The Washington Capitals may not have the best group of prospects in hockey anymore, but how can you blame them? The team has graduated some awful good talent in the past few years: Jan Bulis, Jaroslav Svejkowsky, Richard Zednik, and Brendan Witt. This past June, the Capital lost their top overall prospect in defensemen Nick Boynton to draft re-entry, however, the loss hasn’t been all that difficult to absorb, as the Capitals still have a very impressive group of prospects, especially on defense.
The Capitals were able to overcome the loss of Boynton when they were able to select five of the top thirty-seven players available in the 1999 draft. Drafting quality players like Kris Beech, Michal Sivek and Charlie Stephens certainly helped refresh the pool quickly, though none of the five players picked represent the defensive power they have.
The teams real quality though lies on the blueline. Prior to the 1999 draft, the group is so strong, and well rounded, that Washington decided not to over pay rookie 1997 first round pick, Nick Boynton. The two sides argued back and fourth before Washington gave up, trying to trade him just prior to the re-entry date. The ploy failed and Washington had to settle for a second round compensation pick.
Let’s look at Washington’s top six defensive prospects.
Alexei Tezikov, 21, is likely considered to be the best of a strong defensive corp at this moment. This former Buffalo Sabres fifth round draft pick has progressed very rapidly, following only one-half-a-year at the professional level. At 6-foot-1 and slightly over 200 pounds, Tezikov isn’t as tall as the proto-typical NHL defensemen but he is strong as an ox and his game and attitude are suited perfectly for the tough and tumble NHL game.
Last season, Tezikov went through an impressive training camp, but a contract hold out forced him back to the Quebec Junior Leagues. Alexei’s agent knew the Sabres had a jewel, but Buffalo continued to low-ball the Russian, offering contracts better suited for his fifth round draft status. Tezikov insisted on a contract more along the lines of a mid-second round pick. Eventually, in early January, the Sabres gave in and it didn’t take Tezikov too many shifts to prove he was as good as advertised.
At the trading deadline, Buffalo traded Alexei to Washington for rental player Joe Juneau. The Sabres knew they were giving up a quality player but they had an abundance of quality defensemen themselves and they felt Juneau could help put them over the top. They were almost correct on the second belief.
Tezikov played the last few games in Washington and did not look out of place at all. He plays a very aggressive game. Tezikov is very willing to crash and bang all night long. He can play with the puck, but he seems to enjoy playing without it more. His shot is good but he needs to learn more ways to get it off. His willingness to play aggressive at both ends should be the reason why he makes the Capitals lineup. The only way he will fail to play in Washington is if he has a poor training camp.
Nolan Baumgartner, 23, has been considered one of Washington’s top prospects for several years. Three years ago, the Capitals had to sign him at the draft re-entry deadline. Since then Baumgartner has progressed much slower than they hoped. However, after three somewhat disappointing years, trapped behind a veteran laden lineup, the Capitals have made room for him, allowing many of their veterans to leave, and he appears ready to contribute.
At 6-foot-1 and well over 200 pounds, Nolan is much like Tezikov. He has a thick, strongly build physique but his game is quite different. Nolan’s style is one of simplicity. He plays a smart two-way game, moves the puck and keep things simple. He is very willing to crash and bang, and when necessary, he’ll drop the gloves. He doesn’t take like Tezikov and he doesn’t have that big offensive upside.
If the Baummer can keep it simple at the NHL level, he should succeed.
At 23 years old, Scott Swanson might be considered a tad old as a prospect, especially since this is his first year as a professional. However, Scott just finished off a stellar four year career at Colorado College and he could very well prove a pleasant surprise come training camp.
Swanson is the best skater of this group. He has the potential to become a legitimate number one defensemen at the NHL level if he is brought along properly. He also is a very good puckhandler, and he makes smart decisions in all situation. Scott will eventually be asked to quarterback the power play, as well as carry the puck up ice. Nevertheless, Swanson does lack experience against quality top line competition and this could prove fatal if he is rushed into the NHL too soon. In all likelihood, he will also be unprepared for the marathon which is the professional season. The college games play only half as many games as a professional season, over a much smaller amount of time. Fatigue could prove a serious roadblock in his first season.
Jean-Francios Fortin, 20, was drafted in the second round in 1997. At his first training camp he turned heads and Washington management was certain they had uncovered a jewel. Last year in camp, Fortin wasn’t nearly as impressive, but this didn’t seem to concern many. The thought was that maybe he didn’t handle the expectation well.
His play in junior hockey in this last year was solid, but not consistently great. However, he did show improvement in his defensive game, which was one area he had to improve.
Jean-Francios isn’t the biggest player, standing 6-foot-2 and tipping the scales at just over 190 pounds. However, size and toughness wasn’t why he was picked. Fortin is a smooth skater and a very good offensive player. He has good hockey sense and he can pass and move the puck as well as anyone. Simply put, Fortin is the type of player who can take control of a game from the blueline when given the chance.
Since he was inconsistent last year and because Washington has other young defensemen who are more ready to play, Portland (AHL) will be his likely destination for the next year or two. If he shows the improvements needed there is little doubt that he will get to the NHL, but he must be willing to put in the time.
The player that surprised many last year when the Capitals called him up late in the year was 23 year old Patrick Bolieau. Patrick played much of the year with Indianapolis of the International Hockey League. He was assigned there after not fitting into Portland’s (Washington’s top AHL farm club) plans. When injuries occurred late in the year, Bolieau got the call and he was extremely impressive.
Though a small player, Bolieau is only 5-foot-10 and weighting in at 163 pounds, you wouldn’t know he was small if you judged him strictly on how he plays. Very aggressive in nature, Patrick is an in your face type player. He’ll trash talk all night if his opponents let him. Beyond that aspect of his game, Bolieau is a good skater and he makes smart decisions with the puck.
Not the most offensive gifted player, but he makes up for his short comings by outworking and out hustling his opponents.
Though his playing time in Washington was very limited last year, he did impress just about all who saw him play. If he is given the chance this year, he seems likely to grab a spot, and with Swanson and Fortin likely to need time in the minors, he will have a better than average shot at making the show. Maybe his ice time will be limited, but when given a chance last year, he seemed prepared to do whatever it took to take full advantage.
By far the most pleasant surprise has been Mike Siklenka. Selected in the fifth round of the 1998 draft out of the Alberta Junior League, Siklenka played last year with Seattle (WHL). He progressed extremely well as the season moved along. During the playoffs for the Thunderbirds, Siklenka emerged as a force.
At 6-foot-4 and over 220 pounds, Siklenka has plenty of size to survive at the NHL. His skating ability is also good enough, though not fantastic. Mike has a booming slap shots and he plays a tough game, and at times he can be a nasty young man. Other times he just goes about his business, doing all the little things necessary to get the job done.
Since he is only 19 year old, Mike will be returned to Seattle in the Western Hockey League for another year. Nevertheless, this year may be much more difficult than last, as he will be expected to perform and take on a leadership role. Last year he was an unknown commodity and maybe he snuck up on some of his Western Hockey League opponents. This year he will have no such luxury.
Washington does have several other prospects on defense but these are the ones which appear to be NHL material. If these six players can continue to develop the way the teams hopes, the Capitals will have a strong defensive corp for years to come.