Washington Capitals forward Aliaksei Protas has not only surprised onlookers with his improved play this preseason — he has surprised himself, too. He has been the most noticeable prospect on the ice during training camp, using his improved skating skills to try to earn a roster spot in a veteran-heavy lineup.
“I actually surprise myself every game out there, so it is pretty good,” Protas said Monday. “I got to keep working. I am happy to be here and enjoy staying with the other guys, so now I need to prove what I can do on the ice.”
Protas, 21, has played in all four of Washington’s preseason matchups and is expected to get at least one more game before the Capitals make their final roster decisions. He is challenging more experienced players for spots — and is exactly where he wants to be.
“He’s working to make noise,” Coach Peter Laviolette said.
Protas has played all three forward spots — left wing, center and right wing — in the preseason as Washington’s coaching staff looks to see how versatile he can be. So far, he has passed the test. But where does Protas want to play?
“You want me to be honest? I don’t care. Just don’t care,” he said. “Where Coach wants me to play, I will play there. It doesn’t matter. I used to play everywhere.”
Protas’s skating is strides better than it was when he was drafted in the third round in 2019. He attributed that to work he has done over the past two summers, when he skated with Dmitry Astapenko, the development coach for Kontinental Hockey League squad Dinamo Minsk.
Protas said he worked with Astapenko for several days this summer, meeting up three times per day as he tried to bolster his skating. As Protas trained with his hometown team in Belarus, he would send Astapenko videos of himself so the coach could evaluate his stride. Astapenko said they focused on Protas’s puck battles and on enhancing his natural skating motion.
The work is paying off.
“One hundred percent, in games right now, I realize I got better and I got so much work left,” Protas said. “I just got to keep it going right now. … [With the improvements to my skating] I feel like I get better on forecheck and I can get closer to the D-man.”
Protas’s skating has improved in part because he has gotten stronger. He has gained 10 pounds since last season and is 35 pounds heavier than he was on draft day.
All the muscle Protas has gained is good for his game. Last year, he said, he was getting tired physically and mentally after 10 to 12 minutes of ice time. Now, he feels more equipped to handle more minutes.
“To get more speed, I got to get stronger, got to get my lower body stronger to be faster,” Protas said. “I can’t have some fast hard strides because I’m tall, so I need to get stronger to get more speed. That’s what I was focusing on more in the summer.”
Protas was not in the main group for Monday’s practice and instead skated with other prospects earlier in the morning. Laviolette said not too much should be read into who was on the ice with the “taxi squad.” Roster spots, Laviolette said, are still up for grabs, and having more than four forward lines during one practice group isn’t efficient.
The other players skating in the smaller group were Brett Leason, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Joe Snively and Henrik Borgstrom. Protas is the only one in that group who is exempt from waivers.
Off to Hershey
Forwards Beck Malenstyn and Garrett Pilon; defensemen Gabriel Carlsson, Bobby Nardella and Dylan McIlrath; and goalie Zach Fucale cleared waivers and were loaned to Hershey, the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate. The Bears’ training camp started Monday.