Spring brings new look to Washington Capitals Top 20

By Eric Scheib

Tom Wilson - Washington Capitals

Photo: Forward Tom Wilson had a breakout year in the OHL, managing 23 goals, 35 assists, and 104 penalty minutes through 48 games. (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

The Washington Capitals spring top 20 has a much different look than the fall edition. Braden Holtby graduated and Filip Forsberg (NAS), Zach Hamill (BOS), and Kevin Marshall (TOR) have been traded. Riley Barber had a breakout season and debuts in the top 10, while Michael Latta, Casey Wellman, Nicolas Deschamps, and Chay Genoway all were acquired via trade. Recent free agent signing from the University of Minnesota, Nate Schmidt, joins the list and is among the Capitals top prospects.

However, the highlights of the season focus on players showing they are more NHL ready or solidifying their spots as top prospects. While it may still be a year until we see Yevgeni Kuznetsov, it seems more likely that he is NHL bound. Players like Tom Wilson, Tomas Kundratek, and Patrick Wey needed to take steps forward to cement their spots on this list and all have met or exceeded expectations.  

The Capitals have a lot of soon-to-be ready depth at defense and many more long term projects at forward. However, losing Forsberg has limited the number of elite prospects in the pipeline.

1. (1) Yevgeni Kuznetsov, LW, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 26th overall, 2010

Kuznetsov's 19 goals and 44 points in the KHL in 2012-13 nearly mirrored that of the 2011-12 season where he had 19 goals and 41 points. The 20-year-old winger got off to a hot start this season for Traktor, but like the team, struggled to score in the second half the season. Kuznetsov's 44 points was still good for fifth in the regular season and his Traktor team is currently playing in the finals of the Gagarin Cup.

The biggest issue with Kuznetsov is not his play but whether or not he will ever play in the NHL. He has flirted with the idea of coming to North America but has yet to actually do so. He is expected to remain in Russia where they will host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Kuznetsov has the skills that match the elite players in the NHL, but the way to prove that is to actually play in the NHL. He will be tested with the longer season and smaller rink, but neither should be an issue for the talented forward. The Capitals offseason and the possible re-signing of Mike Rebeiro will determine the fate for Kuznetsov when he arrives in North America. A Ribeiro re-signing should keep Kuznetsov on the wing, but if there is a void at center, the Capitals would have no problem moving him to center where he has seen limited time in Traktor.

2. (6) Tom Wilson, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2012

Tom Wilson's stock continues to rise after an impressive season with the Plymouth Whalers where he tallied 23 goals and 58 in 48 games. His offensive numbers more than doubled and that was the question mark coming into this season. There has been no doubt that Wilson could be in the NHL as a hard hitting and physical forward. His production this year suggests he may be the complete package.

Now that Wilson has shown the offensive jump the Capitals wanted, it will be interesting to see where he will be next year. Wilson could contribute immediately with the Capitals and provide some size and grit they do not currently have throughout the lineup. Offensively, the expectations should be limited in the transition to the NHL, but Oates has not had issues with putting more physical players on the top lines with his best players. While Wilson is not a lock to make the Capitals in 2013-14, he will get a long look in the fall.

3. (12) Tomas Kundratek, D, 7.0C
Trade with New York Rangers, November 8th, 2011

After the lockout, injuries to the Capitals defense propelled Kundratek to the NHL where he would play 25 games, scoring one goal and adding six assists. He started slow and at times looked a little out of place, but so did much of the Capitals team. He quickly adjusted to the pace and played solid in both ends of the ice. Kundratek returned to the AHL where he has played 44 games and scored 29 points. His 15 goals are good for second among defensemen in the AHL.

Kundratek has the size, speed, and skill to play in the NHL and is developing as a more offensive defenseman. He needs to better time when he pinches up ice, as it is not always at the best time. The same can be said about attempting to play physical and deliver a big hit. Both situations put him out of position and he just needs to improve when to take those chances.

The Capitals are developing a lot of depth on the blue line and as a result, it is hard determine how this plays out for Kundratek. The recent contract extensions of John Erskine, Jack Hillen, and the signings of Steve Oleksy and Nate Schmidt are going to make the camp battle for the one or two defense spots one to watch.

4. (8) Philipp Grubauer, G, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 112th overall, 2010

After an impressive rookie season in the ECHL, Grubauer was ready for the next level, but the lockout caused the German netminder to return to the ECHL with the Reading Royals to start the 2012-13 season. He picked up where left off by going 19-5-1 with a 2.30 goals against average and .912 save percentage. The lockout would end and Grubauer would finally be given his chance in Hershey and he did not disappoint as he has posted a 2.22 goals against average and .922 save percentage with the Bears. Injuries would get him into two games for the Capitals. In his first outing he would relieve Braden Holtby with 25 minutes of shutout hockey. On March 9th, he would get the start against the Islanders and while he allowed five goals, he did so on 45 shots.

Grubauer plays a very strong positional game in net and limits goals on rebounds by blocking shots to the corners. The Capitals have a lot of success developing young goalies and Grubauer seems to be the next in line. He would likely benefit from a full season in the AHL and third goalie duties in the NHL.

5. (5) Stanislav Galiev, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 86th overall, 2010

Galiev is a skilled winger who has the ability to dominate a game and can score with high frequency. His 2012 playoff run with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL is an example of that where he had 16 goals and 34 points in 17 games. His stock was up as a prospect and expectations were high coming into the 2012-13 season.  

The Russian forward struggled in the AHL this season where he only had one assist in 17 games. It is not clear if Galiev's talents were truly given a chance to showcase themselves while in Hershey. He played limited minutes, usually on the third line, and did not see time on the power play. In his short time in Hershey, he never looked comfortable in the system and never seemed in position to rifle off a good shot. Statistically, he played well in the ECHL, scoring 23 goals and 47 points in 46 games. Despite scoring, there were still times where he struggled to impact the game.

Galiev clearly has talent but expectations were likely too high and unrealistic for his first pro season. In 2013-14, he needs to be an impact player in the AHL level to maintain his current prospect status.  

6. (NR) Michael Latta, C, 7.0D
Trade with Nashville Predators, April 3rd, 2013

This year's trade deadline saw the Capitals move blue chip prospect Filip Forsberg to Nashville for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. Though easily overlooked as part of the trade, Latta was one of the top-ranked prospects for the Predators and a solid addition to the Capitals organization.

Latta has shown that he is a gritty and physical player who does not shy away from a fight, but his most valuable asset is his versatility. He can play in front of the net, set up a nice pass, carry the puck, check, and kill penalties. These abilities could be needed by the Capitals in 2013-14, where they have a number of bottom six forward free agents. If Latta can up his offensive production and show he is NHL ready sooner than later, the overlooked player in the trade may have substantial value.

7. (11) Chandler Stephenson, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2012

The Regina Pats forward started off the 2012-13 campaign strong before a foot injury would keep him out of 26 games. He would return and pick up where left off and finish his season with 14 goals and 45 points in 46 games. While the Pats struggled, Stephenson assumed more of a leadership role and signed a contract to finish the season with the Hershey Bears. Though he has not seen game time in Hershey, it is still good experience and the Capitals get more time to assess his potential. The skilled skater will return to Regina in the fall where he is expected to continue to grow physically and offensively.

8. (NR) Riley Barber, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 167th overall, 2012

No Capitals prospect stock went up as much as sixth round pick Riley Barber. Playing college hockey for the Miami Redhawks, Barber scored 15 goals and had 39 points to lead all freshmen in scoring in the NCAA and was named CCHA's Rookie of the Year. He also stood out on Team USA's gold medal World Junior Championship team, managing three goals and three assists through seven games.

Barber is a hard working forward who has good offensive instincts and is strong along the boards. He can play the role of a power play scorer, penalty kill specialist, grinder, or energy forward. He is still however a few years away from impacting the Capitals lineup.

9. (NR) Nate Schmidt, D, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, April 2nd, 2013

The undrafted offensive defenseman has had a terrific career with the Minnesota Golden Gophers where he had 74 points in 96 games. The Capitals signed the 21-year-old after Minnesota was eliminated and he was assigned to Hershey.

Schmidt blossomed late and had a breakout season in 2011-12 with Minnesota. He is a great skater and offensive talent. He has a hard and accurate shot, is strong with the puck, and moves the puck well. As with many offensive defensemen, the knock is usually on the defensive side of their game. Schmidt is clearly more talented offensively, but his defense has been sound and he has not looked overmatched in his own zone. He will need to be stronger on the boards, but has not looked out of place logging top minutes with Hershey.

At 21 years old and playing at the highest level of minor pro hockey, Schmidt is closer to being NHL ready than most prospects. The Capitals appear to have a bit of a backlog in defensive prospects vying for a spot on the team. Schmidt's transition next year to the pro game will determine how likely he is to reach his long term potential.

10. (10) Patrick Wey, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 115th overall, 2009

Patrick Wey completed a successful college career with Boston College in 2012-13 as he had 13 points in 37 games along with a plus-14 rating. The 6'2 blueliner's strong play in the defensive zone helped him earn Hockey East's 2013 Best Defensive Defenseman as well as Hockey East's Second Team All-Star. His increased offensive contributions were nice to see, but Wey's future to the NHL is as a shutdown defenseman who is dominant in his own end.

Wey signed an entry-level contract with the Capitals in the spring and should play in Hershey in 2013-14.

11. (9) Cameron Schilling, D, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, March 27th, 2012

Schilling is a two way defenseman who plays strong, responsible hockey in his own end, but can chip in offensively as needed. One comparison could be with the Capitals own Karl Alzner who possesses a similar skill set, but more developed.

Schilling had 15 points in 70 games with Hershey and of his seven goals scored this season, four were clutch game winning goals. His solid played earned him a one game recall with the Capitals and he is expected to be among a number of defensemen vying for one or two spots with the Capitals in the fall.

12. (18) Connor Carrick, D, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 137th overall, 2012

Connor Carrick had a breakout season with the Plymouth Whalers in 2013-14 where he scored 12 goals and had 44 points in 68 games and registered a plus-27 rating. He continued his output in the playoffs where he had another 18 points and led the team with a plus-18 rating.

Carrick makes good decisions, is a strong skater, and can move the puck. The Capitals have a lot of prospect depth at defense which will allow the 19-year-old to return to Plymouth and build on his success. If he can improve on an already outstanding season, his stock will spike with the Capitals.  

13. (13) Garrett Mitchell, RW, 6.0C
Drafted 6th round, 175th overall, 2009

The gritty winger made improvements in all aspects of his play with the Hershey Bears in 2012-13 posting career highs in goals (15), assists (12), points (27), and penalty minutes (94). Mitchell proved to be a versatile player that at times was asked to play on the top scoring line even though he is better suited as a third line energy player and penalty kill specialist. The 21-year-old does not shy away from the physical play despite being smaller in size.

Mitchell carries the puck well and with good speed, in addition to his strong board play. His skill set makes him an ideal third or fourth line player and depending on players re-signed to the Capitals, he could be in position to challenge for a spot in 2013-14.

14. (15) Thomas Di Pauli, C, 6.5D
Drafted 4th round, 100th pick overall, 2012

In Di Pauli's freshman season with Notre Dame, the center scored five goals and had 12 assists in 41 games. Di Pauli is a high energy player that hustles and gives his all every shift.  He is a strong forechecker who can make offensive chances because of his tenacity and persistence on the puck. Di Pauli is still a long term project, but has progressed well in his first season with the Fighting Irish. He will need to show continued progress and build upon his successful season.

15. (7) Caleb Herbert, C, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 142nd overall, 2012

Herbert had a strong freshman season with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs and it would have been impressive to see him repeat that effort this season. However, his scoring was down this season, from 33 points as a freshman to just 25 this season. The Bulldogs on a whole were not as strong of a team this season though, so not all of the blame can fall solely on Herbert. He was very streaky this season, going pointless through nine games from October 19th to November 24th. In his final eight games of the season, he was able to register 11 of his 19 assists.

Herbert still possesses good skills, but he will need to return to form to regain his previous status.

16. (NR) Casey Wellman, C, 6.5C
Trade with Florida Panthers, January 31st, 2013

Wellman, who was acquired for Zach Hamill, has come to Hershey and brought the playmaking and speed the team had missed. Since joining Hershey in January, Wellman had 30 points in 33 games for a combined season of 16 goals and 53 points in 70 games. While he has played the role of a playmaker, he is not afraid to shoot the puck and has a quick release.

Wellman's stock is not overly high with the Capitals as he does not fit their short term needs. He has proven to be a very good AHL player and his play could earn him some recalls, but in the right organization, he could stick in the NHL.

17. (NR) Jaynen Rissling, D, 6.5D
Drafted 7th round, 197th overall, 2012

Rissling enjoyed another good season with the Calgary Hitmen where he was able to set career highs in points (29) and penalty minutes (122) in 61 games. His offense has been good over the last two years, but it is physical presence that is most noticeable. Rissling is a powerhouse defenseman who can punish opponents, but also a good puck mover. The area of concern translating to the pro game will be his speed. Rissling has more size than many of the other defensive prospects in the Capitals organization.

18. (NR) Nicolas Deschamps, C, 6.0C
Trade with Toronto Maple Leafs, March 14th, 2013

Deschamps was acquired this season for Kevin Marshall (TOR) and was brought in to increase the speed and scoring depth for the Hershey Bears. While he only managed 10 goals and 23 points in 66 games, during his time with the Bears he showed quickness and creativity with the puck. He struggles along the boards and lacks any sort of physical presence however. Since his rookie AHL season in 2010-11 with Syracuse, Deschamps has played in three organizations and his scoring has decreased every year.  He must find some consistency and marked offensive improvement, and quickly, if he is ever going to make it to the next level.

19. (NR) Chay Genoway, D, 6.5D
Trade with Minnesota Wild, March 14th, 2013

Acquired towards the end of the season, Genoway joined the Hershey Bears to provide a fast, puck-moving defenseman. Genoway is an older prospect who came from the University of North Dakota. He is a smaller sized defenseman which will likely limit his chance of making the NHL, but he brings leadership to a younger Hershey Bears blue line. With the Capitals depth at defense, it is unlikely Genoway will see time in the NHL. However, the Capitals have not shied away from using unlikely players who have worked hard in the AHL and earned a call up.

20. (17) Brett Flemming, D, 6.0D
Drafted 5th round, 145th overall, 2009

Brett Flemming is a hard working defenseman who can play physical and is not a liability in his offensive zone. He does a lot of little things well, but nothing to the point where it would be considered great. He split time in the ECHL with the Reading Royals and with the Hershey Bears of the AHL. In Reading, he had 15 points in 50 games and one point in 11 games with the Bears. The signings of free agent defensemen like Schmidt and Schilling along with other incoming prospects keep pushing Flemming down the Capitals depth chart. Next season, he has to play the entire season in Hershey and play well, or he will likely need to move to another organization to continue his career.

Follow Eric Scheib on Twitter: @EricScheib_HF