldogs.
But as fate would have it, the Bulldogs were a talented team on their way to an OHL championship and wanted to add a big-name talent. London was re-tooling – a rare move in the two decades the Hunters have owned the team. This is, after all, the place where NHL stars like John Tavares and John Carlson and Corey Perry, among dozens of others, have played.
So Hamilton dealt McMichael, still just 16 at the time, to London for star forward Robert Thomas, who'd been drafted by the St. Louis Blues and was ticketed for the NHL. That proved true. Thomas made the Blues out of training camp this past season and helped them win the Stanley Cup.
"I kind of got traded for Robert Thomas last year. I actually live in his old billet house. So, yeah, I'm kind of following in his footsteps," McMichael told NBC. "He played in the league that I'm in last year so it just makes you realize how close you are to your dream and what can happen in the future."
That future is still a ways away. Thomas was a special case. But the Capitals believe they have drafted someone who can be a fine two-way player in the NHL. That's how McMichael describes himself. He has good hands and a hard, accurate shot that gets scouts' attention. If his skating needs some work, his confidence definitely does not.
"When I have the puck on my stick in the o-zone I'm always creating plays and able to generate chances when it looks like there's no chances to be made," McMichael said.
While scouts may cluck at his skating, McMichael insists it's his first few strides that need work. Once he gets going he moves around the ice at speed. Developing in London, where he will play with elite talent and be tutored by coaches who have seen it all, will help. So will two more years of strength and conditioning. Draft night is a dream come true for these players, but also only the beginning of their work.
The talent in London might have worked against McMichael this season. The Knights acquired center Kevin Hancock from Owen Sound in January. He finished fifth in the OHL in scoring (52 goals, 55 assists). NHL draft picks Paul Cotter (Vegas), Alex Formenton (Ottawa) and Liam Foudy (Columbus) are all a year older than McMichael and took up major roles. Hancock was 20 this past season as an over-age player.
"[McMichael] got to play a lot. Especially in the first half of the season in London. Then they made some trades and had some guys come back and he probably played a little less of a role," Mahoney said. "I think he would have put up even more points. He didn't get as much power-play time. I know they expect him to play a big role next year and play even more and that will be really good for him."
McMichael grew up in Ajax, Ontario in the Toronto area and was a Maple Leafs fan, of course. He said he patterns himself after Vancouver Canucks forward Bo Horvat, who played for the Knights, too, and Calgary Flames forward Sean Monahan. He's never been to D.C., but he will this week for Capitals development camp. But his real time in Washington is the future. For now, McMichael has more immediate ideas about next season.
"I want to be the go-to guy in London," McMichael said. "For me, throwing it into the air, I want to hit plus-35 and 100 points. Those are some goals that I've set."
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