Washington Capitals own a prospect pool deep on defense and skill

By Ryan Womeldorf
Nate Schmidt - Washington Capitals

Photo: Defenseman Nate Schmidt is one of several mobile defensemen in the Washington Capitals system. Schmidt was signed as a free agent in 2013. (courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

 

With opening night having come to pass, the Washington Captials can count two major prospects in the professional level now. Heavily-touted prospects Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov played for the Capitals on opening night of the 2014-15 season against the Montreal Canadiens, with Burakovsky picking up the Capitals first goal of the season.

At the draft, meanwhile, the Capitals added a few high-risk, high-reward types to their ranks. Talent seems to trump all in the Capitals system, but should even one or two pan out, like Jakub Vrana, the team can count the 2014 NHL Draft a success.

Left Wing

The aforementioned Burakovsky is a smallish, flashy Swedish player who spent the 2013-14 season lighting up the OHL. If it was not clear that the young winger was ready for the big time before his jump to North America, his 41 goals and 87 points in 57 games for the Erie Otters made that crystal clear. He should be a Calder Trophy front-runner.

After splitting time between the Hershey Bears of the AHL, where he posted three goals and six points in 16 games, and Reading Royals of the ECHL in 2013-14, posting five goals and 13 points in 14 games, Stanislav Galiev was one of the cuts made by the Capitals in training camp. He will spend the 2014-15 season with Hershey.

Chris Brown, brought in via a trade with the Arizona Coyotes last year, had quite the 2013-14 season. He started off in Portland, registering 35 points in 51 games, got a six game stint with the Coyotes, was traded to Washington and then split time between the Capitals (six games) and Hershey (12 games). He can score on the lower levels, but he is running out of time to prove he can score on the NHL level.

Blessed with good size at 6’4, Zach Sanford will begin his freshman year at Boston College coming off a solid 2013-14 campaign with the USHL‘s Waterloo Blackhawks. With good reach and hands for his size, he is an intriguing prospect. His skating is still a work in progress, but with size like that, he has got definite upside.

Aside from being the first Australian-born player to be drafted, Nathan Walker had a decent rookie year with Hershey in 2013-14, posting five goals and 11 points in 43 games. Walker is an interesting case, he has made some great plays in limited time with the Capitals organization, thrown a devastating hip check or two, but has not managed to put it all together. He will get another chance to make an impact in Hershey during 2014-15.

Center

Like Burakovsky, Kuznetsov is a foreign-born player with a boatload of hype. The 26th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Kuznetsov finished up with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL last year, posting eight goals and 21 points in 31 games. He is an excellent skater and does things with the puck few can even imagine. He and Burakovsky are both looking to make a big impact in 2014-15.

He might not be the flashiest player in the system, but Chandler Stephenson is highly valuable as a prospect. He plays a strong two-way game and displays great awareness on the ice. Stephenson inked his three-year entry-level contract with the Capitals in the summer and will suit up for the Hershey Bears for the 2014-15 season.

Thomas Di Pauli, a fourth round pick in 2012, is set to return to the University of Notre Dame for his junior season after a very disappointing sophomore year in 2013-14. He posted just three goals and five points in 26 games, though he was a surprise pick for Team USA at the World Juniors. He has shown promise as a potential fourth-line energy forward, but will need a strong year at Notre Dame to rise up the organizational ranks.

The 2013-14 season for Michael Latta was one of hope. The 23-year-old center spent the bulk of the year in Hershey, picking up 14 goals and 34 points in 52 games while showing a good ability to win faceoffs and play defense. If he can continue to build on his offensive game, look for him to add to his 17 career games with the Capitals.

After finishing his junior year with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he registered 12 goals and 31 points in 36 games in 2013-14, Caleb Herbert had had a seven game cup of coffee with the Hershey Bears and is expected to contribute once again to Hershey in 2014-15. He displays a solid two-way game and could be a future bottom-six contributor.

Starting his freshman year at Providence College, Brian Pinho is coming off an impressive 2013-14 campaign with the Indiana Ice of the USHL. His 28 goals and 56 points in 59 games certainly raised a few eyes and the sixth-round pick is already earning sleeper talk among Capitals fans. His freshman year could be the next big stepping stone in his path up the organizational ladder.

Shane Gersich and Steven Spinner are very similar players, 5’11 centermen who are considered explosive skaters with good shots. Both will play for the Omaha Lancers of the USHL in 2014-15 before making the jump to the collegiate level in 2015-16 with the University of North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha, respectively.

Travis Boyd continues the trend of 5’11 centers with good offensive skills and is quickly being thought of as a diamond in the rough after an impressive development camp with the Capitals. He will return to the University of Minnesota for his senior season, looking to close with a strong campaign before making the jump to the pro level.

Right Wing

The aforementioned Vrana, taken with the 13th overall pick in 2014, is a highly skilled winger. He does not have very good size (5’11) but brings dynamic offensive ability to the table, possessing a quick release and good puck skills. Vrana might be a year or two away from the NHL, but he will certainly have a lot of eyes on him until then. He will return to Linkoping of the SHL for the 2014-15 season.

Riley Barber has shot up the ranks since being selected 167th overall in 2012. The feisty winger has proven himself to be a leader while having a dynamite career with the Miami Redhawks. In the Redhawks’ first year in the NCHC, Barber was outstanding, posting 19 goals and 44 points in 38 games. He has got great potential as a two-way scoring winger and could see time with Hershey starting in 2015-16.

With a 6’1 frame and a willingness to drop the mitts, Austin Wuthrich is an interesting prospect. He is set to start his senior season with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. He is tenacious and uses his size well, but he has shown a limited offensive game so far. He has got potential as a bottom-six grinder, but could grow into more of a scorer with a strong showing in 2014-15.

Garrett Mitchell, selected way back in the 2009 NHL Draft, might be running out of time with the Capitals. The 23-year-old is back for his fourth season in Hershey but has not shown much since his 30-point season back in 2012-13. He has got fourth-line potential, but he needs to show more if he wants to stick with the Capitals going forward.

Kevin Elgestal is a 6’1 Swedish winger who was taken with the 194th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. He has spent the majority of his time on the draft radar as a part of Sweden’s Frolunda junior squad and has experience at the U18 Worlds and Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament. He will return to Frolunda for the 2014-15 campaign.

Defensemen

Connor Carrick seems to be the top defensive prospect in the system for the moment, but he will spend the 2014-15 season with Hershey. While he does not have good size (5’11), he is very good on the rush and has a future with the Capitals as a possible second-pairing offensive defenseman. He still looks a little lost at times, but could be ready to challenge for a spot in the NHL in 2015-16.

Right behind Carrick is 2013 draftee Madison Bowey. The second-round pick has good size (6’2 203), impressive leadership abilities (he was named captain for his junior team, Kelowna) and has stood out in junior. He has strong two-way abilities, showing good speed and strength. He still needs to figure out when is the right time to jump into the rush, but the skills are definitely there.

Nate Schmidt spent the 2013-14 campaign between Hersey and the Capitals, logging 29 games with the big club while posting two goals and six points. In 2014-15, Schmidt looks like a strong candidate to stick for the long-term. Like seemingly everyone in the Capitals system, Schmidt is an offensive-minded defender with very good skating ability. He still has some gaps in his defensive game, but he has a promising future in Washington.

The 2014-15 season might be make-or-break for Patrick Wey. The 6’3 defenseman made his NHL debut last year after playing in the ECHL, but was returned to Hershey and subsequently hurt. He has the makings of a decent bottom-pairing defender, using his size and strength to make him effective. With the plethora of puck-movers in their ranks, the Capitals could use a guy like Wey in the mix.

The possible sleeper of this group, Christian Djoos had a strong World Junior Championship effort and followed that up by being promoted to the top-pairing for Brynas of the SHL. In 2014-15, he looks to take on a more prominent role with Brynas. Despite his slight 6’0 frame, Djoos does the little things well. He has the makings of a quiet, steady defenseman.

The Capitals may have found a warrior in Cameron Schilling, playing in 70 games for the Bears in 2013-14. At 6’2, he has shown a developing physical game and likes to muck it up – he racked up 89 penalty minutes in those 70 games. He owns a heavy shot, but his ticket to the NHL will be his physical game. If he can continue to develop that mean-streak, there could be a place for him on the Capitals bottom pairing.

Medicine Hat Tigers defenseman Tyler Lewington has the makings of a sleeper, having been drafted in the seventh round of the 2013 NHL Draft. At 6’1, he possesses adequate size and plays a fairly physical game. But it is his burgeoning offensive skills that have grabbed the attention of those in the Capitals organization. His 38 points in 2013-14 were a career-high. Another jump in 2014-15 could see him turn some heads.

Blake Heinrich and Garrett Haar are both USHL graduates and have been a part of the Portland Winterhawks, though both are on different paths. Heinrich will begin the 2014-15 season as a Winterhawk, gaining his first junior experience. Haar, who spent two years in college with Western Michigan, spent the 2013-14 season with Portland. Both are smaller, offensive defensemen who have shown strong production throughout their careers. Haar has battled injuries, but will get a chance to stand out with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL.

Showing an underrated ability to move the puck, Patrick Koudys stands out for his NHL-ready frame. At 6’2 and over 200 pounds, he is already bigger and stronger than most of his competition on the college level. He also shows strong leadership skills, being named captain of his Penn State squad. He will return to the Nittany Lions in 2014-15 for his senior season.

Goaltending

The Capitals may have found their next goalie of the future in the second round of the 2014 Draft in Vitek Vanecek. Small, but quick, Vanecek is incredibly athletic and capable of making the highlight-reel save. He is a bit raw, but with his quickness and glove hand, he certainly has a tantalizing skill set. He plays in the Czech league currently and should remain there for the next couple of seasons before making the trek to North America.

After a 17 game stint with the Capitals in 2013-14 that saw him go 6-5-5, Philipp Grubauer returns to Hersey to take over the starting role. He is technically sound and above average as an athlete, but is still learning to play against better competition. Expect him to seriously challenge for the Capitals starting job beginning in 2015-16.

Former Michigan Tech standout Pheonix Copley impressed at the Capitals rookie camp earlier in the summer, but was sent back to Hershey for some seasoning. He has great size at 6’3 and could earn himself the backup job in Hershey depending on the health of Ed Pasquale. His stock has taken a sharp tick upward and he could sneak back onto the radar with a strong year in Hershey.

Pasquale, the 23-year-old who spent 2013-14 with St. John’s of the AHL, is back in the fold again with Hershey in 2014-15. He is currently on the injured list, but when he comes back, the 6’3 netminder should compete for a backup spot. He uses his size well, playing big in net, but needs to work on making stops when pressed to move side-to-side.

Rounding out the goaltending pool is Brandon Anderson, a free agent signing from 2010 who has spent the past two seasons playing for the Reading Royals of the ECHL. The 22-year-old will push for starts in the AHL, but has an uphill battle in a deep pool of goaltenders.

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