TAMPA — At a team-bonding activity before the season began, Washington Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette looked around and noticed something. The Capitals were a veteran group, led by a 36-year-old captain and an aging core. But as Laviolette watched his team, he noticed youth, too — fresh-faced players alongside the gray-haired veterans.
And now the younger Caps are getting even more attention. Because of injury troubles, Washington has a roster strewn with young players. After nine games, eight players on the active roster are 25 or younger. Six of the eight were on the season-opening roster.
“There is a lot of youth that is coming from inside the organization, and you see them when we are in trouble. And they are contributing, and that is a good thing,” Laviolette said Monday night after the team’s loss to Tampa Bay. It was the first regulation loss of the season for Washington (5-1-3).
The Capitals, who face the Florida Panthers on Thursday night, have five rookies — Hendrix Lapierre, Connor McMichael, Martin Fehervary, Aliaksei Protas and Brett Leason — on the roster, three of whom made their debuts this season. Three have also scored their first NHL goal this year.
Protas, a 20-year-old center, was the Capitals’ latest call-up from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., joining Washington after Nic Dowd was placed on injured reserve with a lower-body injury. Leason got the call last week after T.J. Oshie was hurt. Lapierre and McMichael are seen as placeholders for Nicklas Backstrom, who is still on long-term injured reserve.
Dowd is eligible to come off injured reserve Thursday. Oshie, who suffered a lower-body injury, is no longer using crutches but is still in a walking boot, and he is considered week-to-week. Backstrom is eligible to return Saturday but has yet to skate with the team.
Once the Capitals get healthy, a handful of the young players will probably head back to the AHL, or in Lapierre’s case his junior team. But for now, they are using their time with the big club to develop. Like all development, it comes with a learning curve. For some of the newer prospects, such as Protas and Leason, that means limited minutes.
Monday night, Protas only played 3:53. Leason, who tallied his first NHL goal, played 5:58. Protas and Leason both had one shift in the third. McMichael, who has yet to score his first NHL goal but had three shots on goal Monday, played two shifts in the third. Lapierre was a healthy scratch.
“We were pressing at the end, and it is a little more difficult on the road,” Laviolette said Monday night of the low minutes. “I thought they were fine, I looked at the minutes going into the third period … just leaning on the veteran players just to try and see if we could pull our way back into the game.”
Laviolette acknowledged before the season that Washington didn’t need the young players to take control of the team — they are seen as contributors. What their future with the organization holds isn’t known, but the hope is they can all continue to grow.
“It’s fun,” Daniel Sprong, 24, said of the influx of young players. “Last year I was the youngest guy, and before the season started I was like, ‘Ah, I’m probably going to be the youngest guy again.’ And now we have a couple other young guys.”
A handful of players also noted this burst of youthful energy can help the Capitals, at least in the short term. When Tom Wilson made his NHL debut with Washington, he was also one of the few young players trying to break into a veteran-laden lineup. He called it one of the best times of his life.
“When I came in, it was just so much fun,” Wilson said earlier in the season. “You try to just be the kid, you don’t need to grow up too fast. … When we have the young guys coming in, I think it reminds you of those days. It’s fun to see the energy, and you need that in your group.”
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