Capitals to exercise patience with talented stable of prospects

By Ryan Womeldorf
Photo: Former Waterloo Blackhawks centre Zach Sanford returns to Boston College this fall for his sophomore NCAA season. (Courtesy of Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Photo: Former Waterloo Blackhawks centre Zach Sanford returns to Boston College this fall for his sophomore NCAA season. (Courtesy of Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

 

 

 

Heading into the 2015-16 season, the Washington Capitals find themselves among the powers of the Eastern Conference. They remain one of the most skilled teams in the NHL thanks to players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson. They also have one of the best netminders in the entire league in Braden Holtby.

It should come to no surprise that the Capitals are allowing their top prospects to develop at their own pace. More importantly, the Capitals have several players in the pipeline who could be big contributors down the road. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have high ceilings and could be excellent starting goaltenders. Madison Bowey has “franchise defenseman” written all over him. And Jakub Vrana is the type of skilled European forward the Capitals have typically coveted.

On the whole, the Capitals may be in the position of picking later given their status as contenders, but that does not mean there is any shortage of talent in their system.

Pro

Top Prospect
Connor Carrick, D, Hershey Bears (AHL)

Carrick was nothing short of outstanding in his first full season with Hershey in 2014-15. He had split time between Washington and Hershey in 2013-14, looking very much like a young defenseman in need of some seasoning. Last year, however, he showed just why the Capitals were interested in him by racking up 34 assists and 42 points in 73 games in the AHL.

Though he is on the smaller side of the scale at 5-foot-11 and 185, Carrick builds his game around his skating ability and the way he can rush the puck up the ice. A future power play quarterback, Carrick has good aggressiveness from the point and an even better shot to go with it.

If he can continue to hone his game on the defensive end and limit his physical challenges, Carrick can be an excellent top-four defender at the NHL level. If he doesn’t get a call up in 2015-16, he could be a threat to crack the NHL roster in 2016-17.

Offensive Breakout
Chandler Stephenson, C, Hershey Bears (AHL)

Stephenson, the team’s third round pick in 2012, was a bit of an enigma as he entered his first season with Hershey in 2014-15. He had three quiet years with Regina of the WHL before exploding for 30 goals and 89 points in 69 games during his final season in 2013-14. In 54 games with Hershey in his first AHL season, his ice time was limited and he only managed seven goals and 14 points.

In 2015-16, Stephenson should see a jump in ice time and a significant jump in his offensive output. He has good speed and is a strong skater, helping him compensate for the fact that he isn’t the biggest guy on the ice. His one-on-one skills really started to come to the forefront in his final season with Regina and he has the ability to be a quality scoring option at the AHL level. If he can find the ice with more regularity, he should find the score sheet as well.

NHL-Bound Pro Prospect
Philipp Grubauer, G, Hershey Bears (AHL)

Grubauer has been knocking on the door of the NHL for the last couple of years, and now he might be ready to finally walk through that door. He had an impressive year in Hershey in 2014-15, posting a 2.30 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 49 games for the Bears before turning in a subpar playoff performance.

It will be a tight competition for the role of backing up Holtby, and Grubauer will compete against Justin Peters and Dan Ellis for the job. If he doesn’t succeed, Grubauer will likely return to the starting role in Hershey and play the role of emergency call up.

Grubauer isn’t the most exciting goaltender in the world, but he is solid as they come and positionally sound. He may not get his best opportunity in Washington so long as Holtby has a stranglehold on the main job and the team keeps selecting highly-touted goaltenders in the draft.

Junior

Top Prospect
Madison Bowey, D, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)

Forget about being the Capitals’ top junior prospect. Bowey is their best prospect period. He is the complete package of size, skating, offensive prowess and physical defensive play. Bowey has spent the last two seasons dominating the WHL to the tune of 120 points in 130 games, highly impressive for a defenseman.

With his junior eligibility up, he will make the jump to Hershey for 2015-16. It is uncertain what type of role he will play in his first year, though the Capitals will certainly want him to be featured as much as possible to get him ready for a move to the NHL in the near-future.

Bowey has top-pairing potential in the NHL and could be just one quality minor league season away from making the full-time jump. The Capitals will want to be patient with him and don’t have an immediate need to rush him to the big time.

Unsigned for 2016-17
Colby Williams, D, Regina Pats (WHL)

Williams had a banner season for Regina in 2014-15, posting career highs in goals (11), assists (30) and points (41) as he took on a larger role that even saw him operate as the quarterback of the power play. Heading into 2015-16, his place is uncertain. He could return to junior as an overage player (he is 20 years old) or the Capitals could opt to send him to the AHL or ECHL.

Given his selection in the 2015 NHL Draft, Williams does not have a contract in place yet and will likely need to earn one wherever he winds up playing. Given his size limitations (5’11), he needs to show that he is starting to blossom as an offensive defenseman and hone his skills in his own end to limit how much his size affects him. Williams has the work ethic to be a sleeper in the Caps system, but he will need to earn the opportunity.

New Team in 2015-16
Connor Hobbs, D, Regina Pats (WHL)

After struggling to find the ice with Medicine Hat, Hobbs was moved to the Regina Pats and seemed to find his home. In 33 games with the pats, he managed 16 points (on 15 assists), three times the amount of points he’d produced in 22 games with Medicine Hat over two seasons.

At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, Hobbs has good size and plays with a mean streak. He plays very physically and will scrap if he has to. He’s still very raw and not much on the offensive end at this point, though he does possess a hard shot. Having finally found a stable home where he can get on the ice with regularity, 2015-16 will be the year we find out just who Connor Hobbs is.

Amateur

Top Prospect
Riley Barber, RW, University of Miami (Ohio) (NCHC)

Barber has spent the past three seasons as one of the best players in collegiate hockey, tearing it up with teammate Austin Czarnik to the tune of 123 points in 106 games for the Redhawks. Now, he is set to make the jump to the pro level with Hershey in 2015-16.

Though Barber isn’t the biggest (6’0, 195 lbs) nor the most talented player on the prospect list, he is one of the hardest working and easily one of the biggest over-achievers. He has produced at every level thus far, displaying an excellent two-way game and leadership skills to boot.

Depending on what kind of ice time he receives as a rookie to the AHL in 2015-16, he could be the team’s breakout star. The Capitals have high hopes for Barber going forward as he projects to be either a top-six winger or a very good third-line option.

Offensive Breakout
Zach Sanford, C, Boston College (Hockey East)

Sanford did not look out of place as a freshman playing for a national powerhouse in 2014-15. The 6-foot-4, 192-pound freshman looked at times like a future star on his way to a 24 point effort in 38 games with the Eagles.

Despite his inexperience, Sanford has already shown he possesses excellent vision and a natural instinct for playmaking with 17 assists. He still has room to add size to that frame, making him even more difficult to play against than he already is. If he can work on his skating and continue developing his all-around game, Sanford could be ready to make a jump into the national spotlight in 2015-16 and take on a bigger role for the Eagles.

Bounceback Prospect
Brian Pinho, LW, Providence College (Hockey East)

Pinho made the jump to collegiate hockey in 2014-15, turning in a solid freshman effort for the eventual national champions. His 18 points in 39 games were better than they appear given his relative lack of ice time as a freshman.

In his sophomore year, he will likely get a boost in ice time as Providence looks to continue their success. He is an excellent skater with very good speed and though he is still on the raw side offensively, he has very good vision and one-on-one skills. He has good enough size at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds to hold up to the rigors of the college game at this point, and should make a substantial jump in 2015-16.

Europe

Top Prospect
Ilya Samsonov, G, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)

It was a bit of a surprise to some when the Capitals tabbed Samsonov with the 22nd overall pick in 2015. After all, they already have Vanecek in the mix and elite starter Braden Holtby is just 25 years old. Still, it was hard for the Capitals to pass on a tremendous talent like Samsonov.

He has been called one of the best Russian goaltending prospects in ages, with exceptional athleticism and the ability to make the highlight reel save at the drop of a hat. Samsonov also comes with good size for a goaltender (6’3, 200 lbs).

Samsonov will need to work on the finer points of his game and prove that he can perform against much better competition now that he is ready to make the jump to the KHL. He is under contract for the next few years in the KHL, so he will have every chance to take on the starting job for Metallurg Magnitogorsk and show why the Capitals were so happy to select him.

Offensive Breakout
Jakub Vrana, RW, Linkoping HC (SHL)

Vrana has been something of a frustration since he was selected with the 13th overall pick in 2014. His 12 goals and 24 points in the SHL were not quite what the team expected of someone as talented as Vrana.

He looks as though he will make the jump to the AHL full-time in 2015-16, where he spent just three regular season and 10 playoff games. Still, he looked quite good in his limited time in North America and the Capitals will no doubt want to make sure he gets all the ice time he can handle in 2015-16.

Vrana is too talented a player to be kept down for long, a natural with the puck on his stick. If he shows that he can score goals with regularity at the pro level, it may not be long at all before he’s ready to make his mark in Washington.

Unsigned for 2016-17
Kevin Elgestal, RW, Frolunda HC (SHL)

Elgestal was a bit of a project when selected in the seventh round of the 2014 Draft and not much has changed since then. He’s being eyed as a potential power forward, possessing good size at 6-foot-1, 187 pounds. Despite his size, he still plays something of a perimeter game. Despite this, he has produced each season for Frolunda’s junior team, posting 10 goals and 26 points in 33 games in 2014-15.

Ready to make the jump to the men’s league in 2015-16, it will be interesting to see how Elgestal does. Traditionally, ice time is hard to come by for younger players in the SHL, so that could limit the impact Elgestal has. If he can show that he has learned to use his size better and continues to show a knack for putting the puck in the back of the net, that could be enough to earn the attention of the Capitals.

 

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