Since the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner, and more recently Marcus Johansson, have graduated to form the core of the Washington Capitals, the organization's prospect pool has been dwindling. Their top prospect, Yevgeni Kuznetsov, is one of the most skilled young forwards outside of the NHL, but has said he'll likely be spending the next two years in Russia. Beyond Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby, the Capitals prospect cupboards are fairly bare, and it's reflected in their first annual prospect awards.
The former Medicine Hat Tiger seemed to finally find his game after a trade which sent him from the New York Rangers to the Caps. A third-round selection in 2008, he was thought highly of within the Rangers organization, but after just one season with the Connecticut Whale, he was shipped off in exchange for Francois Bouchard. Not only did he excel with Hershey, leading the team's defensemen in goals with 12, but he also skated in five games with the Capitals. And despite a quick exit from the playoffs, Kundratek managed four assists in just four games. His defensive abilities have always been there, though he could work on his consistency, but now that he's found an offensive side to his game, the Czech native could find himself a permanent spot on an NHL blue line in the next year or two.
In the absence of Mike Green for the better part of the year, Dmitri Orlov stepped up for the Washington Capitals. Not necessarily known as a defensive defenseman, for an organization that lacks prospect depth, Orlov stood out as the top defenseman. Considering that the Capitals gave up eight more goals than they scored this season, Orlov's plus-one rating is fairly impressive, especially for a rookie of just 60 NHL games. His defensive-zone consistency seemed to get better as the year progressed, but it was the offense he helped create that has the Capitals excited about the Russian defender. Out of his 19 points this season, just two were recorded on the power-play.
Best Offensive Prospect: Yevgeni Kuznetsov, RW, Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL)
Kuznetsov would likely win this award for most organizations, not just the Capitals, who lack high-end forwards beyond the talented Russian. He had a career year in Russia, scoring 40 points in 49 games to lead his team in scoring. He is what one might consider a prototypical Russian star. He combines great vision with on-ice creativity, and is a dynamic, shifty forward. Unfortunately, Capitals fans will likely have to wait two more years to see the young Russian phenom, as he has recently suggested he is not ready for the NHL, and needs two more years at home in Russia.
Prospect of the Year: Yevgeni Kuznetsov, RW, Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL)
Another no-brainer, Kuznetsov's year in the KHL is too hard to ignore. His 40 points not only led his team in scoring, but the shifty forward was 15th in league-wide scoring. That said, like many other Russians that come to North America, save for Pavel Datsyuk, Kuznetsov needs to work on his defensive-zone coverage and back-checking. He is a great skater, and if he continued to work hard on two-way hockey, he could become one of the NHL's elite. Given the fact that he'll likely be sticking in Russia for the next two years, expect Kuznetsov to take this award a few more times.
Evgeny Kuznetsov could have even taken this award as well, but Cody Eakin, a former third-round selection, also has blazing speed. It's perhaps his most valuable asset, as he can kill penalties, and is great on the forecheck; it is his speed that aids both. At just 5'11 and without much muscle on his frame, he really relies on his speed and effort level. He showcased his skating abilities throughout 30 games for the Capitals this past season, scoring four goals and adding four assists. He'll compete for a full-time spot in the Washington lineup next fall.
Hardest Shot: Yevgeni Kuznetsov, RW, Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL)
Though he has great vision, it's unfair to label Kuznetsov as a playmaker. One of the Russian's best features is his electric shot. He scored a career-high 19 goals last year in the KHL, many of which came as a result of his lightning-quick release and accuracy. Even with the number of defensive prospects in the Capitals organization, there are none that can shoot the puck quite like Kuznetsov.
Overachiever: Caleb Herbert, C, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (WCHA)
Entering his freshman season with University of Minnesota-Duluth, a team led by mostly fourth-year players, not much was expected out of Herbert, a Minnesota native himself. Instead, flash forward eight months and Herbert is fourth in team scoring with 33 points in 41 games. He doesn't have great size, but his offensive ability speaks for itself; on a senior-heavy team, Herbert's ice-time rose steadily throughout the year, and entering next season, he'll be relied upon to be one of the team's go-to players. Not too shabby for a former fifth-round pick.
Underachiever: Mattias Sjogren, C, Farjestads BK Karlstad (SEL)
An undrafted free-agent signing last summer, Sjogren was expected to develop his game in the AHL, growing accustom to the North-American style of play, and perhaps even appear in some games for the Capitals. Instead, Sjogren was back in Sweden after just 19 games for the Bears in which he only recorded five points and was a minus-six. At 6'1 and over 200lbs, Sjogren already has the build of an NHL center, but needs playing time in North America to adjust. As of now, it appears that he will be coming back next season and giving it another shot.
Highest Risk/Reward: Yevgeni Kuznetsov, RW, Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL)
Not much else can be said about the highly-skilled Russian's game; whether or not he is ever in a Capitals uniform to showcase that game is a different matter. The fact that he recently said he'd like to spend two more years in Russia should be red flag for the organization. No, it doesn't mean he won't ever come to Washington, but one has to question his desire to play in the NHL, especially when he can earn more in Russia than he would on any entry-level deal in the NHL. If he does come over, there's no doubt he could be an offensive threat for the Capitals, however, there is the off chance he could stay in Russia.
As a precursor, it seems safe to say that Braden Holtby has already broken out in this year's playoffs. Beyond him, Galiev, a shifty Russian winger who could perhaps be considered a poor man's Kuznetsov, looks due for a promising season next year. He has above-average hands, and can dish the puck as proficiently as he can put it in the back of the net. He missed most of the regular season with a wrist injury, but has been one of the Sea Dogs' top players in the post-season, scoring 34 points throughout 17 games. On a team as stacked offensively as the Sea Dogs, Galiev has been a huge factor in the playoffs, and could very well explode on the big stage that the Memorial Cup offers. Beyond that, he'll get the chance to be one of the go-to guys on the Hershey Bears next year, providing he doesn't surprise and make the Capitals.