With the preseason officially over, the Washington Capitals opening night roster is beginning to come into view. While there is still wheeling and dealing yet to be done in order to get under the salary cap, we are in all likelihood set to see a Caps squad that will have the most significant injection of young talent in recent memory as the team prepares to drop the puck on the 2021-22 season.
Due to a lingering hip injury to Nicklas Bäckström, who did not participate at any point during training camp or the preseason and has been placed on long-term injured reserve, along with the day-to-day sidelining of Alex Ovechkin, some of Washington’s youthful skaters have earned the opportunity to start on opening night.
Following a very strong rookie and training camp, the Capitals will suit up their 19-year-old rookie, Hendrix Lapierre. Lapierre, who was selected 22nd overall by the Capitals in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, was considered at one point to be a long-shot to make the team due to more established pipeline talent at his position. However, the Quebecois teenager impressed teammates and the coaching staff with his effort and willingness to learn during the preseason.
“He’s a super talented young kid. Awesome, awesome, awesome guy,” said T.J. Oshie, who is projected to line up as Lapierre’s winger on the third line to start the season. “He’s fun to be around. He’s smiling in the locker room. You can tell he’s really enjoying himself. He’s working hard. He’s very interested in learning from players, from coaches.”
Head coach Peter Laviolette offered similar praise. “Even just out there today, you notice him moving the puck on the half wall and the little plays that he makes on the ice and things he sees on the ice — we see it as well and his linemates see it.” Lapierre tied the team lead with five points (all on assists) in the team’s four preseason games. “Guys that play with him, like T.J. Oshie, they like playing with him because he can see what is going on and he has those abilities to make those plays,” said Laviolette.
Lapierre will make the jump from the QMJHL to the NHL after posting 31 points in 21 games with the Chicoutimi Saguenéens in 2020-21, and 93 points in 88 games over the course of his time in the Quebec junior leagues.
"I said at the beginning of camp I was going to be ready for whatever situation."— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) October 11, 2021
Hendrix Lapierre meets with the media ahead of the Capitals final roster decisions later this afternoon.#ALLCAPS | @MedStarHealth pic.twitter.com/0hWDqWa72d
Lapierre will also be joined by fellow rookie forward and former first-round draft selection Connor McMichael. McMichael, who was assigned to the AHL alongside Beck Malenstyn in a paper transaction to get the team cap compliant for the roster deadline, could start at the first line left wing spot if Alex Ovechkin continues to sit out with a lower-body injury. The 20-year-old forward, selected 25th overall at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft by Washington, also put up a competitive showing in the preseason, and demonstrated an ability to skate at an NHL level. Last season McMichael led the Hershey Bears with 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) in 33 games, and was prime for a call-up to D.C.
Finally, on the back-end, Martin Fehérváry is also set to make his full-time debut in Washington after two years in Hershey as a top blueliner with the minor league club. The 22-year-old Slovak shone brightly in Chocolate Town in an abbreviated season last year, posting an NHL-caliber 17 points in 24 games and showing stout defensive play for the Bears.
Last year, Washington (also known as The Home For Old Dogs), fielded the most senior opening-night roster of any team in the league, averaging 29.7 years of age. Following the departures of a number of elder statesmen in Zdeno Chára (44 years old!), Craig Anderson (40) and experienced veterans including Michael Raffl (32 years old) and Michal Kempný (31) the Caps are all of a sudden adding developing, NHL-ready talent to their line-up.
Between Fehérváry (6 NHL games), McMichael (1 game), Lapierre (no NHL games), and the potential of Malenstyn on the roster (3 career games) the Caps are in a position they have not been in for many years. In fact, the last time Washington started a season with three players with as little NHL experience in the roster was in 2013-14, when Tom Wilson, Michael Latta, Connor Carrick, and Evgeny Kuznetzov all played their first NHL contests on the same opening night.
There is no question that the “core” of this team is coming into the home stretch of their careers. However, it is a welcome sign of things to come to see the squad retool with young home-grown talent. With Ovechkin’s quest for the NHL goal-scoring record - not to mention another championship - top of mind over the past several months, the addition of these players reveals a youth movement, wards off the specter of a rebuild, and shows that this is still a team built to compete. In addition to Lapierre, McMichael and Fehérváry, Washington has a pipeline of soon-to-be up-and-coming youngsters including Alex Alexyev (21 years old), Aliaksei Protas (20), and Garrett Pilon (23); not to mention other burgeoning “veterans” with NHL experience including Ilya Samsonov (24), Vitek Vanecek (24), and Daniel Sprong (24).
For these players, it is their opportunity to suit up and learn from some of the best to ever wear the red, white, and blue, and to show they are capable of becoming the next generation of Young Guns to carry the baton in Washington.