American Hockey League

Cup run helping McMichael improve shot at NHL

📝 by Patrick Williams

A Calder Cup championship is four wins away. And full-time NHL jobs may not be far behind.

As is so often the adage in the AHL, especially as the Calder Cup Playoffs move along, National Hockey League teams are looking for winners.

The Hershey Bears take on the Coachella Valley Firebirds in Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals tonight, and they headed west feeling good about their collective game.

“I think it’s really exciting,” said Connor McMichael, a 2019 first-round pick by the Washington Capitals who is one of those players looking for a permanent spot in the NHL. “You kind of feel that nervous energy in a good way. We took a couple days to soak [reaching the Finals] in and enjoy it, but that’s not our main goal, and I think we’re ready to attack the Finals. We’re excited to get going.”

But look forward to this fall, too. For one, the Capitals installed Spencer Carbery as their new head coach last week. Carbery’s time guiding Hershey included McMichael’s rookie 2020-21 season, in which the Bears finished with the best record in the league during the COVID-shortened season. Playing on a line with veteran captain Matt Moulson, McMichael — who had just turned 20 — ended up leading the team in scoring with 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) in 33 games while also making his NHL debut.

Carbery departed the organization after that season for Toronto, where he spent the next two seasons as a Maple Leafs assistant coach, bolstered that club’s power play, and put the finishing touches on a resume that would eventually land him the position in Washington. McMichael, meanwhile, had seemingly broken through with the Capitals in playing 68 games to go with nine goals and 18 points last season.

But with the Washington roster stacked with veterans and a pressure to win now, the luxury to bring along a young prospect at the NHL level was one the Capitals did not feel they had this season. McMichael played just six games with the Capitals, going without a point. His 8:52 of average ice time was the lowest among any Capitals forward who dressed for one game. Chatter among fans and media picked up intensity, the question being what to do with McMichael. Live with a young player’s NHL growing pains with an eye toward a pay-off sooner than later? Or let him go to Hershey, play top minutes, and build his game there?

McMichael was assigned to Hershey on Nov. 20 and joined a Bears team that had started 9-3-2-0 and already established themselves as the contender that many expected them to be. But their offense was ranked 26th in the AHL scoring 2.86 goals per game, and any offensive help that McMichael could provide would be welcomed.

It may have looked like a step back for McMichael, but it was one that he needed to take, as eventually became clear. He has settled into the Hershey lineup. He was an alternate captain for a time later in the season. And the offense returned, as he finished fifth in team scoring with 39 points (16 goals, 23 assists) in 57 games.

The history between Carbery and McMichael can’t hurt the young forward’s chances in Washington come September. Neither can a solid postseason performance. Bears coach Todd Nelson has used McMichael centering Joe Snively, with Garrett Pilon and Ethen Frank seeing time on the right side. McMichael’s work in Game 4 at Rochester helped the Bears assemble a third-period comeback to grab a 3-1 series lead; his beautiful centering feed found Logan Day for the tying goal before the Bears went on to hammer out a 4-2 victory. In all, McMichael has four goals and seven points through 13 playoff games.

When the Carbery news came out, McMichael certainly heard it. It’s a new head coach who knows him, and a Capitals team that will be looking to bring in some younger faces next season.

“It couldn’t have happened to a better guy,” McMichael said. “He’s a really hard-working guy, and I’m excited to hopefully get the chance to work with him again.”

But first come the Firebirds.

“It’s been kind of a whirlwind year,” McMichael said. “A lot of ups and downs, but this is where the journey has taken me, and I’m really excited for a chance to win a Calder Cup.”

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