After nearly advancing to the Eastern Conference finals, the revitalized Washington Capitals now turn their attention to the off-season. After having just four picks in last year's draft, the club has stockpiled 11 picks for this June's draft, including the 11th overall pick, which they acquired from the Colorado Avalanche for Semyon Varlamov, and their own 16th overall pick.
Top 10 Prospects:
1. Yevgeni Kuznetsov, RW
2. Braden Holtby, G
3. Dmitri Orlov, D
4. Cody Eakin, C
5. Stanislav Galiev, LW
6. Patrick Wey, D
7. Philipp Grubauer, G
8. Kevin Marshall, D
9. Tomas Kundratek, D
10. Caleb Herbert, C
It took awhile for the Capitals to learn recently-departed Head Coach Dale Hunter's system, but when they did, they proved to be near an elite-level team once again, particularly in the playoffs. While they weren't the same high-scoring, flashy team that led the NHL in scoring in the 2009-10 season, they maintained a high level of play, indicating that they are not quite as far off as many had expected, nor do they need to blow-up the team; with the right coaching, Washington can be quite successful.
At the NHL level, the club actually doesn't have many holes to fill; sure, they would benefit from adding a big-name free agent, but even with minimal changes, they should be competitive again next season. Up front, they have nine regulars returning, including the core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, and Brooks Laich. They have still yet to make a decision on Alexander Semin, but if he returns, based on his play last season, they will likely be overpaying. Should Semin not sign, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Caps make a move or two to acquire top-nine forwards.
On defense, they already have six regulars still under contract, while pillars Mike Green and John Carlson are restricted free agents, who will both most likely sign new contracts. UFA Dennis Wideman could be back in a Capitals uniform, but he'll certainly draw a lot of attention on the open market. Between the pipes, with the emergence of Braden Holtby and the safety net of Michael Neuvirth, the club appears to be set.
With Holtby still classified as a prospect, the organization's biggest strength is in goal. But it's not only Holtby; fourth-round selection in 2010 Philipp Grubauer had a tremendous year in the ECHL posting a 23-13-5 record in 43 games with a 2.22 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. While the ECHL can often be discredited for being a lower-level league, Grubauer did exactly what was expected and showed great improvements throughout the year. He'll make the jump to the AHL next year.
In terms of their top prospects, the club has the privilege of being fairly balanced – their top five prospects consist of a goaltender, a defenseman, and one of each forward position. While they aren't particularly strong in terms of depth at either position, they're fortunate enough to have an above-average prospect at each and a relatively young core of players at the NHL level.
Outside of their top four or five prospects, the Capitals own one of the worst prospect pools in the league; their cupboard is full at the top, but quite bare towards the bottom. Their second best prospects on defense and each forward position leave a lot to be desired, and lack much NHL potential; it's almost a certainly that the casual hockey fan has not heard of Garrett Mitchell, Andrew Glass, Caleb Herbert, and Patrick Wey. They particularly need help on the right wing, considering that Yevgeni Kuznetsov is becoming more and more of a question mark as he continues to push back his transition to North America, and the only other two prospects at the position are Mitchell and Danick Paquette, who both appear to be no more than energy players in the NHL or career AHLers.
George McPhee has been at the helm of the Capitals for a decade-and-a-half now, and over that time he has taken different approaches in the draft. Drawing one conclusion, it's safe to say that McPhee doesn't mind taking a chance on drafting European players, particularly Russians; though, with superstar Alex Ovechkin on his roster, it takes away some of the risk in drafting Russian-born players as the Great 8 gives many young Russians an incentive to come to North America. In 2006, for instance, McPhee selected European-born players with his first three selections. He's also been very successful when he does so – Apart from Ovechkin, who was the obvious selection at first overall, the Capitals have hit more than a couple homeruns selecting Europeans in the first two rounds: Johansson, Backstrom, Varlamov, Neuvirth, and Semin. 2008 first-round pick Anton Gustafsson, who played last year in the Swiss-A league, appears to be the only one that the McPhee and the Caps might like to have back.
When drafting Canadian-born players, they tend to select primarily from the WHL. Since the '98 draft, they've selected 30 players from the WHL, while they've selected only 23 players combined out of the QMJHL and OHL.
The Capitals have 11 selections in this year's draft, including two firsts – the 11th and 16th overall selections. They are in a great position to re-stock the cupboard, and if they keep their first two picks, they could put themselves in a great position to continue to ice a competitive team year-in and year-out.
Washington also has the following picks: 11th, 16th, 54th, 77th, 100th, 107th, 137th, 167th, 195th, 197th, and 203rd.
No. 11 (from Colorado Avalanche): Brendan Gaunce, C, Belleville Bulls (OHL)
Though there are still plenty of good defensive prospects left, the Caps already have capable young defensemen at the NHL level and can still pick one up with the 16th overall pick. With the inevitable departure of aging Knuble what the Caps really need is a two-way power forward that can play a supporting role in the top-six. A unique center that possesses size, skill, and a power game, Gaunce can provide that and much more.
No. 16: Matt Finn, D, Guelph Storm (OHL)
After Dmitri Orlov, the Capitals are paper-thin in terms of defense prospects, and with the success of past first-round picks used on a defenseman (John Carlson and Karl Alzner), the Capitals would be wise to select Finn, one of the fastest risers in the draft since mid-season. A reliable two-way defenseman who can contribute offensively, he would fit nicely along the Capitals blue line in the next couple of years. At this point in the draft, it is also perhaps the safest pick for the Capitals.