Even though the Capitals are out of rebuilding mode, they still own a plethora of young talent. While only a few rookies played more than a cup of coffee, there were nine Capitals players who fit the NHL’s rookie criteria this season.
Karl Alzner, D
Acquired 1st round, 5th overall, 2007
After a successful junior career with the Calgary Hitmen, Alzner turned pro last fall. In somewhat of a surprising move, the Capitals sent Alzner down for seasoning in Hershey at the beginning of the season. He was thought to be one of the most NHL-ready prospects that the team had.
The stint in Hershey was a short one however. With the Caps backline depleted by early injuries, Alzner was recalled a little more than a month into the season and made his NHL debut against Atlanta on Nov. 26. Alzner got into 30 games before being demoted back down to Hershey at the end of February. Throughout his stint, he showed flashes of why he was the fifth overall pick in 2007, making smart passes, good decisions, and keeping the game simple in front of him. While displaying maturity for his age, the season started to wear on Alzner after the new year. Often, he would have plenty of poise one shift, and then seem overwhelmed the next shift. Scoring one goal and four assists, Alzner is not known for his high point production, but with increased playing time next year, and a spot on the permanent roster, look for his overall level of play to increase.
Simeon Varlamov, G
Acquired 1st round, 23rd overall, 2006
Quite possibly the best goalie to come out of the 2006 draft, Varlamov made a big impression in his first North American professional season. Stellar performances in Hershey earned him numerous call-ups during the season. With the Caps, Varlamov posted a 4-1 record with a save percentage of .918 during the regular season. He took over the starting role in the playoffs, posting a 7-6 record with a 2.53 GAA and .918 save percentage.
The quick and agile Russian netminder is known for his athletic ability. Raw power and skill are abundant in Varlamov’s game, and with more work on his positioning and rebound control, the Capitals could very well have their goalie of the future.
Varlamov has the edge on the No. 1 role for next season as well. He has already displayed confidence beyond his years, and the Capitals put together a strong game in front of him when he plays. He needs to work on his consistency, conditioning, and durability, as a few injuries sidelined him this season.
Chris Bourque, LW
Acquired 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2004
After four years in the organization, Bourque was able to get into eight games this season with the Capitals, scoring his first NHL goal against the Buffalo Sabres at the end of December. The undersized winger has faced a lot of challenges in trying to earn a spot on the big club. Probably one of the hardest working players in the organization, Bourque has tried to beef up on his 5’7 frame, but still gets pushed off the puck easily at the NHL level. His decision making is also not as fast as it needs to be for a permanent spot on the roster.
The offensive ability is clearly there for Bourque, who has been one of Hershey’s leading scorers the last three seasons. The question will always be his size, however. Will he be able to overcome it and become a successful winger in the NHL? Only time will tell, and Bourque’s window of opportunity to make it to the NHL is slowly closing.
Sami Lepisto, D
Acquired 3rd round, 66th overall, 2004
The Espoo, Finland native Lepisto is a smallish puck-moving defenseman, something the Capitals are not in dire need of. This is probably one reason why the second-year pro only got into seven games with the Capitals, despite racking up four assists during that time span. The startling statistic that works against him is the fact that he was a -3 while playing in mostly the bottom pairing on the Capitals.
Lepisto has all the tools to make it to the NHL. He has a hard shot, great passing abilities, and runs the power play very smoothly. What he needs to work on, however, is his decision making and defensive play. Numerous times, Lepisto was caught up ice which lead to odd-man rushes going the other way. He also had problems with coverage in front of the net trying to protect the Capitals goalie.
If Lepisto hopes to make it to the NHL, his time is running out. Being almost 25 years old, if he doesn’t get a long stint with the Capitals soon, he could be headed back to Europe.
Michal Neuvirth, G
Acquired 2nd round, 34th overall, 2006
Neuvirth got into five games this season with the Capitals, going 2-1 with two relief appearances. The rookie goaltender displayed patience and plenty of confidence, even stopping Vinny Lecavalier on a breakaway within the first five minutes of his NHL debut. This Czech’s strengths include his positioning and rebound control. On numerous occasions, Neuvirth made it easier on his defensemen by eating up any and all pucks that came towards him. Rarely beat off of a second or third rebound opportunity, look for Neuvirth to compete for the backup job next season in Washington. The starting job in Hershey is the most likely.
Oskar Osala, LW
Acquired 4th round, 97th overall, 2006
The spoils of the 2006 draft continued for the Capitals when Osala came over for his first North American professional season this year. The hulking Finnish left wing made an impact for himself right away, notching a 20-goal season with Hershey in his first year.
Osala earned a call-up for two games with the parent club. While not notching any points, Osala showed that he could keep up with the big boys in limited playing time on the fourth line. With a powerful shot and skating stride, Osala has a great chance at one day becoming a second or third line player in the NHL.
Andrew Gordon, RW
Acquired 8th round, 197th overall, 2004
Gordon was always going to be a long-term project pick for the Capitals. The feisty and quick winger went from lower level Canadian Juniors to college. After his stint with St. Cloud, Gordon joined the Capitals organization and played for the Stingrays and Bears during the 2007-08 season. Because of his strong work ethic, speed, and rounded game, Gordon got the call-up for one game this season, making his NHL debut in Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.
If Gordon continues on the track he is on now, he has a great chance of getting some more playing time for the Capitals next season. Simply getting used to the higher level of competition and speed of the NHL game is going to be crucial in Gordon’s long shot chance of making it full time with the Capitals. He has the potential to be either a bottom-six player or a top-six player, which gives him an increased chance of making it due to his versatility.
Sean Collins, D
Acquired through free agency, March 19th, 2007.
After a full four years at Ohio State, Collins had bounced around in the Capitals organization for two years, making constant trips from South Carolina to Hershey and back. He never got into an NHL game until this year when the Capitals defensive corps were depleted around the middle of the season. Surprisingly enough, Collins was able to get into 15 games this season, even scoring his first NHL goal on New Year’s Day.
This all-around defenseman didn’t show any real weaknesses in his stint with the big club. He also did not show anything special. Collins will be looking for another contract this summer.
Jay Beagle, C
Acquired through free agency, March 26th, 2008
Beagle joined the Hershey Bears during the 2007-08 season, and made an immediate impression with his hard work ethic and never-give-up mentality. Earning a free agent contract with the Capitals, Beagle appeared in only three games this season, going -3 and scoring no points. The big center did not look out of place however, and displayed the same gritty mentality that has made him a fan favorite in Hershey.
Look for Beagle to get more time on the Capitals fourth line next year as an injury replacement. He has the potential to be an NHL grinder, but needs to work on his finishing abilities and skills with the puck. Already being a strong skater has helped him make the transition to pro, and with a little work on his offensive ability, Beagle has a good chance at being a full-time NHL grinder one day.