Friday, June 2 2023

Still earning his place, Protas driven to keep improving originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

ARLINGTON, Va. — A team that has been chasing Stanley Cup playoff berths every season for the last 15 years, the Capitals haven’t had the chance to institute a full youth movement in a long time. Young players have had to settle for fourth-line roles and limited minutes with which to make a strong enough impression to establish themselves in the NHL.

Aliaksei Protas has made the most of his opportunities in D.C. this season, appearing in 49 games while filling a variety of roles for the injury-plagued Capitals. The 22-year-old has played more games than any other forward prospect in the organization and impressed his coaches with his work ethic and determination to improve.

“He’s been terrific,” Washington head coach Peter Laviolette said. “He works so hard out there. He’s got big strides and a big work ethic. He’s detailed. He can be on the penalty kill. He can move up and down the lineup. Right now, he’s in a spot where we’re using him but he can go in different places in the lineup and bring something to a line. He gets better every day he’s here, every game he plays the experience for a young player like that, I think, is really, really important. So it’s nice to see that development in him. He’s been a strong player for us.”

A standout in training camp last September, Protas has all the qualities that make for an exciting young prospect. He’s listed at six-foot-six, 225 pounds, filling out the massive frame that enticed the Capitals to draft him in the third round of the 2019 NHL Draft. Protas showed up for camp having made significant improvements in his skating and that paved the way for him to beat out Connor McMichael — taken in the first round of that very same draft — for a roster spot.

“I still have [to] get better, especially physical. I have to be harder in the battles because I know I can really win battles. The guys support me, which is good, so I gotta work on probably that part of the game. Speed kinda gotta get better, but I think it gets better every game.”

Protas has only averaged 11 minutes of ice time per game, but he’s shown flashes of his upside particularly on the defensive end. According to Natural Stat Trick, he’s started just 26.5% of his five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone this season — third lowest on the team among players with at least 500 minutes — but managed a Corsi For percentage of 54.4% that’s No. 1 on the team even though he often faces off against opposing teams’ top lines.

He’s also shown some playmaking ability on offense, including this feed that set up center Nic Dowd for the goal in Thursday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

“I really like playing with him,” Dowd said after the game. “I thought earlier in the year he fit in with me and [Garnet Hathaway] really well…It’s good to see him get rewarded the last couple games and, well, he’s got high hockey IQ. He’s got a really good stick and breaks up a lot of plays. Like you saw tonight, when he an opportunity to make a high-level play, he has that in the toolkit. He’s a really good passer.”

What comes next for Protas remains to be seen. The Capitals have some roster decisions to make this offseason with veteran forwards Conor Sheary and Craig Smith set to hit free agency. Protas’s natural position of center is clogged with Dowd, Dylan Strome, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov all on multi-year deals, but there may be a more permanent opening for him on the wing if the Capitals decide he’s ready for it.

After working with KHL development coach Dmitry Astapenko on improving his skating over video last offseason, Protas plans to meet with him in person this summer to continue building off that success. He also wants to develop into a more physical player to better take advantage of his size and improve his play along the boards.

“I just want to be here,” Protas said of where he gets his motivation. “Just enjoy every minute that I spend here with the team, with the boys, on the ice. So, just I love what I’m doing and I want to keep it going and just work as hard as I can out there.”

Source: Yahoo Sports


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