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Connor McMichael and Rookie Ups and Downs

On a young center of attention’s attention to detail

Washington Capitals v Ottawa Senators Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

When it became clear that Nicklas Backstrom wouldn’t be available to start the 2021-22 season for the Caps, all eyes turned to top prospect Connor McMichael and whether or not the 20-year-old pivot be ready to center a top-six line at the NHL level on a nightly basis.

Early returns have been quite positive, especially if you dig a little deeper than the surface-level numbers. Yes, he’s still looking for his first NHL goal and has only been credited with two assists (both coming in that wild Ottawa game). But he’s generating shots and scoring chances, both for himself and as part of an effective Caps second line. To wit, he and T.J. Oshie are tilting the ice in the Caps’ favor at five-on-five in terms of both quantity and quality:

via NatStatTrick

That the Caps haven’t outscored their opponents in these situations (they’ve both tallied and allowed three goals) is just bad luck and/or goaltending... mostly.

An on-ice shooting percentage of 8.1 percent says the three goals they’ve scored is more or less in line with what we’d expect (Natural Stat Trick has them at 3.39 expected goals-for (xGF), if you want to get specific), but a save percentage of just .824 has turned 1.29 expected goals-against into three actual, up-on-the-scoreboard goals-against.

We’re still very much in the part of the season where one game’s worth of data can provide an outsized impact on overall numbers, and for McMichael, that game was last night - xGA: 0.44; GA: 2 (on-ice save-percentage: .600). Throw out last night (if only) and he and Oshie are outscoring opponents 3-1, very much in line with that 72 percent expectation.

Bad luck and/or goaltending... mostly. But not entirely. Let’s have a look at McMichael on those two goals:

Neither of those plays is going to show up on McMichael’s Calder Trophy sizzle reel - he looks lost and/or confused in both of those clips (particularly so in the first). He didn’t necessarily cost the Caps those two goals, of course... but he didn’t do much to help them avoid yielding them either.

Look, transitioning from the AHL to the NHL is extremely difficult for most players, often especially tough for centers, and frequently particularly hard in terms of adjusting to the defensive aspects of the position. Connor McMichael will have his growing pains, and last night was a good example of a couple of them.

The good news is that McMichael’s offensive game sure does seem to be at an NHL-level already, and his defensive acumen should follow suit (assuming he’s interested in developing it). But no one was really expecting him to replace Nicklas Backstrom... at least not yet.