ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — The hole in the middle of the Washington Capitals lineup with Niklas Backstrom out injured looked looked tailor made for 2019 first-round pick Connor McMichael, who impressed last season as a rookie in the American Hockey League.
The spot still might be his. But 2020 first-rounder Hendrix Lapierre, who is a year younger and came in with less fanfare, has been among the biggest training camp surprises around the NHL and could land a spot on the opening night roster.
“If I want to be in that opening lineup, I have to push (myself) every day and make sure I’m ready and do the small things correctly,” Lapierre said. "It’s there, for sure, but right now my goal is to keep improving and learning new stuff each and every day.”
Lapierre, 19, put up four points in his first two preseason games, held his own in drills against Alex Ovechkin and has been put in positions to succeed by the coaching staff. He probably still needs to add more strength to handle a full 82-game season, but Lapierre is a strong skater and has kept pace.
“He’s done well so far with his game: his creativity, his speed," coach Peter Laviolette said. “Certainly skating hasn’t been an issue.”
Unlike McMichael, who at 20 can return to Hershey of the AHL, Lapierre must go back to juniors if he's not in the NHL and cannot be recalled except in an emergency basis. He can play up to nine games without burning a year of his entry-level contract, and Lapierre's vision and way he sees the game might be enough to earn him a tryout while Backstrom is on the shelf.
SETH JARVIS, CAROLINA
Taken nine spots ahead of Lapierre, forward Seth Jarvis has stuck around at Carolina's camp longer than expected and is a candidate to play right away for the Hurricanes.
Jarvis has skated alongside Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho and Nino Niederreiter and gotten some power-play looks in practice. He told reporters the team has not told him much about the future, which is either sticking in the NHL or going back to juniors.
“They want me to focus defensively,” Jarvis said. “They know I can play with the puck, and in the offensive zone, it’s just more focused away from the puck and (in the) D zone I have a responsibility, so it’s just learning that way.”
SHANE PINTO, OTTAWA
While the biggest story line at Senators camp is the absence of unsigned restricted free agent forward Brady Tkachuk, the emergence of center Shane Pinto is a close second.
Pinto has been skating on Ottawa's second line between 2020 No. 3 pick Tim Stützle and high-scoring winger Connor Brown. After playing at the University of North Dakota, Pinto got a taste of the NHL by playing in 12 games late last season and put up seven points.
Coach D.J. Smith called Pinto one of the best players so far at camp, and now the 2019 first-rounder looks like a big piece of the Senators' youth movement.
EVGENY SVECHNIKOV, WINNIPEG
The brother of Carolina star Andrei Svechnikov, Evgeny is at Jets camp on a tryout and inching closer to getting a contract. The 24-year-old wasn't tendered a qualifying offer by Detroit after putting up eight points in 21 games last season.
Coach Paul Maurice told reporters he likes what he has seen from Svechnikov, who represents untapped potential at what could be a bargain price.
“He doesn’t mind going to the net," Maurice said. "He’s got some hands on him, and he makes some good plays and I think he understands the game. How he fits with other people will be a really important thing for him going forward, but he’s had a good camp.”
MICHAEL BUNTING, TORONTO
Lost in the Maple Leafs' star power of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander is their trial-and-error process to build around a core that has yet to make it past the first round of the playoffs. Gritty Nick Ritchie and skilled Ondrej Kase are part of the new mix, but so is Bunting, who signed a $1.9 million, two-year contract as a free agent.
No player has more preseason goals than Bunting's four (through Sunday), and he is projected to start the season alongside Tavares.
“He’s been kind of a late bloomer: someone who’s had to prove a lot of people wrong and just always had that attitude of finding a way," Tavares told reporters.
Bunting, 26, has 14 points in 26 NHL games with Arizona, but his camp showing is no surprise to Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, who drafted him in the Ontario Hockey League with Sault Ste. Marie. Bunting could now be one of the missing pieces of Toronto's Stanley Cup puzzle.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports