Caps Are Getting Younger for the Wrong Reasons, But It’s Working Out Okay

Posted November 10, 2021

Martin Fehervary is suddenly a mainstay in the lineup. (Caps Outsider)

In a season filled with injuries, the Capitals have been forced to rely on the talent of rookie players which has seen many young guys get valuable ice time and experience. 

There is no denying that the loss of forwards Nicklas Backstrom (hip), T.J. Oshie (lower body), Anthony Mantha (shoulder) and Nic Dowd (lower body) have been costly, and the Caps’ success this season certainly revolves around gaining those players back. However, perhaps there is some silver lining to the situation.

Do the Caps want to lose four valuable forwards? Of course not. Do the Caps need these players back fast? Most definitely. But when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade, and the Caps have certainly made the most out of the cards they’ve been dealt.

It is no question that the Capitals are in a battle against time. Currently having one of the older lineups in the league, there are many concerns and questions over the future, and the ever-closing window of opportunity. However, seeing how the young players have stepped in and handled adversity has truly been a positive sign that the Caps could be in for a bright future even after top stars get older and retire.

As a result of injuries, many rookies have gotten a chance to not only play in a game, but play consistently, gaining time on the ice and experience that they otherwise may not have gotten.

“I got to give credit to the young guys that have come into the lineup,” said coach Peter Laviolette. “They’ve done well.”

Perhaps the most notable is 20-year-old center Connor McMichael who has played in ten games, significantly more than the single game he played in during last season. The 2019 first round pick has gotten a true opportunity, serving mainly now as a replacement for Backstrom, and has taken full advantage, boasting 5pts (2g, 3a). These numbers are by no means equivalent to what Backstrom would most likely be contributing; however, they are impressive for a young player being put into this situation, and it sends a message that with further training and games under his belt, McMichael is someone the Caps can look to call upon down the road.

“Everyone knows the opportunity that has presented itself for the younger guys now that a couple guys are out,” said McMichael. “Obviously you don’t like seeing guys go down, but now that those spots are open you kind of want to grasp on the opportunity and that’s what we’re doing.”

The Caps have also seen impact from players like Brett Leason, who has also come in as a result of injured forwards. The 22-year-old right winger was picked by Washington in the second round of the 2019 NHL draft and so far has recorded 3pts (2g, 1a) in five games with the Caps, even scoring with four rookies on the ice, off an assist from McMichael that set up a sneaky goal against the Flyers on Saturday. It is moments like that, with various rookies on the ice at once, that shows coach Laviolette’s trust in his young guys that will only result in furthering their development.

Even Hendrix Lapierre, who despite being assigned back to the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, was able to get solid playing time, even scoring in the season-opener against the New York Rangers off a slick assist from Oshie, after initially coming in for Backstrom. While Lapierre’s success may have been limited, the 19-year-old got an incredible opportunity, and has the chance to be an impact player down the line with further development of his skills.

“Once we knew that Nick Backstrom might not be there for us, we started looking at the centerman and we had our eyes open and he came in and gave us some really good minutes,” said Laviolette. “It’s not a negative that we sent him back…he did such a fantastic job that we had to keep him and we had to keep looking at him, and he helped us off to the start that we got off to this year…we’re really happy with what he did here and we’re looking forward to the time when he does return to us.”

As for players like Aliaksei Protas and Axel Jonsson Fjallby, who have each been recalled from AHL affiliate Hershey Bears and have played in one game, this provides a great opportunity for the two forwards to strengthen their skills and make the case to be an option for the Caps in the future.

“I’m really happy about it, of course,” said Fjallby of being called up. “I feel like my game has been good this year.”

Fjallby has even become sort of a fan favorite with comparisons being drawn between him and forward Carl Hagelin for their long silky blonde hair. Fjallby has even expressed that he has looked up to Hagelin.

Both young players have yet to record a point but with lingering injuries, more ice time has the potential to see them break that mold, especially if Laviolette continues to play around with an all-rookie line as he did in the third period of Saturday’s loss against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Caps may also rely on another Hershey Bear after recalling goaltender Zach Fucale on Wednesday.

“Vitek had taken a hit at the end of the game there [on Monday] and we’re just making sure that everything is ok,” said Laviolette. “We’re still assessing things and looking at things through the locker room, and three goalies will travel with us. We have room on the roster right now so we’ll take three goalies with us.”

The 26-year-old netminder rotated with Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov during practice and will travel with the team for their road trip against the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Fucale has posted a 3-0-2 record with the Bears, including a .933 save percentage. This gives the Caps another young player that can be a potential option down the line and assist right now if need be.

“It’s been quite the journey for me,” said Fucale. “I feel like the last few years have been trending in the right direction. I got a good thing going and I’m just sticking to my game, and I feel like things are working well right now.”

Last year, when young goaltenders Vanecek and Samsonov battled back-and-forth for the main goalie position, it wasn’t always pretty. But, both powered-through, showing their talent and gaining valuable experience that have made them better players this year. In fact, the growth of Vanecek in particular has been a great sight for Caps’ fans and if not for being put in tough situations last season, the Caps would definitely not have as strong of a goaltender as they do now in the 25-year-old.

The Caps could see a similar situation with the rookie forwards that have come in for notable players this season. If thinking about short-term success, the Caps need their top line stars back. However, if you are considering the long-term success of the team, this stint of various rookies in the lineup may truly work out well down the line, with the hope being that these players will be able to lead the team someday after the Caps lose their current star power.

Caps’ fans have already seen a glimpse of this with defenseman Martin Fehervary, who has played a very strong game on the top defensive pairing alongside star-veteran John Carlson. The 22-year-old rookie came in this season after the team was faced with tough questions on defense as a result of trading defenseman Brendon Dillon over the summer to the Winnipeg Jets, as well as injury problems faced by Michal Kempny, who has not played a game since the 2019-2020 season. However, it is safe to say that things have worked out for the best as Fehervary has shown strong signs that he will be a key factor on defense for years to come, even recording a goal and an assist through his twelve games with the Caps this season.

It is true that once the Caps get star players back and healthy, many of the young guys will head back down to the AHL. But for now, instead of Caps’ fans continuing to worry about who will replace Alex Ovechkin and other notable offensive playmakers when they retire (yes no one can truly replace Ovi, but someone will need to take the position), young players are providing a positive sense of hope that the future may be in good hands.