Many potential breakout candidates in Washington Capitals’ system

By Eric Scheib

Chandler Stephenson - Washinton Capitals

Photo: Chandler Stephenson is one of several Washington Capitals prospects who are poised for a breakout season in 2012-13. (Zuma Press/Icon SMI)

As the 2012-13 season gets under way, the Washington Capitals have many prospects hoping to take their game to the next level. With the exception of Braden Holtby and Dmitri Orlov, most young players with the Capitals have not been affected by the NHL lockout. The Capitals system has a few blue chip prospects mixed in with a larger group of lower end prospects, who have opportunities to step up and prove themselves as true NHL prospects. Players like Connor Carrick, Garrett Mitchell, and Caleb Herbert are not as well known as players like Holtby, Yevgeni Kuznetsov, and Filip Forsberg, but all are worth keeping an eye on this season.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Braden Holtby, G, Hershey Bears (AHL)

In 14 NHL playoff games in 2012, Braden Holtby had a 1.95 goals against average and a .935 save percentage. This year Holtby is the favorite to win the majority of playing time for the Washington Capitals, but a lockout prevents Holtby from taking that step. Instead, he begins his fourth season in the AHL with the Hershey Bears. The 23-year-old brings a poise and confidence that separates him from most young goaltenders. He has demonstrated the ability to win the big game and seems to thrive in the spotlight. Holtby has a terrific glove and his puck playing skills are already exceptional. He is an aggressive goalie that plays with an edge, which sometimes leads to poor decisions and lapses in his game.

As the lockout lasts, Holtby should see some of the best talent in the AHL while in Hershey. He gets first crack at playing in front of Capitals coach Adam Oates. This opportunity should be enough to keep Holtby focused and sharp in the net for Bears.

Bounceback Pro Prospect
Mattias Sjogren, C, Hershey Bears (AHL)

Sjorgren was a European prospect that was signed in 2011 to come to NHL to compete for a spot on the Capitals roster. He had a good camp, but was a late cut and demoted to Hershey. In 2011-12, Sjogren had five points in 19 games with the Bears before deciding to return to Sweden. His numbers were less impressive for Farjestad of the Elitserien and his relationship with the Capitals appeared to sour. In the Capitals playoff run however, Sjogren returned to North America to be part of Capitals practice squad.

This season Sjogren has returned to Hershey and with no NHL, it appears he has had a change of heart and commitment to playing in North America. The 24-year-old is a solid two-way forward who is strong at faceoffs and a key part of the Bears penalty kill. In the early part of the season, he appears to embrace the role of an energy line forward who can contribute on the power play and offensively as needed. His attitude and performance will determine if he is in the Capitals plans as a bottom six forward and penalty kill specialist.

Offensive Breakout
Garrett Mitchell, RW, Hershey Bears (AHL)

Garrett Mitchell is a hard working energy forward who plays much bigger than his 5-10, 188 pound frame suggests. Mitchell has impressed early on this season and is seeing a fair amount of ice time as a top six forward. His game remains centered on playing physical, but his puck-handling is underrated as is his passing. He also makes fairly good decisions with the puck. He still projects as a bottom six forward in the NHL, but with an offensive breakout, his value as a prospect will dramatically increase.

Junior

Top Junior Prospect
Tom Wilson, RW, Plymouth Whalers (OHL)

The 2012 16th overall pick is a hard-hitting power forward that could develop enough offensively to be a top six forward. This season, Wilson is targeted to show more offensive upside to be more of a complete player. So far, signs have been encouraging. In his first eight games, Wilson has 10 points and 24 penalty minutes. If he maintains his point production, plays physically, and makes good decisions, he should continue to impress and cement his future as an NHL player.

Offensive Breakout
Chandler Stephenson, LW/C, Regina Pats (WHL)

It could be said that Chandler Stephenson had his offensive breakout last year for the Pats when he scored 22 goals and 42 points in 55 games for the Regina Pats. He was the fourth leading scorer and expecting much more may be unfair. However, considering he was injured and missed 14 games last year, he should keep progressing offensively as he did in 2011-12. With Stephenson on the smaller size, he needs to demonstrate the ability to score at a high clip for the length of the season and stay healthy. He is a prospect worth watching as his growth in the WHL will be a big factor if he is a blue chip prospect or long term project.

New Team
Connor Carrick, D, Plymouth Whalers (OHL)

The change of scenery for Carrick is different than most prospects. It is not the change of team from last year that is the factor, but rather the decision to go back on his commitment to play for Michigan (NCAA) in favor of joining the Plymouth Whalers.

Carrick is a two-way defenseman with a lot of offensive instincts and upside. He is already contributing in 2012-13 with eight points in 14 games for the Whalers. The 18-year-old was also named assistant captain of the Whalers. If Carrick can continue to play as he has early in the season, his future will be bright and it will appear he made the best decision for his development.

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
Caleb Herbert, C, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (WCHA)

Herbert had an impressive freshman season for the Bulldogs in 2011-12 when he scored 33 points in 41 games. This season the expectations are high for Herbert, who is the top returning scorer, to continue to produce and grow to fill voids left due to the loss of several key players. He has strong puck moving skills, but also brings speed and energy to his game.

The Bulldogs are not as strong of a team as they were last year and very well may be rebuilding this season. Herbert's ability to produce in tougher conditions will speak volumes about his potential and his individual skill set, rather than reaping the rewards of playing with a more talented team. Herbert is the Capitals top amateur prospect and one worth keeping a close eye on this season.

Freshman Breakout
Thomas Di Pauli, C, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (CCHA)

Thomas DiPauli is a hard working forward who plays with a lot of energy. In his freshman year with Notre Dame, he may not make a huge offensive impact, but his gritty two-way play should fit well with Notre Dame's style. He is not an overly skilled player, but depending on the situations he is used in, he could produce a fair amount of offense in a complementary role.

Unsigned for 2013-14
Patrick Wey, D, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)

The Boston College senior has two NCAA titles on his resume and is hoping to get a third before all is said and done. Wey is a strong defensive defenseman who just started making strides in his offensive play. In addition to playing for a third title, Wey is playing for an NHL contract. A fourth round pick from 2009, he had some issues staying healthy and has been overshadowed by other players on the Eagles team. That is not the case this season. For Wey to be successful, he needs to maintain his strong defensive presence, but fuse it with an increase in offensive production while staying healthy. Wey is a good puck-mover and should show enough ability to earn a contract at the end of his college season.

Europe

Top European Prospect
Yevgeni Kuznetsov, RW, Chelyabinsk Traktor (KHL)

Kuznetsov is clearly a dominant player and the top offensive prospect in the Washington Capitals system. He has incredible speed, a quick release with his excellent shot, unmatched stick handling, and a much improved defensive game. Last season in the KHL, Kuznetsov had 19 goals and 41 points in 49 games and dominated the U-20 World Championships with 13 points in seven games for Team Russia. This season in the KHL, he has managed around a point-per-game pace, and remains a dominant player in the KHL despite the recent flux of NHL talent. The only drawback that could prevent Kuznetsov from being the top NHL prospect is concern over whether or not he wants play in the NHL.

Bounceback
Steffen Soberg, G, Valerenga (Norway)

After a tumultuous season in 2011-12, which included returning to Norway after being homesick in the WHL, things should be a bit steadier for Soberg this season. Last year Soberg played only 17 games in Norway and had a 3.86 goals against average. He came to the Capitals prospect camp in July to show his commitment to playing in the NHL. Now playing in Norway for Valerenga, Soberg has a 2.12 goals against average and .918 save percentage in his first seven games. He has an impressive skill set, but must learn to deal with the mental part of the game. A true test for Soberg will be how he rebounds from a few poor performances. If he can bounce back from a bad outing, he could once again be on the Capitals radar. 

Offensive Breakout
Filip Forsberg, LW, Leksand IF (Allsvenskan)

The Capitals were pleasantly surprised at the 2012 NHL Draft when Filip Forsberg was still available at the 11th overall spot. The Swedish power forward is gifted offensively with good speed, strong puck-handling skills, and keen offensive instincts. Forsberg could make an immediate impact to the Capitals top six as early as 2013-14 and could spike up to be the organizations top prospect. The 18-year-old is still growing into his body and while on the lighter side, has shown more of a physical game which will only increase as he grows and matures. It will be important to see if Forsberg can maintain this scoring pace along with his increased goal production.

 

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