HERSHEY, Pa. – One of the key elements to the success of the Hershey Bears in the 2020-21 season was the early success of rookie forwards. Two of the Washington Capitals’ top prospects jumped into AHL competition earlier than they might have in a typical season, with 2019 selections Aliaksei Protas and Connor McMichael making the leap with impressive results.
Protas impressed during a 16 game stint towards the end of the 2020-21 season, complimented by his teammate from the Prince Albert Raiders, Brett Leason, and it appears the Washington organization wants their top prospects to take the next step in Hershey. The departure of center Phil Maillet in free agency clears the way for the youngsters to take the reigns after an impressive start this past season.
It’s easy to be impressed by what Protas brings to the table as the calendar flips to his first full season in 2021-22. Protas stands at 6’6 and weighs in at 210 pounds, bringing an element of size to Hershey’s lineup. Since Protas joined the team, Leason’s production jumped from three goals and four assists in 17 games to five goals and eight assists in 16 games (including a five-game point streak). The pairing became an easy one to spot in the lineup with a productive winger like Joe Snively or Damien Riat, and having a line as theirs played into Hershey’s success down the stretch. The chemistry from their time with the Raiders clearly carried over, and it’s something Bears fans will get used to seeing light the lamp at Giant Center in the fall.
These guys have absolutely played together before. Protas and Leason connect to even the score at one! pic.twitter.com/Y3vOJRJ8JI
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) April 17, 2021
Protas and McMichael are unique players who made the leap to the AHL ranks a season earlier than expected due to their respective junior clubs missing out on the 2020-21 season. McMichael joined the Bears for all 33 of their contests this past season while Protas started overseas in the KHL before transitioning to Hershey for the remaining 16 games on the calendar. The pair are both natural centers who helped provide some relief amongst the team’s injury situation, not to mention playing without key centers like Mike Sgarbossa and Maillet for the entire season due to the taxi squad rule or injury. Towards the end of the season, with Hershey dressing defensemen as forwards and skating without the likes of Brian Pinho, Garrett Pilon, Sgarbossa, Kody Clark, or Riley Sutter, the two were able to minimize those losses.
Interestingly, among the free agents signed by the Capitals at the start of free agency, no move was made to acquire a center to fill the void left by Maillet’s departure, and it makes sense. Hershey’s group of centers boasts McMichael, Sgarbossa, Protas, and Sutter (although several players have stepped into the role from the wings such as Shane Gersich), and it would appear Protas has earned the nod to skate at least on the third line. Protas tallied two goals and five assists over 16 games in Hershey, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him jump into a big role after a decent sample size.
First AHL goal for Aliaksei Protas opens the scoring today! pic.twitter.com/g9CGuYHuEn
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) April 11, 2021
Naturally, it’s early enough in the free agency period that the organization could collect another center before the puck drops in the fall. However, shifting to the AHL for 16 games this past season allowed Protas to prove that he has what it takes to play at this level, and it looks like the organization is giving him their vote of confidence this season. He will have to earn it during training camp, and it will be exciting to see how he performs in a full season wearing the chocolate and white.
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