Capitals NCAA prospects update

By David Rathbun

Sasha Pokulok, D – Cornell University
Height: 6’5, Weight: 230 lbs, DOB: May 25, 1986

Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee made a surprising move when he selected Cornell University defenseman Sasha Pokulok with the 14th overall pick in the 2005 NHL entry draft. Pokulok was not expected to go so high coming into the draft, but the Caps saw something in the young defender that they liked, and selected him right away despite the fact that they had two mid-second round selections coming up.

Pokulok was recently named to team Canada in the 2006 World Junior Championships (WJC), but did not see much ice time, serving as a seventh defender on the team.

Pokulok is a big, strong defender with above average skating ability. He is somewhat on the slower side, but he does play his position well and is not shy about joining the rush up ice. He does possess a heavy shot from the point, and not surprisingly, has added a good 15 pounds to his frame since being drafted last July. So far this season, Pokulok has put up very modest numbers offensively, but he did register his first two-goal game last Friday in Cornell’s victory over conference rival St. Lawrence. In 16 games with the Big Red this season, Pokulok has registered three goals, six assists, and 43 penalty minutes, and is easily on pace to eclipse last season’s offensive output of three goals, seven assists, and 33 PIMs.

Unfortunately for Pokulok, the ECAC does not have as competitive a schedule as some of the other prominent college conferences, and even though Pokulok is the first ever first round selection to come out of Cornell University, his school is not known for churning out high caliber NHL talent – Ken Dryden being the exception of course. But with a little time, Pokulok may very well become a good fourth or fifth defender in the NHL. However, with new NHL rules in place that encourage skating and speed, Pokulok will need to make some adjustments to his game in order to be effective against much smaller, powerful forwards. Since Washington has a history of allowing their NCAA prospects to fully play out their college eligibility, it is likely that Pokulok will have at least two more years of collegiate hockey to refine his game before making the jump to the pro ranks.

Joe Finley, D – University of North Dakota
Height: 6’7, Weight: 240 lbs, DOB: June 29, 1987

“Big Joe” Finley was another surprise selection at the 2005 NHL entry draft. McPhee made a trade with the Colorado Avalanche by swapping the 47th and 52nd overall picks (both second round selections) for Colorado’s 27th overall pick. Apparently, Washington was thinking big as they selected yet another towering defender to join what is this year the NHL’s biggest team.

Finley (2005 Draft, 27th overall), the Edina, MN native, has enormous size and strength, and he also moves very well for such a large skater. He also plays with a lot of intensity, and by no means is he afraid to use his size to his advantage. Last year, as a member of the Sioux Falls Stampede, Finley registered three goals and 10 assists, and compiled an impressive 181 penalty minutes. This year as a freshman at North Dakota, Finley has made his impression felt in the WCHA with one big hit after another. He has already established himself as an intimidating presence on the blue line, and is one of North Dakota’s steadiest defenders. Although he has yet to register a goal, he does have three assists and 62 penalty minutes in just 26 games this season, and his plus/minus rating of +13 certainly speaks for itself.

Finley is also a very tough customer as well. His season was briefly interrupted in early December when he suffered a broken bone in his left arm during a game. However, not only did Finley skate a few shifts after suffering the break, but he returned to the Fighting Sioux lineup less than three weeks after the injury occurred — missing only two games in the process.

Although Finley is a raw talent at this stage of his development, he does possess the size, strength, and intensity that could one day make him into a solid third or fourth shut down type of NHL defenseman, if he reaches his potential. Finley has expressed interest in turning pro after college, and Washington is probably not in a hurry to move him along as he still has three more years of eligibility left after this season. Look for “Big Joe” to make the jump to Hershey of the AHL once he decides to turn pro.

Andrew Thomas, D – University of Denver
Height: 6’2, Weight: 220 lbs, DOB: November 11, 1985

Washington has pretty good depth in their prospect pool when it comes to stay at home defensemen, among them University in Denver sophomore defender Andrew Thomas. Thomas (2005 Draft, 109th overall) was one of four defensemen the Caps selected in last year’s draft. The Bow, N.H. native can also chip in the occasional goal. He also possesses a hard, heavy shot, and he has an above average outlet pass as well. In his freshman season at Denver, Thomas posted pretty solid numbers. He finished the season with two goals (both game winners) and five assists, and he also showed his propensity for playing the body as he finished the 2004-05 season with 78 penalty minutes in just 42 games.

Thomas has good size, and possesses above average skating ability. He is rapidly becoming one of Denver’s steadiest defenders, and he sees his fair share of time on the penalty kill. He is a good positional player, and although he is not terribly flashy with the puck, he picks up his defensive assignments well and rarely makes mistakes in his own zone.

So far this season, Thomas has only registered three assists, but has put up 45 PIMs, and carries an even plus/minus rating through 25 games. He is pretty much on pace to equal last year’s totals offensive totals (2 goals, and 5 assists), and is also on pace to eclipse last season’s penalty minute total (78) as well.

Since he plans to turn pro after college, playing in a competitive conference such as the WCHA will benefit a player like Thomas. Expect Washington to allow him to further mature as he still has two more years of eligibility after this season. With time, Thomas may become a solid fifth or sixth defenseman in the NHL. However, look for Thomas to spend a few seasons in the AHL before making the leap to the bigs.

Justin Mrazek, G – Union College
Height: 6’3, Weight: 190 lbs, DOB: July 21, 1985

Mrazek (2004 Draft, 230th overall) had a successful freshman season at Union College, and despite a disappointing record of 5-12-1, he did post a respectable 2.17 goals against average, and had a save percentage of .912. Last season he split time with fellow netminder Kris Mayotte, but this season he has settled into the back up role as Mayotte has started 24 of Union College’s 26 games. So far this season, Mrazek has done little to win the starting job as he has posted some very somber stats. In three appearances this season, Mrazek has a goals against average of 5.71, and a save percentage of only .767. The good news for Mrazek is that Mayotte will be graduating in the spring. Mrazek will still have two more years of college eligibility to refine his skills.

Like most Canadian-born goalies, Mrazek is a butterflier with an above average glove hand. He is a big goalie, and his light frame allows him to move quickly to cover different portions of the net. Although he could use some work with his lateral movements – like most goalies his height – Mrazek has some decent talent, but it is unlikely that he will find a home in the Washington system as there are several goaltending prospects ahead of him on the depth chart, and Washington will likely address their recent shortness of goalies at the 2006 NHL entry draft. Again, look for the Caps to take their time with him prior to making any decisions. With a little work, Mrazek could become a steady minor league goaltender some day, and could find his way to the NHL as an injury fill in, but only time will tell.

Andrew Joudrey, C – University of Wisconsin
Height: 5’11, Weight: 190 lbs, DOB: July 15, 1984

Although he had very impressive offensive statistics when he was playing junior hockey in the SJHL, Joudrey (2003 Draft, 249th overall) has really yet to transfer his scoring ability to the college ranks, as he appears to be comfortable playing a two-way game and usually likes to look to pass rather than shoot.

Joudrey has been a steady producer for the Badgers over his last two and a half seasons, averaging just about exactly a half a point per game. He is a good two-way center, and he plays the point position on the Badger power play. Timid may not be the best way to describe him, but he does not play an overly physical game as he is rarely penalized. However, he is a skilled two-way forward, and he is very focused on his defensive responsibilities. In his first two seasons at Wisconsin, Joudrey has registered 14 goals, 32 assists, 20 penalty minutes, and a combined plus/minus rating of +16. So far in this, his junior season, Joudrey is steadily on pace for similar season stats with 5 goals, 7 assists, 12 PIMs, and a +2.

Joudrey is probably a long shot from becoming a prominent NHL player. However, anything is possible when you are a puck-moving, defensive-first prospect in an organization that wants to focus on defense from all positions. Joudrey still has another season of eligibility after this one, and could possibly see some time in Hershey should that Caps sign him next year. If he makes it to the NHL, look for Joudrey to be a decent fourth line player if he reaches his full potential.

Travis Morin, C – Minnesota State University – Mankato
Height: 6’2, Weight: 195 lbs, DOB: January 9, 1984

What’s not to like about a physical, scoring forward? Travis Morin (2004 Draft, 263rd overall) has been one of the most consistent scorers for his team ever since his freshman season in 2003-04, and has averaged just a little less than a point per game throughout his entire collegiate career. This season, as a junior, Morin leads the Mavericks in goals with 15, and has 13 assists and only nine PIMs in just 26 games. He is also a prominent fixture on the Mavericks power play, and plays a pretty sound defensive game for a scoring line center.

Morin is a fair skater, and he has pretty good hands. He protects the puck well in traffic and along the boards, and he also possesses a hard, accurate wrist shot. Although he is a little light for his frame, Morin plays a sound physical game. Not only is he very dangerous on the rush, but Morin also plays both ends of the ice. Morin is probably not going to be the future center for Caps’ star rookie, Alexander Ovechkin, but a solid third line center that can score is a little more feasible. With the new changes in the NHL, nothing is impossible anymore. However, Morin will need to bulk up a bit if he is going to be effective at the next level. Like all other collegiate Caps’ prospects, look for Morin to play out his senior year before making the jump to professional hockey.

Josh Robertson, C – Northeastern University
Height: 6’0, Weight: 195 lbs, DOB: August 25, 1984

Robertson (2003 Draft, 155th overall) is arguably one of Washington’s most offensively gifted players currently in the college ranks. Prior to attending Northeastern in 2004-05, Robertson played two seasons at Proctor Academy and really lit up the score sheet, registering 60 goals and 81 assists (141 points) in just 54 games. Northeastern University had high hopes that Robertson would be able to become a consistent offensive contributor for the Huskies, but unfortunately for Robertson, he has struggled to find his game at the college level, and has yet to display his flashy scoring repertoire.

Like most college freshman, Robertson had a somewhat inconsistent season in 2004-05. He only appeared in 22 games last year, and only managed to register four goals and three assists. He did not register any penalty minutes, and finished the season with a respectable plus/minus rating of only -1. However, 2005-06 is a different story. Hoping to build on his freshman season, Robertson was given opportunities to play wing and also play the point position on the power play. This current season has been a disaster for Robertson so far as he only been active for nine games, and has yet to register a single point this season. He also has a woeful plus/minus rating of -6, and was recently activated after being a healthy scratch for 13 straight games.

If Robertson can find his wings at the college level, he may be able to salvage his collegiate hockey career since he still has two more years of eligibility after this season. The blame cannot be placed solely on Robertson, however, as the Huskies are underperforming in every facet of the game. Northeastern has a young and inexperienced club, and has only won two games this season – one being an exhibition.

Robertson has the tools to succeed at the next level, but his problem is that he needs to find them. He is a good skater, and possesses terrific puck handling skills. He’s a playmaker too, and he has an above average hockey sense that can create scoring opportunities where there may not have been one originally. He does, however, need to refine his defensive game if he is going to be successful at the next level.

Andrew Gordon, RW – St. Cloud State University
Height: 5’11, Weight: 195 lbs, DOB: December 13, 1985

After a successful freshman season at St. Cloud State University, Gordon (2004 Draft, 197th overall) has been on a tear and has built off of his respectable rookie season, and is already the best player on the Husky’s roster. He is currently the team’s leading point scorer (11 goals, 14 assists), and he is also leading the team in plus/minus with an impressive +15 rating. He has appeared in all 24 games so far this season, and has already surpassed last season’s scoring totals as well (17 points in 38 games).

Gordon is a good compilation of speed and toughness, and he also possesses good playmaking abilities. Although he is rarely penalized (10 PIMs this year), he does play the body and is not afraid to fight for loose pucks in the corners.

Gordon may have gone a lot higher in the 2004 draft if everyone knew how greatly the NHL’s new rule changes would open up the game. These rules can certainly benefit a player like Gordon, as he is on the smaller side. Players much smaller than Gordon are excelling this season in the NHL, and Gordon does have a legitimate chance to become a decent third-line, scoring winger some day if he reaches his full potential. Gordon still has two more seasons of eligibility at St. Cloud, and based on his performance thus far, it does appear that Gordon is likely to continue to improve his game over remainder of his collegiate career.

Steve Werner, RW – University of Massachusetts – Amherst
Height: 6’1, Weight: 202 lbs, DOB: August 8, 1984

The Caps are very high on Umass-Amherst senior, Steve Werner (2003 Draft, 83rd overall) and it is anticipated that he will be at Washington’s training camp this fall. He is not overly physical, and is still prone to occasional defensive lapses as well; however, Werner can be counted on to provide a solid, honest effort each and every night, and has been one of the Minutemen’s leading point scorers in each year of his collegiate career. So far this season, Werner leads the Minutemen in scoring with 18 points (7 goals, 11 assists), and is pretty much on pace to finish the season right around 30 points – similar to each season he’s played at Umass-Amherst.

After an incredible, near record setting freshman season (16 goals, 22 assists), Werner has yet to duplicate the same offensive production that he did as a rookie. However, Werner has consistently been one of the leading scorers on the team, and was even named team captain prior to the start of his junior season, when he also led the team in scoring (14 goals, 13 assists).

Although it is clear that Werner has to concentrate more on refining his physical game and defensive awareness, one thing Werner excels at is speed. He is extremely fast, and his ability to control the puck at high speeds is very sound. With a little fine tuning, Werner could be great fourth line forward with a scoring upside.

It would be another feel-good story for the Caps to have another local born talent within the Washington organization beyond captain Jeff Halpern, but it remains to be seen as to whether or not Werner will be a success at the NHL level. He has decent size, but to be successful in the NHL – and with the Caps for that matter – he will need to concentrate more on his defensive responsibilities. It is assumed that the Caps have plans for him, and although it is unlikely that Werner would crack the Caps lineup out of training camp next season, it is anticipated that Werner may be able to complement Hershey (AHL) with his leadership and speed next fall.

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