Capitals Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By Jason Menard

The Capitals have a bit of everything in their organization: a couple of second-generation players, a couple of potentially elite goaltenders, a couple of NHL-ready players (including one who is already keying a playoff run), and — most importantly — a whole lot of talent.

While the prospects may be heavy on the defensive side, there’s a school of thought that you can never have too much defense — especially when used as bargaining chips. The greatest problems that the Caps are going to have is finding a place to put all these players next season.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Karl Alzner, D
2. Simeon Varlamov, G
3. John Carlson, D
4. Anton Gustafsson, C
5. Oskar Osala, LW
6. Michal Neuvirth, G
7. Chris Bourque, C
8. Francois Bouchard, RW
9. Mathieu Perreault, C
10. Dmitri Kugryshev, RW
11. Joe Finley, D
12. Keith Seabrook, D
13. Sami Lepisto, D
14. Joel Broda, C
15. Andrew Gordon, RW
16. Stefan Della Rovere, LW
17. Justin Taylor, C
18. Eric Mestery, D
19. Braden Holtby, G
20. Josh Godfrey, D 

1. Karl Alzner, D, 20
Acquired: First round, 5th overall, 2007

The 6’2, 210-pound Burnaby, BC native has bounced between Washington and Hershey all year long, splitting the season with 30 games with the former — often as an injury fill-in — and 48 with the latter. Coming off a solid 2007-08, which included the captancy of Team Canada’s WJC gold-medal-winning squad, Alzner has been solid during his first professional season. His offensive totals in the AHL have been impressive, with four goals and 16 assists, and a superlative plus-23 rating. His NHL totals have been more modest, with one goal, four assists, and a minus-one ranking.

Alzner has played a key role in the Bears’ success. In his days with the Calgary Hitmen, Alzner was a team leader, and that hasn’t changed in his rookie professional campaign. He’s played a solid, two-way game with advanced defensive awareness in Hershey, which has served him well this season — earning him his call-ups to the NHL. Next season, he likely will be spending much more time in the U.S. capital as a regular member of the Washington blueline.

2. Simeon Varlamov, G, 21
Acquired: First round, 23rd overall, 2006

With the denoument of Jose Theodore’s career, The Varlamov Story is being written as we speak. The Samara, Russia native’s first season on North American soil has been an eventful one. He’s gone from leaving Russia behind to starting 27 games in the AHL, to backing up the former Vezina Trophy winner, to his ascension in the first round of the NHL playoffs against the New York Rangers.

The roller coaster season’s certainly on the upswing right now for the 21-year-old netminder. Varlamov was very good in his six regular-season performances, posting a 4-0-1 record behind a 2.37 GAA and .918 save percentage. In the playoffs, he’s taken his game to yet another level — now with a 6-4 record in 10 games, and a 1.98 GAA and a .930 save percentage. And his consistent play is a welcome addition to a Capitals squad that’s played apprehensively in front of their nominal starting netminder, Theodore, who has been consistent only in his inconsistency.

Regardless of how this current second-round series against the Penguins plays out, Varlamov will be in the driver’s seat to open camp next season as the club’s starting goaltender. A freewheeling team like Washington needs a confident goaltender who will make the saves they need to — and not give up soft goals. The unheralded rookie has shown an aptitude for solid, consistent play early on in his young career.

3. John Carlson, D, 19
Acquired: First round, 27th overall, 2008

Carlson was a hair’s breadth away from cracking the Capitals’ NHL roster this season, according to scouts within the organization. The Natick, MA-born blueliner was a late cut and found himself with the OHL‘s London Knights — and he made the most of his experience in junior. He finished the year named to the second All-Star team. Carlson scored 16 goals and added 60 assists in 59 games with the Knights.

But it was in the playoffs where Carlson, the second of two Caps first-round selections in 2008, truly stood out. Paired with fellow first-round draft pick Michael Del Zotto (NYR), he posted 22 points in 14 games, and single-handedly kept the Knights in a couple of late-round games with superlative play on both ends of the ice. Carlson was promptly called up to Hershey at the conclusion of the OHL playoffs, and he’s been steady, scoring his first professional goal in his second playoff game, while posting a minus-one rating in four games to date.

Carlson was stellar on the power play, both on the point and down low as the Knights, due to a noticeable lack of right-handed shots, used him as a forward at the end of the year and throughout the playoffs. He shoots often, but he grew into a more well-rounded defenseman and impressed with his defensive awareness and solid body checking in the playoffs.

Carlson doesn’t turn 20 until January, so he’ll need to stay in junior one more year.

4. Anton Gustafsson, C, 19
Acquired: Drafted, 1st round, 21st overall, 2008

Gustafsson enjoyed a solid, but unspectacular, season in Sweden this year, for the most part. However, when the games truly counted, the young Swede shone.

In 25 games with Bofors FK of the Allsvenskan league, he finished the year with six goals, four assists, and a +6 rating. He also played in a couple of games with his club from last season, the Vastra Frolunda HC Indians, to little or no impact. But it was in the playoffs where Gustafsson stood out — in five games with Frolunda, he ended the playoffs a +8, with three goals and four assists.

Gustafsson certainly has the bloodlines; at 6’1, 195 he has solid size. The question now becomes when will Gustafsson come overseas to start getting used to the North American game. It is likely, however, that he will spend one more year — preferably playing a full season in the Elitserien — before taking that next step.

5. Oskar Osala, LW, 21
Acquired: 4th round, 97th overall, 2007

Osala’s got a wonderful combination of size and skill, and his play this season has earned him a pair of call-ups to the big club. Right now his focus is on delivering the Hershey Bears a berth in the AHL finals. Hershey is a talented, deep team and the first-year forward often finds himself on the fourth line.

Despite his positioning on the roster, though, he`s accumulated solid totals of 23 goals and 37 points in 75 games this season. In the playoffs, the 21-year-old winger’s been just as good — two goals and five points in the eight games he`s played.

At 6’4, 215 pounds, Osala has the size that makes scout drool. He`s shown solid skating ability and a nose for the net, and his transition to North America has been extremely smooth. He’s made an impact in the AHL in his first season on North American soil. He`ll likely return to Hershey for one more year, but don`t be surprised if the young Finn is the first player called up to the big leagues next year.

6. Michal Neuvirth, G, 21
Acquired: 2nd round, 34th overall, 2006

You could forgive Neuvirth for forgeting which jersey he’s wearing at any given time — the 21-year-old goaltender has played in three professional leagues (almost four) so far this season. But his performance in leading the Hershey Bears to the Eastern Conference finals should mean that he’s found a home.

His vagabond season started when the Caps couldn’t find him an AHL club for which to play. An attempt to have him Trinec Ocelari HC of the Czech league crumpled under a paperwork issue. He was sent to the ECHL to play with the affiliate South Carolina Stingrays, where he earned an all-star berth courtesy of a 2.28 GAA and .918 save percentage. From there he played 17 games in the AHL and a handful of contests with the Capitals. And now, he’s been dominant in the AHL playoffs, while watching fellow prospect Varlamov do the same at the NHL level.

Some say Neuvirth is the better of the two goaltenders, citing his superior technical acumen. What is clear is that the team may have to make a choice soon with their two young goaltenders, as having a pair of young wannabe No. 1’s isn’t always the best for the team. In the meantime, the two young prospects hope to backstop their teams to playoff glory.

7. Chris Bourque, LW, 23
Acquired: 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2004

Another Caps prospect with deep bloodlines, Bourque has played a key role in the Bears’ success this season — especially in the playoffs. So far, with eight games under his belt, Bourque has averaged better than a point per game, with 10 points (one goal).

Bourque’s claim to fame (other than a famous name) is his solid two-way game, but this season he showed that he can let go offensively as well. In 69 games, Bourque tallied a career-best 73 points, on 21 goals and 52 assists. He also earned call-ups to the NHL for the second straight season, totalling eight games with the big club.

But at 23, it’s time for Bourque to stick. He will be given every opportunity to remain with the NHL club, likely in a third-liner role, but time may be starting to run out for this prospect.

8. Francois Bouchard, RW, 21
Acquired: 2nd round, 35th overall, 2006

Bouchard has opened a lot of eyes within the organization with his strong play in his rookie season with the Bears. The former QMJHL scoring star has shown that he’s been able to translate that offensive prowess from the junior ranks into the tighter-checking AHL game.

While the numbers aren’t eye-popping, Bouchard`s 15-goal, 35-point totals in 64 AHL games constitutes a solid rookie campaign. He`s also played a solid two-way game in the playoffs, complementing the team’s top scorers with one goal and two assists in eight games.

Bouchard has good size, at 6`1, but could stand to fill out a bit with only 185 pounds on his frame. Chances are good that a second season in the AHL is in his immediate future, where he can continue to adapt his game to the faster pace.

9. Mathieu Perreault, C, 21
Acquired: 6th round, 177th overall, 2006

In 2006, the Capitals mined the QMJHL for offensive talent. They took Bouchard with an early pick, then took a flyer on a kid from Drummondville — Perreault. To date, that investment has paid off in spades, as Perreault exploded offensively in the junior ranks — and his progression has continued in his rookie season.

Following a solid rookie campaign in 2005-06 with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan where he accumulated 52 points in 64 games, Perreault shocked the league by more than doubling his point production in the subsequent two years. In 2006-07 he racked up 119 points in 67 games, and ended his junior career with a season of 114 points in 65 contests. This year, as an AHL rookie, Perreault showed that he was more than ready for the next step, outperforming his earlier-drafted teammate by scoring 11 goals and adding 39 assists in 77 games.

In eight playoff games, playing on a line with Bourque, he’s accounted for two goals and four assists. The knock on Perreault — and why he fell so far in the draft — is his size. At 5’9, he’s diminutive even by modern-day NHL standards. However, if he continues this type of production, don’t be surprised if he gets a call-up or two over the next couple of seasons.

10. Dmitri Kugryshev, RW, 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 58th overall, 2008

Kugryshev’s first season in North America, by all accounts, can be deemed a success. It started with a training-camp dinner with fellow prospect Varlamov and some guy named Ovechkin, and ended with the QMJHL‘s rookie scoring title. In 57 games, he scored 74 points, which included 30 goals. In the playoffs, Kugryshev’s mastery continued, with 20 points in 17 games.

In the process, Kugryshev showed that he was more than just the beneficiary of playing with Nikita Filatov on their Red Army squad. The 5’11 right winger proved that he could go it alone, and has set himself up as a quality prospect within the Caps organization.

Kugryshev doesn’t turn 20 until January, so should be returning to Quebec next season.

11. Joe Finley, D, 21
Acquired: 1st round, 27th overall, 2005

Finley completed his fourth season with the UND this year, and continued his solid play from the blueline. In 27 games, Finley, an assistant captain with the Fighting Sioux, scored two goals and added eight assists in 27 games. He also showed a willingness to throw his weight around to the tune of 56 PIMs.

And that weight is considerable. Finley stands out from the regular hockey crowd — at 6’7, 240 he stands out from most crowds. In early April the Caps got the big blueliner to ink a two-year pro contract, which permitted him to get into one game with the Bears. He gave Hershey a taste of what to expect next season as, while he didn’t get any goals or assists, he finished the game plus-one, and racked up seven minutes in the penalty box. Expect more big hits, physicality, and solid defensive play next year in the AHL from the tall blueliner.

Finley recently left the Bears, with the team’s permission, to finish up his degree work at the University of North Dakota.

12. Keith Seabrook, D, 20
Acquired: 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2008

Seabrook’s season’s not over yet. The 20-year-old is still pushing his Calgary Hitmen in the WHL finals, and he’s more than pulling his weight. With 15 points in 17 games, including four goals, the young blueliner’s been a key for the Hitmen all year long.

The Delta, BC native left the University of Denver after one season, due to his desire to play in more games. Since then, he’s shown both durability and performance — playing in 59 and 64 games, respectfully, and posting totals of 55 points on 15 goals and 40 assists this season.

Although his defensive play is sporadic, Seabrook should get a chance to ply his trade in Hershey next season. His offensive upside is too great to ignore, and he should enjoy a productive career if he can apply defensive learning to his game.

13. Sami Lepisto, D, 24
Acquired: Drafted, 66th overall, 2004

Lepisto’s already had two cracks at the NHL roster so far, with a pair of seven-game stints under his belt. However, he’s been suffering from a spleen injury that’s kept him out of the playoffs so far.

In 70 games with the Bears, the Finn has four goals and 38 assists. This year, with the Caps, he added four assists in those seven games. At 6’1, Lepisto’s got good size for a blueliner and his skating has been more than adequate. He’s been a key offensive cog on the bears, and with significant international experience under his belt — most recently last year’s World Championships — he’s not easily rattled on the blue line. Lepisto’s got a good chance of cracking the NHL roster for an extended period of time next year.

14. Joel Broda, C
Acquired: 5th round, 144th overall, 2008

Broda began the year with the lowly Moose Jaw Warriors, scoring a very lopsided 36 goals to just 12 assists in 39 games. Traded to the top-flight Calgary Hitmen, he scored a more balanced 17 goals and 22 assists with that team in 28 games. He kept it up in the long playoff run as well.

With his fall birthday, Broda will be eligible to play in the AHL next season, but could also return to junior.

15. Andrew Gordon, RW, 24
Acquired: 7th round, 197th overall, 2004

After bouncing between the ECHL and AHL last season, Gordon found a home and stuck to it — for the most part. However, it’s not likely he’d complain about the early Christmas present that was his one-game call-up to the big club.

Gordon, a late-round pick in the Ovechkin draft, is setting himself up to be quite the diamond in the rough. He’s proven to be a steady scorer at the pro level, netting 20 goals and adding 24 assists in 80 AHL games this season. In Hershey’s ongoing playoff run, he’s managed to chip in with two goals and two assists in the eight games to date.

A commitment to solid positional play and effort has won him many fans. Average size and weight may have held him back in the past, but Gordon’s shown the willingness to work — along with coachability — that’s endeared him to his club.

16. Stefan Della Rovere, LW, 19
Acquired: 7th round, 204th overall, 2008

Since the Barrie Colts were eliminated in the OHL playoffs, Della Rovere’s been along for the ride as the Hershey Bears progress through the AHL playoffs. It’s just another opportunity for the young forward to build upon his already impressive reservoir of pressure-filled experience.

After all, Della Rovere was a key part of two gold-medal winning Team Canada squads. More than the sum of his parts, Rovere is a grit forward who is seemingly always in the middle of the action. Frequently, that leads to offensive chances, as evidenced by his 27 goals in 54 games this season. He was the Colts’ captain and has long been described as a great guy in the dressing room.

He’s played through injuries over the past couple of years, but that hasn’t impacted his production greatly. The Caps signed the Richmond Hill, ON native to a three-year contract in April, but he needs to go back to junior for another year.

17. Justin Taylor, C, 20
Acquired: 6th round, 180th overall, 2007

Offense has never been a challenge on the London Knights, so Taylor focused on those things that would make him indispensable to the team — and in doing so has made him a much more attractive part of the Capitals’ future.

In 64 games this season, Taylor posted impressive numbers of 37 goals, 30 assists, and over 100 minutes in penalties. But what was more impressive was how frequently Taylor was on the ice. He played all three facets of the game, excelling on penalty kills, and he frequently did the dirty work riding shotgun on John Tavares‘ line when he came to the team.

The London native would be an ideal candidate to return to the hometown club as an overager this season.

18. Eric Mestery, D, 18
Acquired: 2nd round, 57th overall, 2008

Mestery, who will turn 19 on May 28, is another imposing blueline prospect, in the same vein as the aforementioned Finley. At 6’5 he has the height, but at 195 pounds, there’s still plenty of room for the bulk. The young blueliner was traded to the Lethbridge Hurricanes in November, as the club was looking for his veteran presence and skating ability. And while he was intended to be used in all situations — PK, PP, even strength — the fact is that Mestery’s game is not one of point production.

In 58 games split between the Hurricanes and the Tri-City Americans, Mestery put up season totals of one goal and 17 assists. In 11 playoff games, Mestery only added one assist. And despite finishing plus five during the regular season, Mestery’s struggled in the playoffs, with a minus-five ranking in the 11 games.

Mestery will have one more year at the junior level to refine his skill and put on weight. Some time spent this summer at the prospects camps should help to prepare him for the increased expectations he’ll have next season in the WHL.

19. Braden Holtby, G, 19
Acquired: 4th round, 93rd overall, 2008

Holtby was dominant between the pipes for the Saskatoon Blades this season, winning 40 games and posting a 2.62 GAA behind a .910 save percentage. While the Blades flamed out of the playoffs earlier than expected, it wasn’t due to Holtby’s play. In fact, in the seven-game series, he improved upon both this GAA and save percentage: posting a 2.32 and a .912 respectively.

The Marshall, SK native saw a bit of pro action this season — albeit from the bench — serving as a backup in a late April game for Hershey. Next year the 6’1, 200-pound goalie may find himself back out west in the WHL as an overager, considering the wealth of goaltending talent the Caps have currently.

20. Josh Godfrey, D, 21
Acquired: 2nd round, 34th overall, 2007

With the Soo, Godfrey played a key role in all of the Greyhounds’ success and was a star throughout the OHL. His first professional season? Not so much.

Early in the season, Godfrey was with the Bears, but was frequently out of the lineup due to injuries and coaches’ decisions. He ended up playing in 13 games, earning six assists, but it became clear that the player needed to work on various aspects of his game — he couldn’t rely on the booming shot that got him through the junior ranks. He ended up playing in 37 games in the ECHL, scoring five goals and adding 20 assists before succumbing to an upper-body injury that held him out of the last month of the season and playoffs.

Godfrey needs to improve his overall defensive play and consistency. If he can do so, he’ll be competing for a role on what’s sure to be a crowded Bears blueline.