Capitals affiliates win both AHL and ECHL titles

By Dan Watkins

This season was one of the most successful years that the Capitals have had within their minor-league system. The Hershey Bears won the AHL Calder Cup while the South Carolina Stingrays won the ECHL Kelly Cup. This was the Bears 10th Calder Cup victory, making them the most successful franchise ever in the AHL.

While both rosters were stocked with seasoned veterans, the Capitals were able to have 20 prospects play in the ECHL, AHL, or both during the course of the season.  Below is a review of all of their seasons, in alphabetical order .

Karl Alzner, D, 20

6’2, 210 lbs

Alzner certainly didn’t disappoint in his first professional season. Thought of as a defensive defenseman, Alzner was still able to put up 16 assists and 20 points in 48 games for Hershey during the regular season. Since he also played upwards of 30 games for the Capitals, his games played in the AHL was relatively low.

Alzner showed why he could be a future top-pairing defenseman in his first professional season. He stays calm with the puck and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Probably one of the smartest players in the entire Capitals organization, Alzner only registered 10 penalty minutes during the course of the entire regular season, an astonishing number for a rookie defenseman.

With a strong regular season behind him, the Burnaby, BC native hit a snag in the playoffs when he was injured towards the beginning of the second-round series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He was able to return from his concussion in time for game 3 of the finals though, and provided a defensive spark that the team needed to win the Cup. Alzner will most likely not spend much, if any, time in the minors next season.

Jay Beagle, C,  23

6’3, 200 lbs

Showing an impressive scoring touch in his first season in 2007-08, Beagle took a step back as far as offensive production goes in 2008-09. Going from 37 points to nine points might seem like a dramatic step back, but the rugged center suffered a concussion early on in the season that derailed his offensive progress. When he came back from the injury, he was more of a checker and was tasked with stopping the other team’s top lines.

But he did all the little things right to keep him in favor with the Capitals, even earning a recall during the round 2 playoff series. Beagle is a hard-working center whose legs never stop moving, an attribute that could land him in the NHL one day permanently. Until then however, he needs to work on his finishing abilities and overall scoring touch. He has a great shot at getting into more games with the Capitals next season as a fourth liner.

Francois Bouchard, RW, 21
6’0, 180 lbs

In his first full professional season, Bouchard showed flashes of what made him an early second-round pick in 2006. He also showed inconsistencies, which lead many to believe he needs one or even two more years in Hershey before he is ready for a shot in the NHL.

Bouchard plays a flashy game, but is also fairly solid at picking up the puck around the boards. Having scored 15 goals and 35 points in his first 64 regular season games, Bouchard played on a line for the majority of the year that consisted of fellow Caps prospects Mathieu Perreault and Oskar Osala. Out of the three, he was the least productive by a small margin, and hopes to build on his numbers next year with more ice time.

Like many young players that come out of the QMJHL, Bouchard needs to work on beefing up and adding strength so he is not pushed off the puck so easily. With an accurate shot, a nice bag of tricks full of moves, slick passing abilities, and an overall good sense of the game, Bouchard could one day turn into a top-six right winger in the NHL. But he could just as easily not be able to translate his skill set into what is desired for a top-six winger.

Chris Bourque, LW, 23

5’8, 180 lbs

One of the oldest tenured Bears at the ripe age of 23, Bourque had a big year. Since joining the team in 2005-06, Bourque has increased his point totals for every season. This year was no exception, where Bourque was able to tally 73 points in 69 games played. This earned him a spot on the starting lineup for PlanetUSA at the 2009 AHL All-Star Game, his first professional all star game.

Where Bourque seemed to take his game to the next level though was in the playoffs. Netting 16 assists and 21 points in 22 games, Bourque was constantly throwing his weight around and trying to mix it up for the Bears. It was almost a guarantee that when Bourque played, he would lose his helmet at least once every game from being overly physical during the play. This is a positive since some see his 5’8 frame and think that he cannot hang with the big boys.

While Bourque is very physical for his size, what he needs to do to adjust to the NHL level is work on his puck protection. With a small frame and even bigger and more skilled defensemen in the NHL, this is crucial in his development if he ever hopes to make the jump for good.

John Carlson, D, 19
6’3, 210 lbs

Only positives can be found for this 2008 late first-round draft pick. After a very successful junior season in which the Natick, MA native racked up a massive 76 points from the blue line, he joined the Bears for the start of the second round of the playoffs and never looked back. In 16 playoff games, Carlson registered two goals and one assist. But more importantly, he gained the trust of the Hershey coaching staff as the playoffs wore on.

Solid in his own zone as well, the right-handed defenseman impressed the Hershey coaches with his overall knowledge of the game. By the end of the finals, Carlson was playing in all situations and running the second power play unit from the point. A heavy hitter in his own right, Carlson might have earned himself ticket to Washington next season, but will most likely follow the same career path that Alzner has had so far with the organization and split time between the big club and chocolate town.

Sean Collins, D, 25

6’1, 215 lbs

Collins is an intriguing prospect. A late bloomer, Collins was able to get into 39 games this season with the Bears and 15 with the Washington Capitals. He registered his first NHL goal against Tampa Bay and did not look out of place at all in the big league.

Many times during the Bears season, Collins was a healthy scratch. This can somewhat be attributed to the incredible depth on the blue line in Hershey. Even during the AHL playoffs, Collins only got into six total games.

Collins’ game is very simple. He has a strong skill set, but does not do anything to stand out. Since he played it extremely safe while with the Capitals, we do not know how he would perform in an increased role. Collins could be a late bloomer and turn out to be a solid third-pairing defenseman in the NHL, but he first needs to work on standing out, even just a little bit, at the minor-league level.

Josh Godfrey, D, 22

6’1, 210 lbs

While appearing in 13 games for the Bears in his first professional season, Godfrey spent the majority of his time in South Carolina, playing in 37 regular-season games and six playoff games. The offensive output from his junior days is still apparent, as he was able to put up 25 points during the regular season and four in the post season. These are all positives for a first year player, and Godfrey can maybe take the next step up and play well for the Bears next season.

Godfrey has a cannon of a shot and he isn’t afraid to use it. Because goalies have problems handling his rebounds, he gets many of his assists by simply firing it at the net. The right-handed defenseman has also put on some weight since being taken 34th overall in 2007. Playing in his own zone is still the biggest weakness in his game.

Andrew Gordon, RW, 23
5’11, 180 lbs

By simply looking at the stat sheet, it would seem like Gordon’s productivity went down in 2008-09, in which he had 45 points in 80 games. This would seem pale in comparison to the 51 points racked up in 58 games in his rookie year of 2007-08, but numbers do not tell the entire story.

Gordon has all the skills to become a quality NHL forward, most likely on the third line. This season in Hershey, it was almost as if he was settling into his role. He became more responsible defensively and started killing penalties as well. While the offensive numbers might have dropped off, Gordon’s overall game increased to a new level that even earned him a call-up to Washington for one game.

The Halifax native is strong along the boards, a tremendous skater, and feisty as well. He scores timely goals and shows up for big games, as evidenced by his first period strike against Cory Schneider of Manitoba in the clenching game of the Calder Cup Finals that started the scoring barrage which saw Hershey jump up 3-0 early on. If Gordon continues to work hard and do all the small things right, he will eventually be able to make the jump into the NHL. Look for Gordon to get some call-ups next season to Washington since he will be in a contract year.

Andrew Joudrey, C, 24

5’11, 185 lbs

Possibly one of the smoothest and fastest skaters in the AHL, Joudrey had a very productive year for a defensive minded center, scoring seven goals and 27 points in 69 games this season. In the playoffs, he played even more on the penalty kill and against other teams top players, resulting in only one goal scored in 22 games.

Not known for offensive prowess, Joudrey is an above average penalty killer who has the wheels to burn. When he starts skating, it is a thing of beauty. This skill coupled with his defensive minded awareness means that he has a shot at the NHL level as a fourth-line energy player. Much like Andrew Gordon, he does all the little things right and can help out virtually any team with his skill set. The former NCAA national champion has an important season coming up. To date, he has not gotten into any games with the Capitals, but after his strong regular and post season appearances in Hershey, he should get qualified for a new deal and quite possibly receive a cup of coffee at the NHL level.

Sami Lepisto, D, 24
5’11, 180

In his two seasons in North America, Lepisto has impressed everyone with his offensive abilities and skill when it comes to the AHL level. The Finnish blue liner had 42 points this season in 70 games, before his season came crashing to a halt after tearing his spleen towards the end of the regular season. Because of this, Lepisto was unable to play in any playoff games, although he was medically cleared to play before game six of the finals.

To make the jump to the NHL, Lepisto needs to look more in control when in his own end. In the AHL, he can make up for his deficiencies with his speed and stick skills. In the seven NHL games he got into this season, it was apparent that while he had the offensive capabilities to stick in the big league, he wasn’t nearly ready enough when it came to defensive zone play. He was caught pinching at incorrect times as well, which lead to a few goals against the red, white, and blue.

At 24, Lepisto is running out of time to make the permanent jump to the NHL. He needs a new contract during this summer, and it is still unseen whether or not he might make the jump back to Europe. If he is qualified and does stay however, he has a good shot at possibly playing for the Capitals next season with a strong training camp performance. It will probably be as a sixth or seventh defenseman, but he needs the practice against the highest level of competition he can get.

Daren Machesney, G, 22

6’0, 185 lbs

After a strong season with the Bears in 2007-08, Machesney took a huge step back in his development this season. Posting a putrid .876 save percentage, he lost the starting job to rookie goaltender and fellow Caps prospect Michal Neuvirth.

At times, Machesney looked out of his league when playing against stronger teams. As the season wore on, you could tell that the coaching staff was losing faith in him, evidenced by his decreased playing time. Because of this and the fact that the Capitals have great goaltending depth with Neuvirth and Varlamov, it would be a shock to see Machesney re-signed this summer.

Patrick McNeill, D, 22

6’1, 200 lbs

In his second full season of professional hockey, McNeill showed improvement in virtually every statistical category. In 46 games played, he had 18 points and was an astonishing +24. He looked less nervous than in his first season, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

McNeill is more of an offensive defenseman, and it will be interesting to see what his output is, as far as points go, next season. Despite the above average plus/minus rating, McNeill is still shaky in his own zone. He also took numerous hooking or tripping penalties due to skaters being able to beat him to the outside, especially in games one and two of the finals where he seemed completely lost on the ice. This could be solved if he works on making the transition from attack to defense more smoothly. With improved decision-making and overall defensive play, McNeill could have a shot at playing a few games with the Caps next season.

Travis Morin, C, 25

6’2, 195 lbs

One of the highest scorers in the ECHL, Morin had 88 points in 71 regular season games, and 22 points in 19 playoff games on the way to the Kelly Cup Championship. The former ninth-round pick has proved everything he can at the ECHL level, but it might be too little too late.

Morin’s contract is up this summer and he still has not got into many games with the Bears. The lanky pass distributor is obviously older than most Capitals prospects, and it is still to be seen whether or not the Capitals offer him a contract for next season. Morin has been a victim of the numbers game due to the abundance of highly skilled centers in Hershey, and he might become a victim once again since the Capitals are right around the current contract limit of 50 for next season. Morin still has much to prove at the AHL level on the way to obtaining the ultimate goal of playing in the NHL.

Michal Neuvirth, G, 21

6’1, 200 lbs

Neuvirth has had possibly the longest and most tiring season of any Capitals player in the organization. At the beginning of the year, he was slated to start for South Carolina. After a failed attempt by the Capitals to relocate him to the Czech Republic for one season, Neuvirth found himself in the ECHL All Star game with his stellar first half of play. But due to injuries on the Caps, Neuvirth got into a few games with the Bears before playing in five with the Washington Capitals. When he returned to Hershey, he took the reins and never looked back until he was holding his Calder Cup MVP trophy after game six.

Having a stellar post season in Hershey with a save percentage over 93 percent, Neuvirth’s stock has skyrocketed and he could battle it out with fellow 2006 first rounder Simeon Varlamov for rights to be the Capitals future number one goalie. While he may have just turned 21 at the end of March, Neuvirth plays like a veteran. He possesses solid rebound control and is rarely caught out of position. He is also a big game goaltender, as evidenced by his four shutouts during the postseason. Neuvirth will most likely end up in Hershey again next year, but expect him to get ample playing time with the Capitals if injuries force them to recall a goalie.

Oskar Osala, LW, 21

6’4, 220 lbs

The big Finnish winger had an up and down season in his first as a North American professional. He was able to pot 23 goals in 75 games played, most of which were in the slot or down below the hash marks. He’s a big winger who will be able to muck it up in front of opposing teams nets.

The problem is that Osala seemed to pull disappearing acts for multiple games at a time. He would go from scoring multiple goals one night to being off the score sheet for another week or two. If Osala wants to make the jump to the NHL, he needs to improve his consistency. Playing in two games for the Capitals this season, the Vaasa, Finland native should now know what he needs to work on to take his game to a new level. He has the shot, the physicality, and the toughness to succeed big time at the NHL level. He just needs to put it all together.

Mathieu Perreault, C, 21
5’8, 166 lbs

Centering the rookie line in Hershey that consisted of himself, Osala, and Bouchard, Perreault had a very successful first professional year, notching 39 assists and 50 points in 77 regular-season games. He was even able to have some success in the tight checking AHL playoffs, where he netted eight points, including a GWG.

Obviously Perreault is incredibly undersized, but it didn’t affect him too much in his first year in the AHL. What will be interesting to see is if he can adjust his game to the NHL level, where smaller players have to be that much quicker just to be able to dodge big and skilled defensemen.

The Quebec native has produced at every level he has played. This is due to the fact that he has a very strong raw skill set. He is fast, decent at face-offs, and can dish the puck to his wingers with ease. Next season, look for Perreault to get a cup of coffee at the NHL level. If he can add some weight without slowing his game down, the Capitals might have the future No. 2 center that they desperately need.

Steve Pinizzotto, C, 25
6’1, 195 lbs

"Pinner" might be just the type of pest that the Capitals are looking for. When the time came to step up his game in the playoffs, Pinizzotto elevated to new levels, scoring three timely goals and assisting on two others. Not known for his scoring touch though, he was affective in getting under the skin of the opposing team members. Essentially, he is a higher skilled version of former Hershey Bear Louis Robitaille.

Pinizzotto needs a new contract for next season, and don’t be surprised if the Caps qualify him and give him a shot to get into some games next season. He was recalled for a game against Toronto, his hometown team, but was a healthy scratch that night, so he is still looking for his first NHL game. Pinizzotto may be kept because there is no other player in the organization like him.

Sasha Pokulok, D, 23

6’5, 230 lbs

Pokulok has been a disappointment from the moment he had his name called 14th overall in the 2005 NHL draft. Slated at the time to go in the second or third round, he has done nothing to prove the critics wrong, mainly due to nagging injuries that mainly include multiple severe concussions. He got into eight games with the Bears this season, but played 23 for the Stingrays, notching 11 points.

Pokulok in all likelihood will be let go this summer. With his entry-level deal expiring, it is unlikely that the Capitals will want to retain his services.

Simeon Varlamov, G, 21
6’1, 183 lbs

The surprise of the Capitals 2009 playoff team, Varlamov spent the majority of the year in Hershey, where he racked up an impressive record of 19-7-1. With a solid save percentage at .916, Varlamov adjusted very well to the bigger North American rinks in his first professional year in the Capitals organization.

Varlamov figures to battle for a spot in Washington next season. The quick goalie has tremendous reflexes, dancer like flexibility, and a sharp glove hand. Just like most young goalies, what he needs to work on is his consistency. He looks like a world beater on the vast majority of his starts, but other times seems to let in soft goals that could be stopped by his grandmother. With a full year of North American hockey under his belt and off-season workouts with goalie coach Dave Prior, Varlamov is in the pole position as the Capitals next great young No. 1 goalie.

Kyle Wilson, C, 24
6’0, 200 lbs

A former late round draft pick for the Minnesota Wild, Wilson found his way into the Capitals organization through the Bears, and has been producing ever since at the AHL level. A solid 50 or 60-point scorer, this season was no exception, as Wilson scored 28 goals and assisted on 30 others during the full 80-game regular season. He also had a strong playoff showing, netting 10 points in 22 games.

Wilson has looked strong in previous Capitals training camps, even standing out so much so that Coach Bruce Boudreau has openly praised his talents and work efforts. The problem is that at 24, he still has not gotten into an NHL game yet, and time is running out. Wilson’s contract expires at the end of this season, and it will be interesting to see if the Capitals think he can take the next step. His point production at the AHL level has been constant, but the all around skilled center might have already shown everything that he can show. Is there more room grow? If not, Wilson will probably never take that next step to the big show and will always be considered a solid AHL level player.