Despite all the high-octane offensive talent the Washington Capitals already have at the NHL level, there is still a plethora of forward talent throughout the ranks of the organization, including several players with elite potential.
For all the love players like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky get, there are solid players throughout the system like Riley Barber and Chandler Stephenson. Not only that, but defenders Madison Bowey and Connor Carrick look like they will be ready to make NHL impacts sooner rather than later.
Top Pro Prosepct
Evgeny Kuznetsov, C, Washington Capitals (NHL)
Hands down the top prospect in the Capitals’ system, Kuznetsov spent the past four years in Russia before finally making his NHL debut with the Capitals during the 2013-14 season. The 22-year-old Kuznetsov showed flashes of the skill that made him a first-round draft pick in 2010, even posting a three-assist game against the Vancouver Canucks. He would finish his 17-game stint in 2013-14 with nine points (three goals, six assists).
Kuznetsov is a dangerous puck-handler, using his tremendous vision to make passes most would not even consider. He is expected to not only make the Capitals out of camp for 2014-15, but is projected to be their second-line center as well. It is clear why the Capitals were drawn to him, though he does need to continue to get stronger if he is going to thrive at the NHL level.
Philipp Grubauer, G, Washington Capitals (NHL)
Like Kuznetsov, Grubauer got his cup of coffee with the Capitals during the 2013-14 season. He would play in 17 games, starting 14 of those, while posting a very solid 6-5-5 record, 2.38 goals against average, and a .925 save percentage.
With Braden Holtby struggling last year, now could be the time for the 22-year-old Grubauer. An athletic, aggressive goalie with good lateral movement, Grubauer has put his time in at the pro level with stops in the ECHL and AHL. He will likely garner a good, long look in training camp and could share starting duties with Holtby as soon as this upcoming season.
Chandler Stephenson, C, Hershey Bears (AHL)
Stephenson had a breakout season in 2013-14, producing 89 points in 69 games, more than his previous two seasons combined. He is signed his first pro deal and is looking to make a big splash on the AHL level in Hershey.
It will be interesting to see if Stephenson can replicate his offensive game on the pro level, but he showed a strong-two way game after a move to center in 2013-14 and also led the WHL in shorthanded goals. He is smart and showing a strong playmaking game, giving him the chance to be a breakout rookie in Hershey for 2014-15.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Garrett Haar, D, Hershey Bears (AHL)
Taken in the seventh round of the 2011 draft, Haar spent two seasons with Western Michigan in the NCAA before making the jump to the WHL. Haar clearly benefited from the jump, notching 45 assists and helping Portland reach the league championship series.
Of slighter stature (5’11, 194 pounds), Haar has shown a solid all-around game and quality offensive skills from the point. He is still likely a few seasons away and should start the year with Hershey in the AHL, where he will fight for bigger minutes and try to earn an NHL contract.
Top Junior Prospect
Madison Bowey, D, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
When you are playing defense for a team that has been the junior hockey home of Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, and Sheldon Souray, there can be a pretty large shadow to play in. For Bowey, all he did during 2013-14 was break the mark for goals by a defenseman with 21 tallies.
At 6’1 and 195 pounds, Bowey has good size but shows outstanding offensive abilities and can bury the puck from the point like few others. Just as importantly, he is already showing leadership skills, serving as team captain as an 18-year-old and will likely do the same for the Rockets in 2014-15.
Tyler Lewington, D, Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)
Some might argue that 2013-14 was his breakout offensive season, but the 6’1, 195 pound defenseman might just be scratching the surface of his offensive abilities. He increased his goal totals from 2 to 7 and point totals from 26 to 38 last year and could see those totals jump again as he plays a bigger role for Medicine Hat.
Lewington has already shown that he can project as a quality defensive defender on the next level, though he will likely need more than a few years of seasoning to do so. But if he can continue to develop his offensive game, he will be an intriguing player to follow as he gets closer to grabbing a roster spot with the Capitals.
Top Amateur Prospect
Riley Barber, RW, Miami Redhawks (NCHC)
Barber has all the makings of a late-round gem for the Capitals. Taken with pick number 167 in 2012, Barber had an outstanding sophomore season at Miami, scoring 19 goals and 44 points and wound up captaining Team USA at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championships. The team finished fifth in that tournament, but Barber looked strong once again with four goals in five games.
At 6’0, 194 pounds, Barber is not the biggest guy on the block, but he is willing to go into the muck and has made good use of his size and quick release. The concern for Riley is whether or not he can translate those scoring abilities to the big time, but he has shown himself to be both diverse enough and a leader, so there will surely be a spot for Barber whenever he decides to turn pro.
Austin Wuthrich, RW, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Hockey East)
A big body at 6’1, 195 pounds, Wuthrich will likely return to Notre Dame for his senior season following another down year for the Fighting Irish. His offensive game is limited, as evidenced by his six goals in 40 games during his junior season.
With his strength and frame, Wuthrich has all the makings of an agitator in the NHL. He has shown a good motor and tenacity, but unless he continues to grow offensively, he has likely hit his ceiling and will have to work extra hard to make it in the Capitals organization.
Freshman to Watch
Brian Pinho, C, Providence Friars (Hockey East)
The smallish Pinho (6’0, 173 pounds) had a fantastic debut in the USHL in 2013-14, scoring 28 goals and racking up 56 points for Indiana. He also scored the game-winning goal in the third period of the final game in the best-of-five championship series. Not a bad way to end a first season.
Set to make his NCAA debut in 2014-15 with Providence College, Pinho might be small but he has a ton of offensive ability, showing good vision, skating, and passing skills as well as innate ability to slow things down when need be. He is still a few years away from the NHL, but it should not be long before Pinho is making an impact on the collegiate level.
Top European Prospect
Jakub Vrana, LW, Linkopings HC (SHL)
The top pick by the Capitals in the 2014 NHL Draft, Vrana fits the mold of the typical high-end Capitals prospect in recent years: not very big (5’11, 185 pounds), but huge on talent. Vrana scored 14 goals for Linkoping’s junior team and a tournament-best eight goals in seven games to help the Czech Republic win a silver medal at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.
Teams can never get enough goal-scoring and the Capitals really seem to be following through with that belief. Vrana is a pure sniper with excellent skating ability, finding the open creases, and using his speed to avoid hits. He will need to work on his defense, as most scoring prospects do, during the 2014-15 season with Linkoping.
Christian Djoos, D, Brynas If Gavle (SHL)
The son of former NHL defenseman Par Djoos, Christian is a solid all-around defender that, while not outstanding at anything, performs well in every aspect. The major thing holding him back at this point in his development is his size (6’0).
It is possible Djoos, who signed his three-year, entry-level deal in the offseason, could make the jump to North America and further his development in the AHL, but another year with Brynas also seems possible. He is already a strong skater and smart in his own zone, so a little experience could go a long way.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Kevin Elgestal, LW, Frolunda HC (SHL)
A late round grab by the Capitals in the seventh round of the 2014 draft, Elgestal might still be a few years away from reaching North America. He has got a nice frame at 6’1, but will definitely need to add some bulk, especially given the way he plays. He sets up shop in front of the net and is the type of player that will get you those garbage goals.
Once he gets going, he has got good speed, but he could use a quicker start. Elgestal is tenacious on the forecheck and possesses a good shot, so there may be some potential there for him as a bottom-six contributor on the wing.
Article was written by Ryan Womeldorf.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @TwoPadStackRW