While the Washington Capitals are in a transition period in many ways, with a new coach, a new general manager, and a new-look defense, they have a wealth of extremely talented players to pass the torch to in coming years.
When former GM George McPhee was relieved of duty after the completion of the 2013-14 season, he left behind a talent pool that is brimming with offensive talent. The Fall 2014 Top 20 list is bursting with mobile blueliners, high skill forwards, and even a few stay at home defensemen. However, the question of whether or not these players fit within the system of newly appointed head coach Barry Trotz remains to be seen.
1. (1) Evgeny Kuznetsov, C, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 26th overall, 2010
Evgeny Kuznetsov played five seasons in the KHL and has now finally made his way over to what looks lot be a very promising NHL career. He looked great in his limited showing in the 2013-14 season, and 2014-15 has all the makings of a solid rookie campaign. New head coach Barry Trotz will have to properly utilize the crafty forward, as his offensive skills and skating could be a real game breaker.
A feeling out process will almost certainly be warranted for the young forward, as Trotz has a notable defensive mindset to his coaching, and the defensive aspect of the game is not necessarily Kuznetsov’s forte. However, given how he performed in the 17 games last season combined with his KHL success, he is a must-watch up and coming talent in the NHL this year.
2. (2) Andre Burakovsky, LW, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2013
Burakovsky is another exciting young high-end forward the Capitals are looking to grow as a major piece to their offense. The Swede is a flashy player with great hands, solid skating, and a fantastic shot. After playing in Sweden for a few years, he burst onto the North American seen by having an 87 point season with Erie in the OHL. This summer, both he and Kuznetsov took place in the NHLPA rookie showcase. It is safe to say that there is a definite buzz surrounding the two highly skilled offensive prospects. Just like Kuznetsov, Burakovsky is not a defensive minded forward, and this may warrant some growing pains as he progresses closer to the NHL. While there is no doubting his offensive talents, the Capitals will certainly want both of these young guns to develop a more complete game.
3. (3) Madison Bowey, D, 8.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2013
Madison Bowey had an impressive 2013-14 season. He showed an improvement in almost every facet of the game, which has made his stock rise. He is solid in almost every regard, playing smart positionally, skating well, and transitioning the puck up the ice well. He had 60 points in 72 games in the WHL as a defenseman, which is a tremendous total. He also has been noted as a solid off-ice player. His work ethic and approach to the game has been commended by many scouts and players around the team. This was exemplified by Bowey being made the captain of Kelowna last season, a title he will carry into what will be his final year of juniors. With solid offensive and defensive skills as well as a leadership mentality, Bowey is among the top of the Capitals prospect pool.
4. (NR) Jakub Vrana, W, 8.0D
Drafted 1st round, 13th overall, 2014
Vrana is the third of an offensively oriented trio in the Capitals system that also includes Burakovsky and Kuznetsov. His game differs slightly from that of the latter two, as he is more inclined to get into the corners and make his way to the front of the net for second and third chance goals. He does not quite have the high end stick skills and vision either, but the work ethic, skating, and solid offensive tools make him a true scoring threat when he is on the ice. He could also stand to work on his defensive game, as well as getting stronger.
Vrana is the smallest of the trio, standing in at only 5’11. His speed makes him a difficult target to track for defenseman, but he will likely have the toughest time adjusting to the NHL.
5. (7) Connor Carrick, D, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 137th overall, 2012
Carrick has been a welcomed addition to what is already a pretty solid group of defensive prospects. Due to injuries and lack of general depth at the blue line, he made his NHL debut last season at just 19 years of age. Carrick slid in nicely as a bottom pairing puck-mover, but has the long-term outlook of a potential top four guy with some special teams utilization. While last seasons NHL totals are not anything to write home about, Carrick has come a long way in his development and looks like a fifth-round steal. He has a strong offensive game and is a great skater, but he could stand to limit his mistakes in his own end, as well as pack on some muscle for the coming years of NHL competition. The Capitals have brought in some help this offseason to shore up the blue line, and Carrick is going to have to be at the top of his game to prove he belongs with the big club.
6. (5) Riley Barber, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 167th overall, 2012
For a player taken in the sixth round, Barber has been absolutely outstanding. His first two years of collegiate play with Miami University have been tremendous, and he has been one of, if not the best player for his squad. He has also been very good at the international level, and captained Team USA’s U20 World Junior Championship team. A relative unknown when he was drafted, Barber has shown excellent offensive instincts and a great set of wheels. He has also grown a decent defensive game, having been a player relied on to play all situations for Miami. He is still growing physically and at least one more year in college will do him well.
7. (NR) Vitek Vanecek, G, 8.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 39th overall, 2014
While he is a little bit small by NHL goalie standards there is a ton to like about Vanecek. Athletically he is an incredible talent. His reflexes, aggression, and speed around the net, make him a goaltender capable of making otherworldly saves. While he needs to get a bit stronger in the technical aspect of the game there is no doubting he is a burgeoning young goaltending talent. His style is similar to that of Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, and he may want to take a page out of his book and play extra aggressive. His lack of size will not be as much of an issue if the young goaltender can work on challenging shooters and relying on his superb athleticism. He will head back to the Czech league this year, but he is a welcomed addition to the Capitals goaltending pipeline.
8. (11) Chandler Stephenson, C, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2012
Stephenson went through a breakout season in 2013-14, managing 89 points in 69 games, which is more than he combined for in the previous two seasons. He followed up an outstanding junior season by signing his first pro contract. The transition from left wing to center this last offseason saw Stephenson put up his best statistical year ever, and he has etched out a place for himself as an intriguing playmaking center. His two-way game is also pretty solid, as he led the WHL in shorthanded goals last season. That along with his high hockey IQ makes him a potential top nine center at the next level. He will make his way to the AHL for the 2014-15 season.
9. (8) Nate Schmidt, D, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, April 2nd, 2013
Schmidt has turned out to be a solid free agent pick up for the Capitals. He is an offensive defenseman, and due to the lack of depth and injuries with the Capitals last season, he was able to go up and play in DC for a bit. While his stay was limited, Schmidt showed a pretty solid offensive game, while not being too big of a risk defensively. His prowess on the powerplay was limited while there, but once he was sent back down to the Hershey Bears of the AHL, he was able to quarterback the powerplay a little bit more.
He does not have the biggest upside, but overall Schmidt showed a game that is capable of playing mid pairing NHL minutes. Like Carrick, he will have his mettle tested next year due to the Capitals free agent acquisitions on the blue line.
10. (4) Philipp Grubauer, G, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 112th overall, 2010
Grubauer was the benefactor of some injuries and inconsistencies between the pipes of the Capitals. When he was called upon he did surprisingly well. He finished the season with a respectable .925 save percentage and 2.38 goals against in 17 appearances in DC. He was equally as capable with Hershey in the AHL.
In all likelihood Grubauer will be the starter for Hershey in 2014-15. The athletic German has progressed a lot since joining the pro ranks, but he will have to take another step to prove he is more than just an NHL backup or middling AHL starter.
11. (10) Patrick Wey, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 115th overall, 2009
Wey went on quite a journey last season that involved the AHL, NHL, and ECHL. The big, steady, stay-at-home defenseman kept playing his game though. Wey is a simple player who makes his mark in his own zone. While he had a little more offensive oomph with Boston College, Wey has settled into a role of shutdown and penalty killing. His first season in the AHL was hampered by injury, but he still managed to put together some respectable and promising performances in his limited time. At 6’3 and 207 he has the size to be a factor, but the Capitals will be looking for him to establish himself as a more prominent figure on the Hershey Bears blue line before he likely gets another chance at the NHL.
12. (14) Christian Djoos, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 195th overall, 2012.
Djoos has flown under the radar playing over in Sweden, but the solid all-around defenseman has been very good in his native country. For a 19-year-old defenseman playing at the top level of Swedish hockey, he has been outstanding. Now 20, Djoos is looking at his third year in Sweden. He has worked on his defensive game and has started to bulk up a little bit, but still has a long way to go to be considered a suitable NHL defenseman. That being said, he was taken in the seventh round of 2012, and it is really looking like the Capitals scored on this low risk selection.
Brown was acquired from Phoenix in a deal that sent the unhappy Martin Erat out West. The Capitals received an energetic young forward who had bided his time in the AHL. Upon his arrival to DC, he showed some decent versatility, a solid work ethic, and a grinding game that could very well land him on the Capitals bottom lines at some point. While his NHL timetable is perhaps a bit higher than those in front of him, his ranking drop from our Spring list comes purely due to his upside. While Brown has flirted with a 30 goal season in the AHL, it is unclear if he will ever be more than a third or fourth line player at the NHL level. He definitely has NHL utility, but it is not as high as some of the other members on the list above him.
14. (13) Tyler Lewington, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2013
In 2013, Lewington absolutely shredded the NHL combine. However, he was still taken in just the seventh round of the subsequent draft. The solidly built Lewington is willing to throw the open-ice hit, drop the gloves, and lay out to block a shot. He is not a flashy defenseman by any means, but he is a tough customer and a promising defenseman in many regards. While his offense is somewhat limited, Lewington did put up a decent point total with the Tigers this past season. It will be interesting to see how he builds on his solid 2013-14 campaign in the coming year. His ranking on the list drops ever so slightly due to the strong additions by the Capitals at the draft.
While Latta could definitely be higher on the list in terms of NHL ready, his upside is limited. The young forward who was acquired from Nashville in the Filip Forsberg trade, has made a name for himself as a gritty bottom line agitator. There is not really much more to Latta than that. His offense at the AHL has been pretty solid but there are no signs pointing to him being more than a 20-25 point agitator at the NHL level. He is a player that every team needs though, and he looks very close to having a job on the Capitals bottom line locked up. As with all agitators and grinders, Latta will have to tread the fine line of playing smart while still frustrating opponents and engaging physically.
16. (17) Brian Pinho, C, 6.5D
Drafted 6th round, 174th overall, 2013
Simply put, Pinho has dominated at every level he has played at so far. He was a standout at St. John’s Prep, and adapted quickly to the USHL where he became a star with the Indiana Ice. Next season he stands another test, as he will play for Providence College in the NCAA. Overall he has a fairly solid offensive skill set to him and is a strong skater. While he is not the biggest guy, he is by no means undersized at 6’1 and 185 pounds. He is just 19 and will get bigger and stronger as he gets older. Pinho is on the long term development track and will spend the next three or four years in the NCAA. He will definitely be a player to watch moving forward in NCAA hockey as the Friars try to have another solid season in Hockey East.
17. (NR) Travis Boyd, C, 6.0C
Drafted 6th round, 177th overall, 2011
Boyd was quietly one of the University of Minnesota’s most effective centers last season. He saw his point totals more than double and his goal totals triple in just a year. When you look at the overall arc from start to finish, Boyd has come a very long way since his freshman year. While Boyd is not as naturally skilled as other players, he is an intelligent player with very good on-ice vision. He is also a fairly strong defensive center, and he was one of Minnesota’s key penalty killers. His inclusion on the back-end of the Capitals top 20 is a definite nod to the way Boyd has carried himself over the years. He is not flashy, but he gets the job done. He will enter 2014-15 as a senior with Minnesota.
18. (18) Cameron Schilling, D, 6.5D
Signed as a free agent, March 27th, 2012
Schilling, like Patrick Wey, has been sat on by the Capitals while he has developed his stay at home game with Hershey. While he has had his ups and downs, he seems to have settled into a steady role with the Bears, and has even had a call up or two to the Capitals. He is not quite ready to take the step to becoming a six or seven defenseman, but he does not seem to be far off. The only problem that Schilling now faces, like many other defenseman in the system, is the new additions the Capitals have made on the blue line. As the oldest player still considered a prospect in the system, Schilling needs to have a big year to prove he is still relevant.
19. (16) Caleb Herbert, C, 6.5D
Drafted 5th round, 142nd overall, 2010
A crafty forward, Caleb Herbert, finished up a noteworthy career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth this last Spring. He is hoping to carry over his opportunistic style to the AHL where he had a limited, yet impressive seven-game showcase with Hershey. His quickness, hands, and on-ice vision seem to be at a high level, and if he can couple that with a good adjustment to full-time AHL play, he should be on the right track developmentally. Herbert, for all intents and purposes, is a pretty low-risk/high-reward forward, and 2014-15 could show the Capitals glimpses of what that reward may be.
20. (NR) Shane Gersich, D, 6.5D
Drafted in the 5th round, 134th overall, 2014
Gersich, like Herbert before him, is a pretty low-risk/high-reward style of offensive talent. He has high-end offensive talent and is a great skater. He was a standout on the U.S. National U18 team, and he was also quite impressive with the US National Development program juniors competing in the USHL. He makes his move to Omaha this season for what will be his last year in the USHL. He will continue on to a great hockey program at the University of North Dakota in 2015-16.
Gersich is definitely a project player, and the long-term development path has already been laid before him. However, he possess a ton of raw potential to be a real goal scoring threat at multiple levels. The explosive nature of his game and the natural ability he bears are definitely things the Capitals intend to mold over these young stages. His development will be one to keep an eye on as the years progress and he faces stiffer competition.