Capitals Top 20 prospects

By Ryan Bright

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Nicklas Backstrom, C
2. Eric Fehr, RW
3. Semen Varlamov, G
4. Francois Bouchard, C/RW
5. Tomas Fleischmann, LW
6. Michal Neuvirth, G
7. Chris Bourque, LW/RW
8. Jeff Schultz, D
9. Patrick McNeill, D
10. Keith Seabrook, D
11. Oskar Osala, LW
12. Sami Lepisto, D
13. Joe Finley, D
14. Maxime Daigneault, G
15. Sasha Pokulok, D
16. Andrew Gordon, RW
17. Travis Morin, C
18. Mathieu Perreault, C
19. Stephen Werner, RW
20. Jamie Hunt, D


1. Nicklas Backstrom, C

Acquired: 1st round, 4th overall, 2006

This highly-touted Swedish playmaking center continues to show that despite his youth, he has the potential and maturity to center a first line as soon as next season. 

On his Swedish Elite League team Brynäs IF, Backstrom upped his production by 14 points from the 2005-06 season, in which he was voted the Rookie of the Year.  Backstrom had 12 goals and 28 assists in 45 games, averaging almost a point per game.  In the SEL, these type of numbers are impressive considering how relatively low scoring the league is.

Despite what scouts have noted as a lack of aggressiveness in the center, Backstrom is still extremely young at 19 and could build on his frame.  With Washington in need at center, even though Backstrom has claimed to want to stay in Sweden for another year or two, look for the Capitals to try hard to get him in Washington as soon as next season.

2. Eric Fehr, RW

Acquired: 1st round, 18th overall, 2003

This 6’4 forward has yet to find himself a permanent position in the NHL, but with his impressive offensive prowess and ongoing success in the AHL, Fehr will not be a man with two teams for much longer. 

With 22 goals and 19 assists in 40 games with the Hershey Bears, Fehr almost matched the total statistics he put up in 2005-06, despite playing 30 fewer games.  His point per game production at the AHL level, matched with a growing Capitals injury list, gave Fehr a brief chance to shine at the NHL level in the 2006-07 season.  With limited playing time in 14 games, Fehr scored his first two NHL goals and registered an assist with a +3 rating. 

Fehr had trouble with his back off and on all year, and has not played any playoff games due to the injury.

If Fehr can continue his solid two-way play, as well as learn to use his 6’3 frame more to his advantage, this 21-year-old will have no problem becoming a mainstay in a Capitals uniform as soon as next season.

3. Semen Varlamov, G
Acquired: 1st round, 23rd overall, 2006
 
All the teams who passed on Varlamov in the 2006 draft may be reassessing their decision on the Russian goaltender after a stellar 2007 WJC. Varlamov was the second best goalie in the entire tournament, giving up only nine goals on 136 shots, with a 1.51 goals against average.  Because of his outstanding play, he was selected one of the tournament’s three best players for his team. In the Russian Super League this year for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, he had a 15-7-6 record and a 2.12 GAA.

Varlamov is a butterfly style goaltender who has quick legs, and a very quick glove, which lets him excel at breakaways, especially shootouts.  When on, Varlamov is unbeatable, but if things get tough on the goaltender, he tends to collapse.  This is something that could be attributed to his age (19 on April 27) and his feisty competitiveness, but can likely be improved.

He has excelled on the international stage, and in the RSL. Varlamov’s potential is very high, and once the Caps deem him ready, could be at the very least a capable backup at the NHL level.

4. Francois Bouchard, C/RW
Acquired: 2nd round, 35th overall, 2006

Washington drafted Francois Bouchard in the second round of the 2006 draft.  With good progress made since them, he might not just contribute, but be an impact player.

Bouchard, whose older brother is former first-round pick Pierre-Marc Bouchard from the Minnesota Wild, played strongly this year, taking the QMJHL by storm with Baie-Comeau. He led the entire league with 125 points (45 goals and 80 assists) in 68 games and was awarded the Jean-Béliveau Trophy for winning the QMJHL scoring title. This was an improvement from his 2005-06 season in which he had a very good 102 points (33 goals and 69 assists). 

Bouchard is a natural goal scorer with extremely quick hands that make him perfect for power play situations.  He is not the quickest of skaters, but makes up for it with agility and ability to find and create scoring opportunities.  He has a quick release and a very hard shot.  His weakness however has been his big-game disappearing act.  Though he is offensively gifted, he has not necessarily shown it when it counts. 

Bouchard, 19, can stay with his junior team, Baie-Comeau, for the 2007-08 season.  But with the scoring touch and improvement he has shown at the junior level, he could be in contention for a spot in Washington next season.

5. Tomas Fleischmann, LW

Acquired: (Detroit) 2nd round, 63rd overall, 2002

Fleischmann has all the offensive tools to be a part of an NHL team, but after a few excellent seasons at the AHL level, he hasn’t done well transferring that offense to the NHL.

Fleischmann, who will be 23 later this month, has had recent success in the AHL, with 22 goals and 29 assists in only 45 games played due to split time with the Capitals in the 2006-07 season. This AHL success granted him a sustained chance at the NHL level, but in 29 games with the Capitals, he had only four goals and four assists.  Fleischmann has struggled with the size and speed of the NHL, losing many battles in the corners due to the fact that he is simply is not strong enough at 6’1, 190 pounds.  He also is not well versed in the two-way game, often breaking down defensively due to the speed of opponents. With great hockey sense, along with an impressive shot and playmaking ability, Fleischmann has excellent offensive potential.  If he can develop a defensively sound game, as well as gain the strength necessary to not get pushed around, he could see permanent time with the Capitals.  He’ll fight for a spot in camp this fall.

In the AHL playoffs, he has six points in eight games and is -3.

6. Michal Neuvirth, G

Acquired: 2nd round, 34th overall, 2006

Neuvirth moved to the OHL this season with the Plymouth Whalers from the Czech Republic. What started as a shaky beginning for the young goaltender soon leveled out and became quite impressive.  Neuvirth ended the regular season as the league leader in goals against average with 2.32, and save percentage with a .932 average.  He finished the season with a very respectable 26-8 record, sending the Whalers to the playoffs.  What may be the most impressive about the rookie goaltender is his playoff performance.  With the reputation as a big game goalie, he has excelled in the OHL playoffs.  With an 11-2 record, Neuvirth has been the second best goalie in GAA in the OHL playoffs with a 2.21 GAA and .943 save percentage.

Neuvirth is a well-rounded butterfly style goaltender who shines under pressure situations.  Rarely getting rattled, his mental toughness is remarkable for his age (turning 19 on March 23).  It is likely Neuvirth will continue developing his game in the OHL for another year. 

7. Chris Bourque, LW/RW
Acquired: 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2004

Despite having a productive season with the Hershey Bears of the AHL, Bourque is still a ways away from getting a serious look at the NHL. He showed much improvement in his offensive game in his second year at the AHL level, scoring 25 goals and 33 assists in 76 games. This was a slight improvement over the 2005-06 season in points per game (.69 to .76), but he nearly quadrupled his goal output from eight to 25. In the playoffs he has one goal and three assists in eight games and is +2.

Bourque has all intangibles — great hockey sense, excellent skating, leadership, competitiveness, and above all, the ability to put himself in the right positions to score.  At 5’7, he has shown he can be very strong with the puck despite his stature.  If he can become even stronger, he should have no problem getting the opportunity in the NHL to prove that his strength is more important than his height.

He could see a glimpse of the NHL as soon as next season.

8. Jeff Schultz, D

Acquired: 1st round, 27th overall, 2004

Weighing in at 6’6, 224 lbs, Schultz has all the physical potential to become a keystone defenseman at the NHL level. But with his lack of physicality, and the occasional positioning problems on defense, he needs to continue to show improvement to stick in the NHL full-time.

In 2006-07 Schultz split his time between the Bears and the Capitals (44 games with Hershey, 38 games with Washington).  Despite being known as an offensive defenseman, Schultz did not put up big numbers for either of his teams, netting only 12 points with the Bears, and three with the Capitals. Yet because Schultz has the reputation of getting too involved offensively, oftentimes leading to positional breakdowns and missing defensive assignments, it is likely he is being trained to be sound defensively first, therefore not pitching in offensively to his potential.  In the playoffs, he is scoreless in eight games and is +1.

Schultz has a very hard shot though it is not very accurate and tends to get blocked often. He could be a very dangerous power play quarterback, but only if he can find the accuracy to hit the net and get his shots through.  Because of his size, Schultz can recover from defensive mistakes quickly with his long reach. Yet even with his size, he has the tendency to not stand players up crossing the blue line, and tends to back into his zone too often. If Schultz is going to stick in the NHL, he must harness his shot, his defensive positioning, and an aggressiveness to his game that can complement his size.  Once he does this, he should be better suited for the NHL game, and get full-time work with the Capitals.

9. Patrick McNeill, D
Acquired: 4th round, 118th overall, 2005

McNeill had a combined -48 rating in his first two seasons with Saginaw of the OHL. This was a result of his team-leading ice time, mixed with a very bad team surrounding him. As Saginaw improved however, so has his plus/minus, and this offensive defenseman has begun attracting attention.

McNeill had a very good +29 rating, with 77 points in 68 games in the 2005-06 season. Despite missing 10 games due to injury this past season, he has had a very nice statistical year with 22 goals and 36 assists and a +8 in 58 games. In the playoffs, he had five points in six games.

McNeill has enormous offensive potential, and is defensively sound. He has consistently put up excellent offensive numbers at the junior level and has been the playing time leader on his team.  He is a power-play specialist, and with excellent puck control skills, has the ability to make plays and create chances from the point.  He is not afraid to play the body, but at only 6’0 200 lbs, he may be often on the receiving end at the NHL level.  McNeill, now 20, was recently signed to an entry-level contract and will turn pro this fall.

10. Keith Seabrook, D

Acquired: 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2006

Keith, younger brother of Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook, is a raw talent.  Though only a freshman, Keith has had a respectable season with the University of Denver, and has already begun to make a name for himself in the NCAA.

With two goals and 11 assists in 37 games, Seabrook has shown only moderate production at the NCAA level.  But considering he is a true freshman at only 18 years old, it shows only the tip of the iceberg. 

Seabrook is a very good passer, and is a very intelligent player.  Though he is predicted to be a power play specialist and possible No. 5-6 defenseman, he is still young and could prove more valuable.  He has an incredibly hard shot from the point, and an ability to find open shooting lanes.  He tends to freestyle in the defensive zone which often puts him out of position.  If he can work on the defensive part of his game and continue to excel on the power play, there may be a spot for him on an NHL roster in the future.  If he stays at the University of Denver for the entirety of his eligibility, he won’t be available to the Capitals until at least 2010 when he will be 21.

11. Oskar Osala, LW
Acquired: 4th round, 97th overall, 2006

When Oskar Osala came over from Finland in 2005-06, he initially struggled to adapt to the North American style of game.  But even in his struggles he showed signs of the talented player the Capitals knew they drafted, and this past season he showed vast improvement.

Osala struggled last year mostly with the defensive part of his game.  With a -19 rating with Mississauga, it was obvious that he needed to improve, and he did just that.  In the 2006-07 season Osala improved his plus/minus rating to +11.  He also had 22 goals and 22 assists in 54 games, and four points in five playoff games.  Where Osala really shined was at the WJC, where he had five goals and three assists in six games, and was selected in the top three stars of the Finnish team.  This success could be a sign of how Osala can escalate his game once comfortable with his teammates and style of play.

He has incredible offensive talent, and at 6’4 his great speed and skating ability is very rare. With his offensive talent, if he can mature his two-way game even further than he has in the past season, he has the opportunity to become a very pleasant surprise in a Capitals uniform in the years to come.

12. Sami Lepisto, D
Acquired: 3rd round, 66th overall, 2004

This Finnish offensive defenseman had his breakout year in the 2004-05 season, followed up by an equally as successful 2005-06 season. Yet this past season injuries have stalled Lepisto, possibly setting back his North American debut. 

In 2005-06, Lepisto played in 56 games, scoring eight goals and 21 assists.  But due to injuries, he only played 26 games in the 2006-07 season, netting a mere goal and nine assists. 

One of the best young defensemen in Finland, Lepisto excels at puck control; with a very calm demeanor he makes good passes and exudes confidence with the puck.  His good play under pressure makes him the prime player to be on the ice when it counts.  He needs to work especially on his defensive game, skating, and to become physically stronger to win the necessary battles for the puck. The next logical step for Lepisto would be the AHL. 

13. Joe Finley, D

Acquired: 1st round, 27th overall, 2005

Weighing in at 6’7 240 lbs, and tough as nails, makes Finley an immediately noticeable young defensive prospect on the horizon.  Just beginning his NCAA career with the University of North Dakota, Finley’s work ethic and improvement since being drafted in 2005 gives this youngster a high potential upside.

Finley is not going to be a defenseman who puts up points. With one goal and six assists in 38 games, Finley is there to control the game defensively. His incredible size, mixed with a certain aggressiveness, gives him the ability to take control of a game from a defensive standpoint. Whether it is blocking shots or applying a momentum-changing hit, Finley has all the tools to be a major factor in any contest.  Also an incredibly hard worker, Finley has worked hard on improving his skating, and other offensive skills.  If he can become a consistent defender at the NCAA level, there is no telling how far he can go given his determination and willingness to improve all aspects of his game.
 
14. Maxime Daigneault, G

Acquired: 2nd round, 59th overall in 2002

After splitting time between the ECHL and the AHL in the 2005-06 season, Daigneault received the opportunity to split time with veteran goaltender Frederic Cassivi this year, and he responded well.  With a record of 23-6, GAA of 2.64 and save percentage of .910, he helped give the Bears the support they needed to get back to the playoffs as reigning champions, despite being sidelined for a while with an ankle injury this year.

Daigneault has not seen any time in the playoffs, however, with all of it going to Cassivi.

With good size, and an aggressively challenging style, Daigneault covers a lot of space in the net and uses his butterfly technique and quick glove to stymie shooters. The speed of his butterfly however has come into question, as well as his lateral speed across the crease.  Though his speed seemed to have improved from the 2005-06 season, he should continue to improve this aspect of his game.

15. Sasha Pokulok, D
Acquired: 1st round, 14th overall, 2005

Out of all the defensemen in the Capitals prospect system, Pokulok may be the most well-rounded.  In his two years in the NCAA, the 6’4 blueliner matured nicely into a solid defensive prospect.  What has delayed his progress since then, however, are two concussions. He suffered one in the first game of the 2006-07 season with the Hershey Bears.  Pokulok missed almost the entire season, only playing in only 16 games with the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays, scoring nine points, before suffering a second concussion on a less than forceful hit.

Despite not being a stellar skater, Pokulok has the tools to be an NHL defenseman.  He controls the puck well, and uses his size to his advantage, able to apply big hits when necessary.  Unfortunately the concussions he suffered could end his career early, or possibly put him one hit away from ending another season before it gets started.  If this happens it would be an enormous loss for Washington who has high hopes for this young defenseman.

16. Andrew Gordon, RW
Acquired: 7th round, 197th overall, 2004

Gordon has what every club in the NHL looks for in offensive players: consistency at a high level. 

As a junior at St. Cloud State University, Gordon helped turn St. Cloud to second in the conference finish and an NCAA tournament berth.  Gordon had a team-leading 40 points in the 2005-06 season, and continued his success leading his team again in 2006-07 with 22 goals and 23 assists in 39 games.  He tied for third nationally with 12 power-play goals and was a three-time WCHA Player of the Week. He also was selected first-team All-WCHA.

An energy player with uncanny hockey instincts that get him scoring chances, Gordon is an extremely tough player to defend. His quick shot and good acceleration make him dangerous at all times.  He is a tough player, especially when battling fiercely for pucks in the corners and is also not afraid to apply a hard hit to win the puck.  At 5’11 180 lbs, the heart and attitude he possesses is greater than his size.  The Capitals signed him to an entry-level contract this spring, forgoing his senior season.

17. Travis Morin, C

Acquired: 9th round, 263rd overall, 2004

Twenty-three-year-old Morin signed an entry-level contract with the Capitals once his productive senior season at Minnesota State had ended this spring. Taken 263rd overall in the 2004 draft, he showed he could produce with the best of them at the NCAA level.

With 17 goals and 22 assists in 38 games this past season, Morin logged defenseman-like minutes throughout the season, and many times with the game on the line. This shows the faith the Minnesota State coaches had in Morin’s ability to play in the clutch, as well as his ability to play a defensive game.

His great playmaking skills, matched with excellent puckhandling, makes Morin successful on the power play.  He is tenacious along the boards, but currently lacks the strength to win many battles.  At 6’2 195, a summer of serious weight training could make him a solid player.

Morin joined South Carolina at the end of the year, scoring three points in eight games. He will likely spend 2007-08 with Hershey.

18. Mathieu Perreault, C

Acquired: 6th round, 177th overall, 2006

With only one year in the QMJHL under his belt, Perreault flashed his high offensive upside and broke out in the 2006-07 season.

Perreault had decent production in his rookie season with Acadie-Bathurst Titan in the QMJHL with 52 points in 62 games.  In the 2006-07 season Perreault had a whopping 119 points (41 goals and 78 assists) in only 67 games. He was named offensive player of the month in November.

Perreault has enormous offensive upside, but at his size of 5’9 155 lbs, some question his ability to play in the pros.  He is a solid center who possesses good quickness, along with great vision. He has developed the reputation for being a big-game player, having some of his best games in the playoffs.  In the new NHL, a Perreault-sized player may be able to excel, but there is no doubt he needs to bulk up if he is going to survive at the higher levels.

19. Stephen Werner, RW

Acquired: 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2003

Werner has shown a solid game in the NCAA, but now he will need to prove his worth at the AHL level.  Werner began the season in Hershey, but was sent down to South Carolina.  He rejoined Hershey in early March, then went back to South Carolina at the very end of the year to help the Stingrays in an unsuccessful bid to make the playoffs.

In 26 games in the ECHL, Werner had 10 goals and 7 assists. In Hershey, he had three goals and three assists in 24 games.  The Stingrays’ season over, he’s now back in Hershey, but won’t likely see time unless there are injuries.

At 6’1 195 lbs, Werner is a good playmaker and makes good decisions.  He has a hard shot and is good through traffic, but his calling card is his speed.  Because he does not put up a lot of points, Werner may need to become a defensive specialist to move up.
 
20. Jamie Hunt, D
Acquired: Free agent 2006

Hunt’s success at Mercyhurst College opened the eyes of scouts at the NHL level, and he was signed by the Capitals as a free agent in 2006.

With two goals and 10 assists in 35 games in his rookie season with the Hershey Bears, Hunt got a shot to play for the Capitals for one game in December, in which he was a -1.  Three of Hershey’s regular defensemen (Nycholat, Helbling and Hunt) were already up with Washington during a rash of injuries on the big club.

Hunt has been out with a broken wrist that required surgery since the end of January, but has now been cleared to play.

Hunt is extremely quick and a very good skater for his size.  At 6’2 200 lbs, Hunt uses his skill and quickness to join the rush.  This quickness matched with his potent passing skills, make him a nice weapon to have.  Solid defensively, Hunt excels in one-on-one situations, by sticking with his man and not getting out of position.  For Hunt to be a successful NHLer, he will need to become stronger, and learn to use his size to his advantage.

He’ll likely be back in Hershey for most of next season.

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.

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