Capitals farm system deep in the back end

By Ryan Womeldorf
Photo: Chris Brown has been called up to the NHL twice since Washington acquired him from Arizona, scoring two goals and an assist in 11 combined games. (Courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: Chris Brown has been called up to the NHL twice since Washington acquired him from Arizona, scoring two goals and an assist in 11 combined games. (Courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

Though the Washington Capitals have a plethora of prospects who should make an impact at some point in their career, their approach over the last few seasons has been consistent. They give their youngsters the opportunities they need to grow at the lower levels before promoting one or two to the lineup per year.

Last year, it happened to be a pair of dynamic rookies in Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Keeping those two out of Washington was not going to last long and both will figure into the nightly lineup going into 2015-16.

That strategy will likely hold true this season, with possibly one or two ready to receive a call-up. Though, with the Capitals looking like possible contenders in the Eastern Conference, it remains to be seen whether any rookie can capture a full-time spot and the ice time that goes with it.

Left Wing

The left wing position isn’t the highest on talent, but it might pack the most sandpaper. Liam O’Brien and Chris Brown bring power-forward size to the table, while the latter continues to tease with goal-scoring potential. O’Brien, meanwhile, is your prototypical grinder, bringing size, energy and grit to the table.

Though he does not bring the same size as O’Brien and Brown, Nathan Walker matches them in speed and intensity. Walker is the kind of player who can fill fourth line minutes with tenacity. He will throw his body around, forecheck like crazy and bust his butt for the limited time he is on the ice.

There are two wild cards in the group at left wing. The first is long-time prospect Stanislav Galiev. Galiev, on paper, is a top-flight prospect: he has power-forward size at 6-foot-2, is a solid skater, and has a dynamic set of offensive skills that are not common in your average prospect. His main issue at this point has been producing consistently at all levels. He struggled for two seasons to stick with Hershey of the AHL before finally bursting for 25 goals and 45 points in 67 games in 2014-15. If he can continue to put everything together, it won’t be long before we see him in the nation’s capital.

The other wild card is youngster Zach Sanford. The 20-year-old center has tremendous size at 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, and is coming off a very good collegiate debut—posting 24 points in 38 games as a freshman at powerhouse Boston College. Sanford is already an excellent playmaker, though he is still raw overall. If he can add weight to his frame and continue to develop offensively, he could be the type of big playmaking pivot most teams covet.

Right Wing

Seemingly every season, the Capitals have a few prospects that are a cut above the rest and appear to have a place with the team at some point in the future. That is definitely the case for Jakub Vrana and Riley Barber. Despite sharing “top prospect” status, the two couldn’t be more dissimilar. Vrana is all talent—a natural scorer with fantastic hands and a knack for finding open space.

Barber, meanwhile, is a natural-born leader and overachiever. He is 100-percent hustle, creating scoring opportunities for himself thanks to a diligent two-way game and hard work. Both have graduated to Hershey of the AHL for 2015-16 and both should have impactful seasons. From there, it is only a matter of time before both are making an impact every night for the Capitals.

Past those two somewhat sure things, there are a lot of questions. Garrett Mitchell already appears to have hit his relatively low ceiling, taking on a role as an energy player for Hershey over the last four seasons. He is set to return to the role yet again for 2015-16, and if he’s going to make the NHL, he’s going to have to do it on energy and tenacity.

Rounding out the right wingers is a total enigma in Kevin Elgestal. He has quality power forward size for a European prospect, but tends to play on the fringes a lot more than he should. Elgestal has shown enough offensive flare that he’s intriguing, but it is a wonder at this point whether he will do enough to make it out of Europe.

Center

Though the center position doesn’t possess the high-end talent that right wing and goaltender do, there is plenty of speed and skill to go around from top to bottom.

Chandler Stephenson is arguably the top center prospect of the bunch, having made a moderately successful professional debut in 2014-15. In limited ice time with Hershey, the 21-year-old notched seven goals and seven assists in 54 games, showing good speed and offensive instincts along the way. He should get an expanded role in 2015-16 and could be a quality third-line center down the road for the Capitals.

The Capitals are heavy on collegiate prospects with four centers set to play at that level in 2015-16. Thomas DiPauli, who enjoyed a breakout junior season with Notre Dame, will return for his senior season and look to prove he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Also returning is sophomore Brian Pinho, looking to take on a feature role for defending national champions Providence College. Pinho was solid as a freshman and will no doubt get a much bigger role in 2015-16.

The other two prospects at the collegiate level will be debuting freshmen Steven Spinner and Shane Gersich. Like DiPauli and Pinho, both are shorter than 6-feet, but pack enough speed and skill to more than make up for it. Gersich in particular is a burner who can get to top-level speed in no time flat. Everyone here, including DiPauli, is still very much a blank slate and trying to figure out where they fit in not only with their teams but in the Capitals organization.

The rest of the crew at center definitely fits into the overachiever mold. Caleb Herbert has made it to Hershey thanks to speed, heart and surprising one-on-one ability. He is hoping that a strong showing in the ECHL in 2014-15 will propel him to an every-night role with Hershey in 2015-16.

Michael Latta, meanwhile, might be the least skilled of the center group, but he may have found himself a permanent role in Washington. He spent the bulk of 2014-15 there, showing energy, heart and a willingness to step in for teammates in need. He will likely return to Washington for 2015-16 to resume that role.

Despite a 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame and a skillset that doesn’t explode off the ice, Travis Boyd has done well for himself at every level. He was quietly one of the most consistent scorers for NCAA powerhouse University of Minnesota, even registering a career-best in goals (19) and points (41) as a senior in 2014-15. He’ll have to continue to work hard and apply his stellar two-way game at the professional level, but if any of the lower-rated centers is going to succeed, it will be Boyd.

Defense

Aside from goaltender, this might be the deepest and most talented prospect position the Capitals have. Leading the charge is the undisputed top prospect in the system, Madison Bowey. Bowey is the complete package: size, skill, physicality, defensive prowess and offensive ability. He has been dominant at the junior level and will get a chance to showcase his skills in Hershey for 2015-16. Going forward, he has franchise defenseman potential and should find himself a mainstay on the Capitals’ top pairing before long.

Not terribly far behind Bowey is Connor Carrick. Though he is smaller at 5-foot-11, Carrick is a tremendous skater and offensive defenseman, leading the rush and showing the skills to be a power play quarterback at any level. He had a fantastic first season for Hershey in 2014-15, notching 34 assists and 42 points in 73 games. Carrick will return to Hershey for 2015-16 to continue working on his defensive game, but he definitely has a future at the NHL level as a go-to offensive defenseman.

The Capitals have a trio of defensemen that all have the potential to play in the NHL soon as stay-at-home defensemen. Nate Schmidt has split time between Washington and Hershey the last two seasons, showing a little offensive ability but predicating his game on being a quality defender. He isn’t very big, but he holds up in one-on-one battles well and plays a quiet, unassuming game.

Bringing the size that Schmidt lacks are Patrick Wey and 2015 draftee Jonas Siegenthaler. Wey is a no frills defender, using his 6-3 frame and positioning to play a solid defensive game. Siegenthaler, meanwhile, has all the makings of a shutdown defenseman. He has excellent size at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, and good mobility—allowing him to get to forwards quickly and wall them off. Both have the chance to become contributors in the top six in Washington within the next handful of seasons.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Capitals have several defensemen below 6-feet tall as well. Christian Djoos, son of a former NHLer, has an intriguing package of offensive skill and calm defensive ability that could either see him blossom in the NHL or never make it there at all. Blake Heinrich and Colby Williams are both smaller than desired and neither is a tremendous offensive talent, but both have intriguing enough skillsets to get them longer looks. They will both return to junior for 2015-16 to continue their development.

The outliers are Connor Hobbs, Tyler Lewington and Cameron Schilling. All have quality size and skating ability, but none of them have really excelled in any one area. They all skew towards “defensive defenseman,” but have not been consistent.

Goalies

If there is one position the Capitals have more high-end talent than they know what to do with, it is goaltender. Not even counting Braden Holtby, who has the starting gig in Washington on lock for the foreseeable future, the Capitals have a plethora of goaltenders who could all fit into their plans in the future.

2015 first-round pick Ilya Samsonov is the best of the bunch. He will remain in the KHL for the next few seasons, but he has the size (6’3) and athletic ability that scouts drool over. He makes highlight reel saves look routine, though there have been some questions about his level of competition. In any event, Samsonov has the talent to become a very good NHL netminder and could challenge Holtby down the line.

Slightly behind him in the rankings, Vitek Vanecek appears to be a boom-or-bust prospect. He doesn’t have the size of Samsonov, but has every bit the athleticism. He uses his quickness to make up ground quickly and shows an above average glove hand. Vanecek has shown some inconsistency in his performances in the Czech league and on the international stage, so he will need to show that he can apply that skill in a consistent and productive way.

Getting a bit lost in the shuffle, Philipp Grubauer is the most NHL-ready of the group. He has turned in a few seasons of solid performances for Hershey and could challenge for the backup spot in Washington this season. Unlike his aforementioned counterparts, Grubauer’s game is built on his hockey IQ and patience. He plays his angles well, though he has shown the capability to make a dynamic save from time to time. Unfortunately for Grubauer, his shot at a starting job in the NHL may not come with Washington.

 

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