Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas are sure to remember their NHL preseason debuts.
McMichael, the Washington Capitals’ first-round draft pick in 2019, pulled off a slick backhand assist on their first goal of the night Monday. Protas, this year’s third-round pick, rang up a goal and two assists, including the primary helper on Tom Wilson’s game-winner in overtime to beat the Chicago Blackhawks.
“When I first stepped on the ice, I kinda felt the nerves, but after a couple shifts I felt good,” McMichael said. “I felt like it was just another game for me. I felt comfortable, so I had a lot of fun.”
Jump to Thursday, and the two centers were returned to their junior league teams in Canada as the Capitals trimmed 18 players from their training camp roster.
That wasn’t an indication that Washington’s staff was unhappy with their play. There was little chance to begin with that either McMichael or Protas would make the opening-night 23-man roster.
McMichael perhaps had an outside shot, given Evgeny Kuznetsov’s three-game suspension to start the year puts the Capitals down a center. He got a second look Wednesday, filling in when Lars Eller was scratched with an upper-body injury.
But the 18-year-old stands to gain from at least one more year with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, where he is coached by Capitals great Dale Hunter.
Protas, from Belarus, won’t fit into the Capitals’ plans for a few seasons either. But for fans, the promise is something worth looking forward to.
“Between Protas and McMichael, obviously, you can see the skill,” coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s exciting for our future and fun to watch them go through their first game together. Both made some really strong plays.”
Reirden was less pleased with how Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos performed Monday night, but chalked it up to being the first game. The two young blueliners are competing for the third-line left defenseman job.
“I thought they got better as the game went on. Particularly the third period was better,” Reirden said. “But like I said, it’s a little more scrambly than normal and some people weren’t always in the spots they were supposed to be in. But that’s part of the process. Like I said, talking to all ranges of guys from the most skilled, elite players to guys that are playing their first game, that first one is not ever easy … I think they both can play better than they did tonight, and they will.”
In Wednesday’s game against the St. Louis Blues, top players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom got their first work of the preseason. Newly acquired players Radko Gudas and Richard Panik scored goals, and Backstrom netted the game-winner with seven seconds remaining for Washington to win 3-2.
The Capitals reduced their training camp roster to 44 players Thursday with four preseason games to go. They play one more at home, Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes, before the final three come on the road.