Capitals junior prospects update

By David Rathbun

After years of almost exclusively drafting players from the Western Hockey League, the Washington Capitals find themselves without a single prospect playing there. Instead, the Caps currently have a total of eight players representing various teams in the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the United States Hockey League. Two of them are currently ranked first and fifth in scoring in the “Q.”

QMJHL

Mathieu Perreault, C — Acadie-Bathurst Titan
Height: 5’9 Weight: 160 lbs DOB: Jan 5, 1988
Acquired: 2006 NHL Draft, 177th overall

So far the Caps’ final pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft is paying big dividends. Perreault, the pint-sized forward from Drummondville, Quebec, is currently taking the Quebec league by storm, and in only 29 games this season has already eclipsed his point totals from a year ago.

After appearing in just 62 regular season games for the Titan last season, Perreault’s offensive prowess was clearly evident by his 18 goals and 34 assists as a first-year player. He also led his club in playoff points, registering 21 points in 17 games. However, suggesting that he would begin the 2006-07 season posting the huge stats he is would have been hard to imagine. Currently the talented second-year player leads the league with 62 points in 29 games and is on pace to score almost 150 for the season.

Although the NHL’s new rules reward players with speed and skating agility, Perreault’s size is probably the reason he was still around so late in the draft. At only 5’9 and weighing in the neighborhood of 160 lbs, Perreault is a small player and not the ideal size for a would-be NHL center. Despite the league’s emphasis on speed and creativity, the center position will still require players to battle for pucks in corners and still be responsible defensively.

Although he is solid in plus/minus at the junior level at +22, he will have to add some power to his 160 lb frame in order to protect the puck and compete physically at the professional level. But that aside, his offensive upside is tremendous.

As of now, pegging Perreault as a future first-line NHL player is a bit of a reach. Converting him to the wing position might be more workable. Since he doesn’t turn 20 until January 2008, he’ll likely spend another year in junior in 2007-08.

Francois Bouchard, RW — Baie-Comeau Drakkar
Height: 6’0” Weight: 188 lbs DOB: Apr 26, 1988
Acquired: 2006 NHL Draft, 35th overall

Hot on Perreault’s heels for the QMJHL’s 2006-07 scoring title is highly-touted forward prospect Francois Bouchard. Selected early in the second round of the 2006 NHL draft, Bouchard was labeled as a “safe pick” by many NHL scouts, and there is also some speculation that he could even become a better player than his older brother (Pierre-Marc of the Wild). At 6’0 and roughly 190 lbs, Bouchard does possess significantly better size than his brother, and is projected to be a top-six winger at the pro level.

After a mediocre rookie campaign in 2004-05, Bouchard rebounded in a huge way in 2005-06, scoring 102 points (33 goals, 69 assists) and shattering his rookie scoring totals (11 goals, 13 assists) from the season before. He finished 13th in the QMJHL is scoring, and so far this season is on pace to eclipse last year’s scoring outputs as well. He is ranked sixth in the league with 54 points in 26 games. In addition, Bouchard has rebounded nicely from his porous -6 defensive rating last season, and is currently carrying a +18.

Bouchard’s game is improving away from the puck as he appears more comfortable battling in traffic. He is also winning more one-on-one battles in the corners and along the boards, and his skating also appears to be improving. He also possesses superior on-ice vision and playmaking ability – a trait not necessarily prominent in wingers.

Bouchard attended the Caps’ training camp this fall, and although he looked decent among already NHL-caliber opponents, Bouchard’s inexperience was pretty evident. Like Perreault, the Caps are almost assuredly going to allow Bouchard to continue his progression in juniors.

Maxime Lacroix, C — Quebec Remparts
Height: 6’0 Weight: 185 lbs DOB: June 5, 1987
Acquired: 2006 NHL Draft, 127th overall

Now currently playing his third year in “Q,” Lacroix is looking to build on his modest totals from the previous two seasons. Not as flashy as Bouchard and Perreault, Lacroix plays a more defensive game, and is arguably one of the Remparts’ best two-way forwards.

So far this season, Lacroix has yet to gain the momentum that he had during the Remparts’ Memorial Cup run in 2006 when he was one of the team’s highest scorers. He has 11 goals and 14 assists in 28 games. Although he is on pace to surpass last season’s point total of 47, Lacroix is struggling on the defensive side of the puck, and is nowhere near his +29 defensive rating from a year ago. He is currently at -1, and is seeing limited penalty-killing and power-play time as well.

Passed over in the 2005 draft, Washington took a bit of a risk on Lacroix in hopes that his gritty two-way play would one day transfer over into the pro ranks and provide some depth at the center position. A good skater and responsible defensively, Lacroix is still adding weight to his frame and could become a decent third or fourth-line center if he reaches his full potential.

OHL

Patrick McNeill, D — Saginaw Spirit
Height: 6’0 Weight: 200 lbs DOB: March 17, 1987
Acquired: 2005 NHL Draft, 118th overall

Quite possibly one of the Caps’ better selections in the 2005 NHL draft, McNeill is looking like a fourth-round steal and is trying to repeat as the OHL’s highest scoring defender.

Currently averaging a point per game with 11 goals and 13 assists in 24 games, McNeill is slightly behind his pace from last season when he led all OHL defenders with 77 points (21 goals, 56 assists). He is significantly lower in the plus/minus category as well at +3, and will look to improve upon that as the season heads into December.

Not known for his defensive play, McNeill does use his defensive partners well to cover his play up ice, and his smooth skating and hockey sense more than compensate for his occasional inconsistent positional play. He has a good shot, is a superb playmaker, and can quarterback the power play as good as anyone in the junior ranks. He is also very elusive, and has terrific one-on-one ability.

The Caps’ rights to McNeill will expire after this season and Washington will then have to decide where to put the talented defender. McNeill will most likely play for the Hershey Bears (AHL) next fall. Look for McNeill to become a No. 4-6 defender in the NHL one day, and perhaps, a prominent fixture on the Caps’ power play.

Oskar Osala, LW — Mississauga Ice Dogs
Height: 6’4 Weight: 220 lbs DOB: December 26, 1987
Acquired: 2006 Draft, 97th overall

The Caps had high hopes that Osala would build upon his respectable rookie season in 2005-06. After a slow start last year, he had gained some momentum as the season progressed and finished the year with 17 goals and 26 assists in 68 regular season games. Instead, Osala has struggled in his second year of North American hockey, and has had difficulty finding his scoring touch. While currently mired in a sophomore slump, with just seven goals and five assists in 21 games, Osala has significantly improved his plus/minus and is currently carrying a +4 – up from the -19 of a season ago.

At 6’4 and 220 lbs, Osala is a big customer. Although he does use his size well to guard the puck and cycle down low, he needs to be more dominant around the smaller players in the junior ranks and play a more physical brand of hockey. While he’s not the flashiest skater, Osala does have good offensive instincts. Unlike most Europeans, Osala does look to crash the net looking for loose change and to create deflections.

While it may seem somewhat alarming that a player of Osala’s size and ability isn’t exactly dominating at the junior level, he is, however, playing in only his second year in North America. With another year before his rights expire, the Caps will look on and patiently evaluate his development. A checking forward is a more likely scenario should he ever make the NHL.

Luke Lynes, LW — Brampton Battalion
Height: 6’0 Weight: 210 lbs DOB: November 28, 1987
Acquired: 2006 NHL Draft, 122nd overall

Luke Lynes, a Washington area native (Ellicott City, MD), began his third year as a member of the Battalion this fall after a very successful second year in the OHL. While no longer benefiting from skating alongside Colorado Avalanche rookie Wojtek Wolski, Lynes is still plugging along at just under a point per game, with 14 goals and 13 assists in 28 games.

Lynes’ skating appears to have improved some this season, as the winger seems to have little more zip in his stride. Although he’s not a terribly fast skater, Lynes is good on his feet and deft at controlling the puck in high-traffic areas. He is a dangerous forechecker who pays the price down low, and his wrist shot is very hard and accurate. Despite his -4 defensive rating, Lynes is pretty responsible defensively and is a leader in the locker room as well.

Michal Neuvirth, G — Plymouth Whalers
Height: 6’1 Weight: 198 lbs DOB: Mar 23, 1988
Acquired: 2006 NHL Draft, 34th overall

Addressing their lack of goaltending depth in the prospect ranks, the Caps nabbed Neuvirth early in second round of the 2006 draft. Pegged as a potential future No. 1 goalie in the NHL someday, he’s now playing in North America.

Coming off a phenomenal season where he posted a stellar 2.02 GAA in 45 games with Sparta in the U18 Czech Extraliga, Neuvirth is pretty much splitting time in net in Plymouth this season. Appeared in 15 games thus far, he is currently ranked 15th overall in the OHL in GAA at 3.53. He has a 7-5 record and a .904 save percentage.

A butterflier by trade, Neuvirth is a goalie who thrives on his positional play in the net. He plays the angles very well, and unlike most European goalies, is pretty good with the puck and will even start a rush or two from behind the goal line. He has a strong glove hand as well, and is pretty good at collapsing his body to secure rebounds. His frame is also growing, as the young netminder has grown an inch and has put on about 20 lbs of muscle since being drafted just five months ago.

Although he was the second goalie selected by the Caps in the 2006 draft (Semen Varlamov, 23rd overall), Neuvirth has the tools to possibly be the premier netminder in Washington one day. Like most goalies, he has a long road of development ahead of him.

USHL

Brent Gwidt, C/W — Indiana Ice
Height: 6’3 Weight: 201 lbs DOB: Feb 20, 1988
Acquired: 2006 NHL Draft, 157th overall

After a monster season in which he scored 41 goals in 21 games playing for Lakeland High School, Gwidt’s offense has really yet to take off now that he is playing in the USHL with a much higher caliber of talent. Considered a bit of a late-round gamble by Washington, he recently had his first multi-goal game against Ohio on Nov. 28, and appears to be gaining some confidence. Gwidt now has three goals and two assists in 16 games and is +2. He has pretty good offensive awareness, and is a decent skater for his size. He is also one of the hardest workers on the Indiana squad, and it is said that he is a leader on and off the ice. Gwidt is eligible for and will likely play in the NCAA next year, but has yet to commit to a school. As for now, Gwidt is a project.

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