Photo: Immediately after his season with the University of Minnesota ended, Travis Boyd joined the AHL’s Hershey Bears for the remainder of the season. (Courtesy of Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
Despite losing their two top prospects in Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the 2014-15 season was still a good one for Washington Capitals prospects. Madison Bowey made waves with another dominant WHL campaign as well as a key role in Team Canada’s gold medal win at the World Junior Championships, while Brian Pinho recently helped Providence College capture its first NCAA championship.
Meanwhile, The Hershey Bears are one of the top teams in the AHL’s Eastern Conference, with a myriad of prospects contributing to their success both up front and between the pipes.
Hardest Worker: Riley Barber, RW, University of Miami (ECHC)
Since being selected in the 2012 NHL entry draft, it has been an uphill battle for Barber. Just a sixth round pick (167th overall), no one expected him to have the sparkling collegiate career he has had in the ECHC. With 123 points in 116 games, he has become one of the top players in the collegiate game. At just 21 years old, Barber has made a habit out of playing above his size and skill level. Despite limited physical ability, he plays in all situations and has strong offensive instincts. More than that, he has had success at every level, even captaining Team USA at the 2015 World Junior Championships.
Hardest Shot: Connor Carrick, D, Hershey Bears (AHL)
Carrick, like Barber, has been a prospect on the rise since his draft year of 2012. Despite being a fifth round pick, Carrick has displayed excellent skating and a great shot to go with it in spite of his diminutive frame (he stands just 5’11). In 69 games with Hershey, he notched eight goals and 34 assists to go with a whopping 130 PIM, showing an edge most did not know was there. His bread and butter has been his ability to move the puck from the point and put it on net with a lot of gas.
Best Defensive Prospect: Madison Bowey, D, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
Bowey has become Mr. Everything for Kelowna in his fourth and final season with the club. Back as captain for a second consecutive year, Bowey matched his 2013-14 points total of 60, but in 14 fewer games . He was also a feature player on Team Canada’s gold medal-winning World Junior Championships outfit, playing a shutdown role on defense while chipping in four points in seven games. The top-ranked prospect in Washington’s system, Bowey is the complete package of size and ability, and will be a force to be reckoned with on the Capitals’ blueline sooner rather than later.
Fastest Skater: Caleb Herbert, C, South Carolina Stingrays (ECHL)
Though Hebert was sent down to the ECHL during the 2014-15 season he has shown the speed that makes him the fastest skater the Capitals have in their system. He used those wheels to tally 17 goals and 24 points in 32 games in the ECHL, and will look to grab a full-time spot in Hershey in 2015-16. His time is running out, though: at 23-years-old, he is one of the older prospects in the system.
Prospect of the Year: Madison Bowey, D, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
The former 2013 second round pick has been on an upward trajectory since his selection. Two strong showings in a leadership role for Team Canada have put him in the spotlight and he has been one of the most dominant two-way defensemen in the WHL two years running. The Capitals have had their share of quality defensive prospects, but Bowey is the most complete yet. He also has offense (17 goals this season) to go with his big frame (6’2, 207) and strong defensive game. There might be nothing that can stop Bowey from breaking into the NHL in a big way.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Vitek Vanecek, G, Bili Tygri Liberec (Czech)
The Capitals had high hopes when they selected Vanecek with the 39th overall pick in 2014, and the expectations for him going forward are going to be big. At 6’1, he has the frame to pack on a little weight and become a decent-sized goaltender, but his game is in his athleticism. He has quick reflexes and can make highlight reel saves look easy. Vanecek’s play has been up and down in 2014-15 for not only his Czech club but also on the international stage. The Capitals hope he can find the consistency to become one of the better goaltending prospects in the league.
Most Improved Player: Thomas Di Pauli, C, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (CCHA)
After two years at the University of Notre Dame, it looked like the only ticket to the pros for the 5’11 DiPauli was his high-energy checking game. After all, he had managed just eight goals and 17 points through 67 games in his collegiate career to that point.
A surprise appearance on Team USA’s World Junior Championships roster (where he posted three assists in five games) gave way to his best year yet. In 2014-15, his junior season, DiPauli matched his entire collegiate goal total with eight while becoming one of the Irish’s best playmakers with 21 assists in 41 games. He still looks like a grind-line player, but with a growing offensive game, the future is suddenly brighter for the speedy, tenacious DiPauli.
Overachiever: Travis Boyd, C, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten)
A sixth round pick in 2011, Boyd has flown under the radar for much of his young career. He is not big or terribly fast, but that has not stopped him from quietly being one of Minnesota’s most efficient players. After a solid junior campaign in 2013-14 that saw him produce 32 points in 41 games, Boyd made a nice leap forward in 2014-15 with a career-high 19 goals and 41 points in just 32 games. His efforts earned him Second Team All-B1G status as well as an NCAA Second Team All-Star selection.
Underachiever: Jakub Vrana, LW, Linkoping (SHL)
A strong showing by Vrana in the Swedish junior leagues and a subsequent jump to the SHL had everyone high on the young Czech heading into the 2014 NHL Draft, where the Capitals snagged him with the 13th overall pick. Since then, it has been up-and-down for the 19-year-old winger. He had a decent showing for Linkoping in 2014-15, but at the World Junior Championships, he was an afterthought for a highly disappointing Czech team. Though very talented, Vrana can get frustrated and disappear for stretches if things are not going his way. He needs to find a way to stay consistent.
Highest Risk/Highest Reward: Vitek Vanecek, G, Bili Tygri Liberec (Czech)
The upside for the 19-year-old Czech is considerable. He could become a very good starter in the NHL, the type of goalie who makes highlight-reel saves look easy. He does not have outstanding size, but at 6’1 he has got room to grow. That said, Vanecek is also wildly inconsistent. He looked fantastic for Bili Tygri Liberec and HC Benatky nad Jizerou, posting a strong goals-against average and save percentage. Then there was his performance for the underachieving Czech team at the World Junior Championships, where he let in nine goals in two games.
If Vanecek can find the key to consistency and not have such wild swings in his performance, it will accelerate his ascent up the rankings and bring him closer to a role in the Capitals’ net. But the downside is just as drastic.
Prospect of the Month: Pheonix Copley, G, Hershey Bears (AHL)
Copley has been excellent in spot duty for the Bears during the last few months. Going back to February, he is 8-1-1 through ten starts, and a very impressive 5-1 in his last six. His numbers have been equally impressive: a 2.46 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and a shutout to boot. He was absolutely sterling prior to his last start (a five-goals-against loss), posting a 1.96 goals against average and a whopping .939 save percentage. Copley still has to fight for time in the very crowded Hershey crease, but he has been sensational when given the opportunity.
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