Sunday, October 10, 2021

Washington Capitals 2021-2022 Previews -- The Guys You Might Not See Often

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been looking at what the 2021-2022 season might hold in store for the Washington Capitals and players who are likely to command a roster spot and regular duty as the Caps pursue another Stanley Cup.  But teams do not last a whole season using only 18 skaters and two goaltenders.  There will be instances in which players toiling in Hershey or assigned to the press box will be called upon to step up and contribute.  Who might that be for the Caps?

Connor McMichael (center/wing).  The 25th overall pick of the 2019 Entry Draft has one NHL game on his resume.  He is likely to have a lot more before the end of this season.  The lingering troubles with respect to Nicklas Backstrom’s hip injury have given McMichael and the team the opportunity to see just what the state of his development is.  McMichael was 14-13-27, plus-6, in 33 games with the Hershey Bears last season, eight of his 14 goals being game-winners.  He could slide into the third-line center spot for the Caps or, should the team choose to keep fellow center Hendrix Lapierre on the squad (at least early in the season), he could move to the wing.  On the other hand, McMichael’s situation means he could be shuttling between Washington and Hershey without being subjected to waivers, which will give the team some flexibility as the season unfolds.  McMichael has a goal scorer’s touch, posting 83 goals in 119 games in his last two seasons with the London Knights in Canadian juniors, and he seems to be ahead of the development curve in terms of developing on-ice sense.  He might not get a regular jersey as the season moves along and, hopefully, Backstrom returns to the lineup, but he could dress for 25-30 games and post half a dozen goals or so.

Hendrix Lapierre (center).  The other center in the training camp competition among prospects, Lapierre has impressed with his play in the preseason and has shown some of the offensive skill that made him the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 draft.  His situation differs from that of McMichael in that he would burn the first year of his entry level contract if he dressed for ten games, and he has no AHL option due to his age and the NHL/AHL agreement governing age limitations for AHL play.  If the Caps choose not to keep him on the roster, either out of training camp or before reaching his ten-game threshold, the only option would be to return him to Canadian juniors, where he is 23-70-93, plus-17, in 88 games with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in the OMJHL.  He has a bright future with the Caps, but his NHL exposure will likely be limited this season.  He could get a half dozen games or so and perhaps record his first NHL goal and point, but fans might have to wait to see him full-time.

Matt Irwin (defenseman).  It is not often that a nine-yar veteran goes under the radar in training camp, but Matt Irwin has done that for the Caps.  Washington will be Irwin’s sixth stop in the NHL (Nashville, San Jose, Boston, Anaheim, and Buffalo being the others).  Signed to a two-way contract by the Caps last July (one year/$750,000), Irwin would appear to be a veteran insurance policy for the club.  That “policy” took on some additional importance when the Caps waived defenseman Michal Kempny with the intent to assign him to Hershey in the event he clears waivers.  He has decent size and is more a defensive defenseman than one who will put up points (22-62-84, minus-1, in 383 career games).  In the event Kempny departs or is limited in his appearances for the Caps, and/or youngsters like Martin Fehervary or Alex Alexeyev are not quite ready for prime time, Having Irwin as a veteran hand will be one of those under-the-radar signings that could be valuable.  Perhaps 20 or so games with limited offensive contributions.

Michael Sgarbossa (center).  Almost the definition of an in-season emergency call-up player, if Sgarbossa has a role with the Caps, this is it.  He has struggled to get regular minutes at the NHL level, playing a career high 38 games split between the Anaheim Ducks and Florida Panthers in 2016-2017.  In his other five NHL seasons he has a total of 17 games played.  Five of those came with the Caps last season in which he posted a pair of assists.  The Caps’ center spot is a bit unsettled with the Backstrom injury and the unresolved status of McMichael and Lapierre, but Sgarbossa is probably too far down on the depth chart for him to get much, if any more games than he had last season.

Garrett Pilon (center).  Another “one-gamer” who had his only NHL appearance last season, that coming in the regular season’s penultimate game against the Philadelphia Flyers (no points in 10:40 of ice time).  Another call-up candidate, but he seems destined for his fourth regular season with the Hershey Bears (he is 32-53-85, plus-11, in 146 games with the Bears).  It would normally be a surprise, or a product of wide-spread injury problems with the Caps, if Pilon dressed for any games this season with the big club.  However, the front office seems to think Pilon could be a call-up at some point this season.  He was placed on waivers on Sunday.

Beck Malenstyn (left wing).  You could say that Beck Malenstyn has already beaten the odds.  Taken in the fifth round of the 2016 Entry Draft (145t overall), he is one of only five players out of the fifth round of that class to have dressed for an NHL game.  He has only three games under his belt, all in the 2019-2020 season.  He missed the entire 2020-2021 season with an Achilles tendon injury, and that could delay any participation with the Caps this season.  But his 7-8-15, plus-5, season with Hershey in 2019-2020 suggest there might be a future with the Caps.  Perhaps as a late-season call-up this season. Although as of Sunday, he was on the Caps’parent roster

Joe Snively (center).  Snively is an intriguing player.  He was a point a game player in four years at Yale University (58-81-139, plus-18, in 129 games) and has had decent production in three years with Hershey (20-28-48, plus-17, in 84 games).  He is somewhat undersized (5’9”/175) and will turn 26 years old in January, but he has had a decent training camp, perhaps good enough to put him into the rotation of in-season call-ups.  There is a log jam among potential call-up centers, and he could be caught in the crowd.

Brian Pinho (center).  Another of the likely AHL group of forwards who might at some point get a game or two with the Caps, Pinho is also another of the NCAA/AHL development group who put up decent college numbers (39-76-115, plus-52, in four years at Providence College) and has held his own with Hershey (32-29-61, plus-22, in 145 games over three seasons with the Bears.  He seems destined to be, at best, a “tweener,” who plays the bulk of his games in the AHL with the infrequent call-up to the Caps.  He has two games of NHL regular season experience, both games in the 2020-2021 season (no points).  He turned 26 last May and would probably need a productive start in Hershey to get consideration for an in-season call-up.

Alex Alexeyev (defenseman).  In a defense-heavy draft in 2018, Alex Alexeyev was taken with the last pick of the first round by the Caps, the 14th defenseman taken in the first round.  His development has been steady – three seasons with the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL (21-80-101, plus-23, in 135 games), followed by a pair of seasons in Hershey (5-25-30, plus-19, in 70 games over two seasons), plus a stint in the KHL (8-8-16, plus-10, I 55 games in 2020-2021 with Ufa Salavat Yulayev).  That progress, and his production along the way, plus already having an NHL physical frame (6’4”/196) suggests he could get some playing time with the parent club this season, perhaps some significant time.  His immediate competition comes from the young (Martin Fehervary) and the old (Matt Irwin), but the Caps did employ ten defensemen in the last full 82-game season, in 2018-2019.  He has to be in the mix for call-ups, perhaps an early reassignment.  It would not be much of a surprise if he dressed for 20 games this season as a waiver-exempt player.

Pheonix Copley (goalie).  The Caps are not deep at the most important position on the ice and are depending on a pair of youngsters with a combined 82 games of regular season experience heading into the season.  Pheonix Copley has experience, but only 29 games worth over three seasons, 27 of them with the Caps in 2018-2019 (24-16-7, 2.90, .905, one shutout).  That 2018-2019 action was his last in the NHL to date.  He has been fair in his most recent two seasons in Hershey, going 27-12-7, 2.53, .902, with four shutouts.  But Copley has one season as a backup, one which he put up good back-up numbers for a very good team.  Can he fill in as an emergency call-up if either Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek falter? Remember, the Caps’ number three goalie last season ended up leading the team with 37 appearances.  Copley is not likely to come close to that this season, but he could end up getting 5-10 appearances.

Zach Fucale (goalie).  Can a 26-year old goalie who has never appeared in an NHL game (and who is on waivers as of Sunday) figure in the mix of goalies who might play for the Caps this season?  It says something about the depth at the position that we would entertain a “yes” answer here.  Few will remember that Fucale was the first goalie selected in the 2013 Entry Draft (36th overall by Montreal), although it was not a great draft for goalies.  He has labored since in the ECHL and AHL, joining the Caps in August 2020 as a free agent.  The Caps saw something in him, signing him to a two-year/$1.5 million contract last March.  Still, he has only the minor league record on his resume (37-34-4, 2.90, .904, three shut0uts in the AHL).  The Caps have not used four goalies in a season since 2013-2014, so unless Fucale jumps Copley on the depth chart, it would seem unlikely he would get any time with the big club this season.

Eight skaters appeared in ten or fewer games last season for the Caps. One goalie – Craig Anderson – appeared in only four games.  Four of those skaters and Anderson are no longer in the organization.    Whether such players are prospects getting their first taste of NHL action or veterans who have spent most of their careers in the minors, getting the occasional call-up, it is the realization of a dream.  And that they do not often make a lasting impact on their teams on the stat sheets in their brief stints in the show, they can be important in those instances when injury or performance require a jump start or some patchwork to get through a tough stretch.  Pay attention to who gets the call for the Caps this season; perhaps there will be a gold nugget in there whose short stay will be memorable.