Monday, September 05, 2022

The 2021-2022 Washington Capitals Rookie Class -- Then and When: Part 6 -- "The Enigma"

In Part 6 of our look at the 2021-2022 rookie class for the Washington Capitals, both in their performance and their short term outlook, we look at a player who deserves his own treatment.  Connor McMichael had what one might think to be a frustrating season, but one hopes when all is said and done, that years from now it will be looked at as a necessary learning experience for the promising forward.

Connor McMichael, forward

Drafted: Washington, 2019 Entry Draft, first round, 25th overall; amateur team when drafted: London Knights (Ontario Hockey League)

In Connor McMichael’s first season in Canadian junior hockey, split between the Hamilton Bulldogs and the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League, he posted a modest eight goals and eight assists with a minus-7 rating in 60 games.  His second season, leading up to the 2019 Entry Draft, was quite different.  With London, he went 36-36-72, plus-15, in 68 games, tied for 20th in the league in goals scored and tied for 39th in points.  It earned him this comment from “A smart center with impressive hockey sense. Reads the game very well and plays well in his own end too. Puckhandling is good and he has a decent nose for the net. Some consistency issues.”  Put a pin in that last sentence.

McMichael would be taken 25th overall by the Capitals, the ninth center taken in the first round (of 11 total).  He looked like a steal when he lit up the OHL for London the following year, going 47-55-102, plus-32, in 52 games with the Knights, finishing third in the OHL in goals scored, 11th in assists, and third in points.  His 16 power play goals were third in the OHL.

The following season, McMichael made the big club out of training camp, but he did not take the ice in the 2020-2021 season until Game 6, a 4-3 Gimmick loss to the Buffalo Sabres in which he did not record a point in just less than ten minutes of ice time.  It would be his only game with the Caps; he finished the season in Hershey, dressing for 33 games and going 14-13-27, plus-6.  Those 14 goals tied for second among all AHL rookies, while his 27 points were sixth most in the 2020-2021 AHL rookie class.

And then came the 2021-2022 season.  It was not the smooth transition to a steady role and productive result one might have hoped for, if not expected, based on McMichael’s development to that point.  Over his first 24 games he skated fewer than ten minutes only twice and averaged almost 12 minutes per game, not bad for a rookie, even a first round draft pick, on a veteran team. But there was a number with ominous overtones – “14.”  Over those first 24 games McMichael was on ice for 14 even strength goals against, fourth most among forwards, and especially concerning given that he was on ice for only 11:34 of even strength ice time per game, tenth among Caps forwards over that period. 

It did not appear that this escaped notice of the coaching staff.  Over his next 27 games, McMichael averaged only 9:00 in ice time per game, going 4-3-7, even.  Oddly enough, his on ice even strength goals against total dropped to eight, tied for 11th most among 19 forwards dressing over that period.  Perhaps, however, it was a function of his ice time being parceled out with an eye dropper.  His even strength ice time over those 27 games – 8:57 per game – was least among any of the 16 Caps forwards dressing for more than five games.  At no time over those 27 games did McMichael skate for ten or more minutes in three consecutive games.

His ice time improved over his last 17 games, averaging 10:59 per game, but his offense had all but dried up at that point.  He was 2-1-13, minus-1, over that last stretch.  Then again, he appeared in just those 17 games in 26 Caps games to end the regular season.  He was on ice for only eight even strength goals against, tied for second fewest among the 14 Caps forwards appearing in more than five games over that home stretch.  Was he turning a corner in terms of being more consistent in his own end of the ice?  Perhaps, but the irregular ice time seemed to play havoc with his offensive game, and in the end, the season seemed to have a certain unfinished mess quality to it.

Nevertheless, McMichael has outperformed his draft position (25th overall) in some ways.  His 69 games played ranks 14th in his draft class.  He ranks 13th in goals (nine), tied for 17th in assists (nine), 16th in points (18).  On the other hand, he has been on ice for 30 even strength goals against, 12th most among 33 forwards to appear in the NHL from the 2019 draft class.  His 10:22 in even strength ice time per game ranks 21st among those 33 forwards.  The odd part of it all is that he has not been particularly unresponsible with the puck, at least by one measure.  His 0.83 giveaways per 60 minutes are sixth-fewest among forwards in his draft class and third-best among forwards appearing in more than five games. 

What’s Next?  On-ice goals against are, at best, an indicator of defensive issues, but it seemed the Caps coaches saw something in his defensive performance that they just did not like and saw it with a consistency that was unsettling.  This was confounding give that his underlying statistics seemed much more impressive. Remember that scouting report from Elite Prospects – he has “[an] impressive hockey sense. Reads the game very well and plays well in his own end too (emphasis added).”  Developing a more consistent level of performance in his own end would seem to be the big thing holding him back from a larger role.

Whether McMichael gets a chance to assume a bigger role is a matter of conjecture at this point.  The Caps are an impatient club at the moment, trying to squeeze the last bits of competitiveness from an aging roster in search of another Stanley Cup. The Caps acquiring Dylan Strome, who can play center, sends a message.  Acquiring Connor Brown to play the left side sends a message.  Re-signing late-season pick up Marcus Johansson sends a message.  And that message is, we are here to win now.  The effect is to close off, or at least put up obstacles in the path of younger players such as McMichael, who would seem to be fifth on the depth chart at each of the three forward positions at the moment.  Given his production along his development arc leading up to last season, he was something of an enigma last season.  One hopes that description will not apply in 2022-2023 for Connor McMichael.