Capitals’ Connor McMichael is back at center and gaining confidence

The plan was always for Connor McMichael to return to playing center. The Washington Capitals forward skated at left wing throughout training camp and the first eight games of the season, a decision made to give the 22-year-old a chance to play higher in the lineup as he worked to cement himself in the NHL.

But when Nicklas Backstrom stepped away from the team, it created the opening down the middle that McMichael had been waiting for. The first hint of a potential move came when Backstrom and McMichael split the reps at third-line center in practice last Monday — the same day Backstrom informed the team that he would take a leave of absence as he deals with the lingering effects from the hip resurfacing surgery he had last summer.

“We just always envision Connor will play there at some point, whether that’s next game, 10 games, next season,” Coach Spencer Carbery said after that practice. “He’s a natural centerman. We’ve liked how he’s looked on the left side this season. He’s had a lot of success on the left side. … But he also needs to stay sharp for when the time comes that we do need him to play the middle.”

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The time came just three days later. Against the New York Islanders on Thursday, McMichael centered the third line with Anthony Mantha and Matthew Phillips on his wings. Though the Capitals lost it wasn’t for a lack of scoring chances, and McMichael’s line was a bright spot.

When the trio was on the ice, they generated 14 shot attempts while the Islanders generated just two — indicative of strong puck possession and a positive impact offensively. McMichael tied for the team lead with four shots on goal, with the only blemish on his night a 2-of-9 effort in the faceoff circle.

“I wasn’t as good as good as I wanted to be in the faceoff dot, but I think that’ll come with taking more reps and timing and stuff like that,” McMichael said. “Overall, I felt really good. It’s my natural position, so it’s where I want to play.”

McMichael’s line, with Aliaksei Protas in place of Phillips on the right wing, again had a positive game in Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Third lines are often deployed in a defensive or checking role, but McMichael hasn’t had to do much defending in either of the games he’s played at center, even when his line was matched up against the Islanders’ top line.

Though he hasn’t picked up a point in either game, the offensive confidence McMichael displayed in his stint as a winger has carried over. He ranks second on the team in individual scoring chances with 22 through 10 games — just two below team leader Tom Wilson — and has the most high-danger chances with 12.

“He’s making way more plays,” Carbery said last week. “We were talking about it as a staff. You could argue, with his looks, if you just looked at his scoring chances for in seven games, he’s probably had 12 Grade As. Like, Grade A, him and the goaltender. We were joking around, he potentially could have six, seven, eight goals, no problem.”

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Carbery made that estimation after Washington’s game against Minnesota on Oct. 27, and in the three games since, McMichael could have added another couple of goals to his total. He’s scored just twice this year, as the Capitals has a whole have struggled to put the puck in the net, but it’s clear he’s playing with a high level of confidence.

Against the Islanders, McMichael had one of Washington’s best chances of the game, cutting to the heart of the slot around a defender and giving himself a clear lane for a dangerous shot. Though he sent the shot high, the play was emblematic of the strides McMichael has made since last season.

A year after he was a healthy scratch in 14 of Washington’s first 20 games and eventually sent for the rest of the season to the AHL, the 2019 first-round pick has established himself as a key part of the Capitals’ lineup. Now that he’s returned to playing his natural position, he expects to continue on this upward trajectory.

“I like playing center because you’re just all over the puck all the time,” McMichael said. “I’ve found at wing, you’re kind of making reads of the play, whereas at center, you’re going everywhere. I like the responsibility and I like that Carbs can trust me with it.”

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