When he was 8 years old, Connor McMichael dressed up as Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin for Halloween.
Twelve years later, McMichael now puts on his own Capitals jersey every game day and plays alongside “The Great 8.”
“It’s pretty funny playing with him,” McMichael said Monday after Ovechkin scored career goal No. 741 to tie Brett Hull for fourth all-time. In the same game, McMichael scored career goal No. 2.
“He continues to do amazing things,” McMichael added. “I’m just fortunate enough to be along for the ride.”
McMichael, 20, is one of several rookies making an impact for the Capitals this season — a surprise considering the team has one of the oldest rosters in the NHL.
Washington’s graying roster has been a point of discussion for multiple years. Last season, the team’s opening night roster was the NHL’s oldest at 29.7 years old. This fall, the Capitals entered the 2021-22 campaign with the league’s third-oldest roster at 29.3 years old.
The aging of the roster led some prognosticators to keep Washington out of their Stanley Cup Playoff predictions, which would mark the first time for the Capitals since 2013-14.
The focus on the older players on the opening night roster — Alex Ovechkin (36 years old), John Carlson (32) and nine other players 30 or older — is why the team’s reliance on its youngsters has been such a surprise through the first dozen games, in which the Capitals are 6-2-4.
Due to some roster reconstruction and injuries, six rookie-eligible players have seen the ice, and four have scored their first career goal.
“Everyone knows the opportunity that’s 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 that opportunity.”
In total, nine players 25 or younger have appeared for the Capitals: goalies Vitek Vanecek (25 years old) and Ilya Samsonov (24) — giving Washington the youngest goaltending duo in the NHL; forwards Daniel Sprong (24), Axel Jonsson-Fjallby (23), Brett Leason (22), Connor McMichael (20), Aliaksei Protas (20); and Hendrix Lapierre (19), and defenseman Martin Fehervary (22). The team’s average age is now around 27.7 years old.
Aside from the goalies and Sprong, the other six are all rookies. McMichael, Lapierre, Leason and Fehervary have all scored this season, marking the first time for the franchise since 1979 that four players have scored their first NHL goal within the first 10 games of the season. Four first-time goalscorers is tied for most in the league and is the most the team’s had in a season since 2017-18.
The need for the youth movement has been caused by injuries, as four forwards are currently on injured reserve. Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Anthony Mantha — three of the Capitals’ top six forwards — are on the shelf, as is Nic Dowd, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday for the second time this season.
Backstrom, who is recovering from a hip injury he sustained last season, is on long-term IR. Oshie (lower body) and Mantha (shoulder) are both on short-term IR. Oshie, who was fourth among the team’s forwards in ice time before his injury, scored four goals and two assists in seven games before his injury on Oct. 27. Mantha, meanwhile, tallied two goals and four helpers in 10 games before his injury on Nov. 4.
“There’s a lot of youth that’s coming inside the organization,” said Capitals coach Peter Laviolette earlier this month. “You see them when we’re in trouble [with injuries], and they’re contributing.”
Lapierre, the youngest of the rookies and the Capitals’ first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, performed well for a 19-year-old. The center opened the season with the team and appeared in six of the club’s first 12 contests, scoring in his first career game on opening night against the Rangers.
However, on Wednesday, the team sent Lapierre down to juniors to beat the 10-game clock and save a year on his entry-level contract.
Of the rookies on the roster, three were recalled from Hershey and not on the opening night roster — Aliaksei Protas, who was called up Wednesday for the second time; Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, who made his NHL debut Monday; and Brett Leason, who was called up for Oshie earlier this season.
Leason has two goals and an assist in five games with the team. A second-round pick in the 2019 draft, Leason’s goal against Philadelphia last Saturday came with four rookies on the ice, including himself, for only the second time in franchise history.
But the two rookies Laviolette has relied on the most this season are Fehervary, a first-line defenseman, and McMichael, now the team’s third-best center. Fehervary is playing a healthy 18:34 minutes per game alongside star John Carlson, while McMichael, who is on a three-game point streak, has averaged 11:30 of ice time — a number that will likely increase due to recent injuries.
Laviolette hopes his first-year players — starting with Fehervary and McMichael — continue to break out of their rookie shells as the season progresses.
“These guys have to move on from being rookies and move on to being impact players,” Laviolette said.