ARLINGTON, Va. — Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre are thriving through a friendly training camp competition to show they can not only be big parts of the Washington Capitals’ future, but also their present.
With Nicklas Backstrom in jeopardy of not being ready for the regular-season opener against the New York Rangers on Oct. 13 because of a nagging hip injury, the Capitals are looking for a center for their second or third line.
McMichael, who was selected with the No. 25 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and Lapierre, the No. 22 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, have emerged as the frontrunners to fill that role with each scheduled to play in his third preseason game when Washington visits the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on Monday.
“It’s cool,” McMichael said Sunday. “We both have an opportunity with [Backstrom] being out for now and not knowing when he’ll return. So I think it’s a big opportunity for both of us and we’re pushing each other hard.”
McMichael and Lapierre practiced again Sunday with a group that included all of the Capitals’ veterans and have not looked out of place through the first week and a half of training camp. Lapierre leads the Capitals with four points (all assists) in his first two preseason games. McMichael didn’t get a point in either of his first two preseason games but generated several good scoring chances, particularly in the third period of a 5-4 loss to New Jersey on Wednesday.
“Me and Connor know there’s a spot that’s free and we try and [do] everything in our power to get that spot,” Lapierre said. “It’s going to be a good but healthy battle, and we’ll see what goes on from there.”
Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said he likes what each young center has done so far and is looking forward to seeing what they can do as the preseason progresses and opponents dress closer to their full NHL lineup.
“Obviously, we’re in a position where right now, as of today, in practicing and games we’ve needed to look at centermen, and I thought that they did a really good job inside of practice but certainly inside of scrimmages,” Laviolette said. “Both of them had a real good offensive impact (in their) last game, and so we’ll continue to look at them.”
McMichael appeared to have the inside track to earning a roster spot at the start of camp after making his NHL debut against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 24 and leading Hershey of the American Hockey League with 14 goals and 27 points in 33 games last season.
The 20-year-old worked on getting stronger in his lower body during the offseason, spending part of the summer at Gary Roberts High Performance Training in Toronto, and said he added five or six pounds to his 6-foot, 180-pound frame.
“I think every period that goes by I’m getting better and better, just finding your legs after the offseason, getting more comfortable on the ice and just finding my stride,” McMichael said.
Heading into camp, Lapierre appeared destined to begin this season with Acadie-Bathurst of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. However, the 19-year-old has forced Washington to take an extended look at him with his play.
After getting two assists in his preseason debut against the Boston Bruins on Sept. 26, he had two more against the Devils on Wednesday, including a stretch pass that sent T.J. Oshie in for a breakaway goal in the second period.
“He’s confident in his game and I think it shows on the ice,” Oshie said. “The way he was carrying the puck out there, he looked like he was just playing free, just making his reads, and a lot of times they were the right ones.”
Lapierre, who is also listed at 6-foot, 180 pounds, said he “gained a couple pounds this summer” but his main focus was turning some of his body fat into muscle. And though his push to earn a job with the Capitals might seem surprising from the outside, that was his objective from the start of camp after scoring 31 points (eight goals, 23 assists) in 21 games last season with Chicoutimi in the QMJHL (his rights were traded to Acadie-Bathurst in the offseason).
“My job as a hockey player is to be the best player I can be each and every day, and I feel like right now I’m doing a good job at that,” Lapierre said. “My goal when I came to training camp was to make that roster, and I think I just have to keep playing and good things will happen.”
Despite the competition between each other to crack Washington’s roster, Lapierre and Michael have developed a friendship, something that’s been helpful for each as they go through this experience together.
“Me and him talk every day,” McMichael said. “We don’t really talk about what’s going on on the ice, but he’s a great kid. We get along well and we’re having a lot of fun.”
Although it’s possible McMichael and Lapierre both begin the regular season with the Capitals if Backstrom isn’t healthy enough to play, they’re also aware that it might come down to a choice between them.
“We don’t really talk about it, but I think we know in the back of our heads that maybe it’ll come down to this,” Lapierre said. “We just try to push each other every day. … It’s a really healthy competition. He’s a tremendous hockey player. I’m sure it’ll be a good battle and we’ll see what happens.”