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Rink Roundtable: Let’s Talk About Connor McMichael

There’s been a lot of chatter about McMichael since the start of camp. We’ve got thoughts.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Washington Capitals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The recent injury to Connor Brown may change this (and what impact that has on the lineup overall remains to be seen) - but so far, through four games, Connor McMichael has yet to see a second of ice time for the Capitals.

So... your thoughts on The Ongoing Connor McMichael Situation, go!

JP: Is it really a #Situation? It’s a young player who hasn’t established himself and has, frankly, been outplayed not getting ice time. I know everyone thinks the coach is an old school idiot for not playing a kid with offensive upside, but at some point let’s spread the blame to include the first-round pick who hasn’t been able to make himself an indispensable part of a depleted lineup. Should he have played more in the past? Probably, at times. Will he play more in the future? You’d certainly hope so. At that point, it’ll be up to him to make it tougher on Peter Laviolette to take him out of the lineup.

Bryan: I think there are some undeniable truths here: 1) the consensus expectation that McMichael would step forward in his play and impact after sitting on the sidelines for much of last year, and 2) it’s clear that the coaching staff feels he isn’t quite ready to meet those expectations. I agree with you J.P., he’s not quite there yet, and I thought (albeit in limited sample size) that even Joe Snively showed more two-way skill in the preseason than McMichael did. It’s not entirely surprising to me that he hasn’t cemented himself as a starter given the strong organizational depth at center following the (fantastic thus far!) acquisition of Dylan Strome. That said, they have given McMichael opportunities to earn a spot both at center, where he’s proven unable to crack the top four largely due to his struggles to finish and deficiencies in the defensive end, but also at wing where he hasn’t been able to supplant Marcus Johannsson and Aliaksei Protas (both of whom started off their careers as centers who converted to wing, mind you.)

Adam: Let’s look at how McMichael’s ice time and production in his rookie season compared to past prominent Capitals (via NaturalStatTrick):

Andre Burakovsky, two-time Stanley Cup Champion, recently tallied his 300th career NHL point and Jakub Vrana has the second best G/60 in the NHL over the last few seasons. McMichael’s ice time and production aren’t too out of line with how Barry Trotz utilized either of those players in their early seasons. I don’t think McMichael is as good as either of those guys (or as good as they were at his age).

That being said: I don’t think having McMichael sit in the press box is the best thing for his development, and if he’s not good enough (or if the coaching staff doesn’t think he’s good enough) to improve the team’s chances to win… put him in Hershey. Vrana spent the majority of the 16-17 campaign with the Hershey Bears and it helped his game… a similar stint for McMichael couldn’t hurt.

Bryan: Ultimately, it feels like one of two things needs to happen, either they need to get him more game action in Washington (which they don’t seem inclined to do unless injuries or personnel issues force their hand,) or he needs to get more reps down at Hershey. I’ve always felt that teams are best suited to have healthy scratches who are “known entities” like veterans with an established skill-level cap who have limited additional upside to their game. Having McMichael sitting and watching might be useful for his development by osmosis, but I have a hard time imagining that it’s more useful than having him get game reps in at Hershey. I know there was a lot of excitement around the prospect of a guy like Sonny Milano being brought into the fold (a lot of that exuberance having more to do with his juniors and high-draft pedigree than his actual outputs,) but one wonders if the team would be better off having him in the press box rather than a player in McMichael, who by all accounts is still considered to be a top development prospect in the organization’s future pipeline.

I think the subtext underlying this argument is the idea of some dubious “asset management” from the front office. Losing a serviceable Axel Jonsson-Fjällby (now on two separate occasions) and Brett Leason (who mind you, they opted to play over McMichael in last year’s playoff series against Florida,) for nothing in return reeks of a needless inability to maximize and capitalize on the players in their system. This seems especially frustrating given that McMichael wouldn’t have needed to clear waivers in order to get sent down to Hershey. Simply put, they could have kept one of those two guys, who they clearly like to some extent as being serviceable fill-ins, while sending McMichael to the farm team where he could have gotten more game experience with no repercussions. Instead, they now have him sitting and watching but seemingly not having the opportunity to improve his game while those other prospects continue their NHL futures elsewhere.

Peerless: I fear we are approaching that “scenery” moment some players and organizations visit from time to time, as in “he could use a change in scenery.” I don’t see a “bust” in McMichael. But I am starting to see a “bust” in McMichael here. And I am not sure what to make of it. Adam compared McMichael to two other youngsters whose stays in Washington had their share of disappointments. They are very different players – Vrana the example of the goal-scoring sniper, Burakovsky the more well-rounded offensive player, and McMichael being the all-around player without a specific skill set that jumps out at you, but capable in a range of responsibilities. At least those might be the on-paper profiles.

The three had similar developmental paths, if a bit different in their mid-development stops (Hershey). Vrana had 88 games over three seasons with the Bears; Burakovsky had 13 with the Bears (but only after making the 2014-2015 Opening Night roster right out of Canadian juniors); McMichael had 33 games in Hershey. But one still wonders if they weren’t rushed. Vrana was three months short of his 21st birthday when he made his first appearance with the Caps, 21 when he became a full time player (73 games in 2017-2018). Burakovsky was 19 years old when he broke into the Opening Night lineup in 2014-2015. McMichael had just turned 20 years old when he made his Caps debut and was 21 years old when he reached virtual full-time status last season.

Perhaps there is something said for playing one’s self onto a roster in training camp, as Burakovsky appeared to do, or that a player’s dominant skill set is NHL caliber, as seemed to be the case for Vrana. McMichael is a bit of an outlier here. He does not have, nor does he seem to project having a top-notch offensive game. His value is in doing a lot of things above average, if not dominating. He is the “high hockey sense” player. But, given his struggles to date, one has to wonder if he had enough time to develop the interlocking pieces of his skill puzzle outside the brighter lights of the NHL. More ominously, one wonders if the well hasn’t been poisoned in this regard, whether he will ever realize his potential as a Capital but could do so in another city. I think if he is going to flourish here, he has to take more control and more responsibility for his own development to earn the ice time he’s not had to date. Although looking forward, while we’re not at that “scenery” place yet, we can see that destination in the distance.

Alex: In my opinion, the biggest issue here is McMichael is spending every game in the press box. Like Peerless said, it’s not the best thing for his development. If the coaching staff does not think he is good enough to get into the lineup right now, which I am inclined to agree with after his preseason performance compared to other players, then send him to Hershey. Sure, spending time with the Caps during practices is probably good for his development, but the development-by-observation because he’s sitting in the press box every night can only do so much. This is all part of the asset management issue Bryan mentioned, and it is doing neither the player nor the organization any favors.

The other part of this is McMichael not doing enough to make himself an irreplaceable part of the lineup. He knew coming into this season that he was going to have to fight for a spot, he has been quoted saying as much. It does seem like there was a bit of improvement to his game, but clearly it wasn’t enough for the coaching staff. Perhaps some game reps in Hershey would help solidify the offseason work he did. I think the organization would be doing everyone involved a disservice if they didn’t at least try it.