Washington Capitals system buoyed by top-end talent

By Patrick Harbolick
Photo: Evgeny Kuznetsov remains the Washington Capitals top prospect. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Washington Capitals have some truly intriguing prospects with serious pro potential, but the upside tapers off after the first ten or so. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby will likely become good to great NHL players, but after that the Capitals have a dearth of impact prospects on the way. Many of their prospects are plying their trade for the Hershey Bears (AHL), and will need more pro seasoning before they’re ready to compete for NHL roster spots as bottom-six forwards.

1. (1) Evgeny Kuznetsov, RW 8.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 26th overall, 2010

Kuznetsov had a whirlwind campaign in 2010-11, dominating in the KHL and at the World Junior Championships in Buffalo. He notched 17 goals and 15 assists in 44 games with Traktor, en route to being named a KHL All-Star. At the WJC, he posted 11 points in seven games, tying for second in tournament scoring as he helped lead Team Russia to the coveted gold medal.

The prototypical slick, skilled Russian, Kuznetsov is one of the most offensively dominant prospects in all of hockey right now. He has the full offensive package in his repertoire, with amazing stick-handling abilities, great playmaking abilities, and a natural scoring touch. He’s a smooth skater and isn’t afraid to get to the dirty areas to score goals. However, he needs to work on his consistency and play in the defensive zone before he’s ready for the NHL. He projects to be a solid scoring second-liner, if not a top-line winger in the NHL. He’s expected to play in the KHL during the 2011-12 season, but could be with the Capitals as soon as the 2012-13 season.

2. (3) Braden Holtby, G 7.5B
Drafted 4th round, 93rd overall, 2008

Holtby had a great season in 2010-11, posting a 17-10-2 record with the Hershey Bears to go along with a sparkling 2.29 goals against average and a solid .920 save percentage. He was named to the AHL All-Star team as well. He saw NHL action too, getting into 14 games. He notched a 10-2-2 record to go along with an otherworldly 1.79 goals against average and a phenomenal .934 save percentage. Holtby and the Bears had a disappointing tour in the playoffs though, getting upset in the first round in six games by the Charlotte Checkers.

A skilled goaltender, Holtby has a nice mix of size and athleticism, to go along with a remarkable glove hand. He needs to get into more game action in order to continue his development, but his competitive nature ensures he won’t be giving up in net without a fight. He was slated to split starts with Michal Neuvirth for the Capitals in the 2011-12 season, but with the addition of veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun, Holtby will continue to hone his game in the AHL.

3. (5) Dmitri Orlov, D 7.0B
Drafted 2nd round, 55th overall, 2009

An offensively minded defenseman, Orlov had an impressive season in 2010-11, his third with Metallurg of the KHL. He notched 12 points and 43 penalty minutes in 45 games before joining the Bears after his season in Russia was complete. In 19 AHL games, he scored two goals and added seven assists, quickly making the transition to the North American game. Like most of the Bears, however, he didn’t have a great playoff series against the Checkers.

Orlov is truly an offense-first defenseman, with the ability to push the pace from the back end and launch cannons from the blue line. He has above average hockey sense and can distribute the puck well, but his play in the defensive zone is definitely a work in progress. He isn’t afraid to get involved in the physical side of the game, but is prone to mistakes, as evidenced by his less-than-stellar plus-minus numbers over the past few seasons. He signed a three-year, entry-level deal in March, and will likely spend next season in Hershey, growing into the top-four blueliner he has the potential to be. If injuries hit Washington, he is certainly one of the top options for recall.

4. (4) Cody Eakin, C 6.5B
Drafted 3rd round, 85th overall, 2009

Eakin dominated juniors in his fourth full season, notching 83 points in 56 games split between Swift Current and Kootenay of the WHL. He turned it on in the postseason, scoring 11 goals and adding 16 assists in 19 games as Kootenay made it all the way to the Memorial Cup tournament, where the Ice lost in the semi-final to Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors.

A speedy forward, Eakin does more than just point up points. He gets involved physically on the forecheck and is a reliable penalty killer. He’s also known for his competitive drive to succeed, which will only aid him in his pursuit of the NHL. He is still a little undersized and does need to work on his play without the puck, but he projects favorably as an above average third line center, who can shut down opposing forwards but also chip in a little offense. He’ll compete for a roster spot in training camp and his low cap hit is enticing, but he’ll likely spend most of the 2011-12 season in Hershey, gaining strength and adapting to the pro game. Like Orlov, he’s on the short list of call-ups should injuries strike the Capitals.

5. (6) Stanislav Galiev, LW 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 86th overall, 2010

A gifted offensive threat, Galiev had a supremely successful sophomore season with the St. John Sea Dogs (QMJHL) in 2011-12. In 64 games, he notched 37 goals and 28 assists to go along with a plus-36. As a rookie he was highly touted for his playmaking abilities, but in his second season with the Sea Dogs he showed more of his natural goal-scoring abilities. In 19 postseason games, he notched 27 points and helped St. John capture the 2011 Memorial Cup title.

Much like Kuznetsov, Galiev has the full offensive package, with the ability to dangle with puck, distribute it, and snipe it home. He needs to add some strength to his slight frame and refine the defensive side of his game. Having just signed a three-year, entry level deal with the Capitals, Galiev will be over-flowing with confidence going in the training camp. He’s still likely a few years away from competing for a roster spot with the Capitals, and will likely be returned to St. John for his final junior season. Galiev is a star on the rise, and look for him to continue to hone his offensive game in the QMJHL.

6. (7) Mathieu Perreault, C 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 177th overall, 2006

In 35 games with the Capitals in the 2010-11 season, Perreault posted 14 points as he struggled to find consistency at the center-ice position. He was sent down to the Bears, where he showed his scoring touch, notching 11 goals and adding 24 assists in 34 games. He also added six points in six playoff games.

Perreault has fantastic vision and a nose for the net, but he’s pushed off the puck easily and his lack of size has seriously impeded his progress in the NHL. He also struggles in the defensive zone, which isn’t helping his case. This coming season is likely make-or-break for Perreault. If he doesn’t stick with the Capitals, he will have to clear waivers. If another team claims him, his future with the Capitals will be over. He has serious offensive skills, but the flaws in his game might prevent him from being anything more than a top AHL scorer.

7. (NR) Mattias Sjogren, C 6.0B
Acquired as a free agent, June 2011

A highly sought-after undrafted free agent, Sjogren signed with the Capitals in early June and made an impression at development camp. The 23-year-old showed progress with Farjestads in his third season in the SEL, notching 24 points in 51 games. He added nine points in 13 playoff games as Farjestads won the league championship. He also added four points in nine games at the 2011 World Championships as Sweden captured the silver medal.

Sjogren already has a pro-size frame and doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game. He also can score a bit as well. He’ll compete for a roster spot in training camp, but it’s uncertain if he’ll make the team. He may need a year in the AHL to adjust to the North American game before he’s ready to compete as a gritty third- or fourth-liner in the NHL.

8. (8) Patrick Wey, D 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 115th overall, 2009

Wey showed serious improvement in his sophomore campaign with Boston College, getting into 37 of his team’s 39 games. In those 37 games, he scored one goal and added seven assists to go along with 45 penalty minutes. Unfortunately, Boston College was knocked out in the semi-finals of the NCAA West Regional by Colorado College. He also played well at the WJC, anchoring a shut-down pairing and proving to be a great penalty killer.

Originally more of an offensive defenseman, Wey has really adapted his game to be more defensively oriented. His speed and positioning are definite assets, as he’s growing into an effective, if not particularly burly, defender. He still needs some time to gain strength and experience, but he’s only a few years away from turning pro and hopefully making an impact with the Capitals.

9. (18) Brett Flemming, D 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 145th overall, 2009

Flemming had a superlative fourth and final season with Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, scoring four goals and adding 39 assists to go along with a league-leading plus-60 in 68 games. The Majors had a great season in 2010-11, as they hosted the 2011 Memorial Cup. Unfortunately, the Majors lost to Galiev’s Sea Dogs in the final, but they put up a great fight. Flemming was part of that effort to get to the Memorial Cup, posting 13 points in 20 postseason games.

An undersized defender, Flemming has relied on his offense and solid positioning to get by in the past, but he increased the physical aspects of his game last season as well. He is a great powerplay quarterback and moves the puck up ice with ease. He needs to add some strength to his frame and work on his play in the defensive zone, but he has a bright future as a reliable defenseman if he’s not asked to do too much. Look for him to step up and contribute on Hershey’s back line right away next season.

10. (NR) Steffen Soberg, G 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 177th overall, 2011

Despite playing for the abysmal Norweigian Mangelrud team, Soberg was named to the all-rookie team of the GET-ligaen. He was called upon to make a ton of saves, but he posted a bloated 4.17 goals against average and .884 save percentage. On the international stage, he acquitted himself well at the U-18 and the U-20 WJC, despite again playing for more over-matched teams. In six U-18 games, he posted a 3.90 goals against average and a fantastic .931 save percentage. In three U-20 games, he notched a 3.57 goals against average and a solid .913 save percentage.

What Soberg lacks in size, he more than makes up for in quickness and athleticism. He’s got a good glove hand, and he’s a battler in net who doesn’t like to lose or give up bad goals. After consulting with the Capitals’ brass, he decided to come to North America for the 2011-12 season. He was selected sixth overall by Swift Current in the 2011 CHL Import Draft, and is slated to compete for the starting role with the Broncos. He needs plenty of seasoning, but the Capitals are high on his potential.

11. (9) Samuel Carrier, D 6.0D
Drafted 6th round, 176th overall, 2010

Another offensive defenseman, Carrier had a great 2010-11 season with the Lewiston MAINEiacs (QMJHL), scoring 11 goals and adding 39 assists to go along with a plus-40 in 61 games. In the postseason run to the Memorial Cup, Carrier posted 15 points in 14 games as his MAINEiacs were swept by Saint John in four games.

Much like Flemming, Carrier is an excellent puck carrier and can really bring it from the point. He is a good skater, can quarterback a power play, and can move the puck up ice. Also like Flemming, he needs to bulk up and work on his positional play in the defensive zone. Lewiston folded in the offseason and Carrier was taken second overall by Baie-Comeau in the dispersal draft. Baie-Comeau didn’t have a strong season in 2010-11, but Carrier will be called upon to help turn the team around in 2011-12. If he improves his all-around game, Carrier could prove to be a dependable NHL defenseman down the line.

12. (14) Patrick McNeill, D 6.0D
Drafted 4th round, 118th overall, 2005

In an injury-shortened campaign with the Bears, McNeill managed to get in 51 games, putting up 27 points and a plus-seven. He was recalled to the Capitals, but he didn’t see any playing time as insurance in the event of injuries. In six playoff games, he registered three points as the Bears were knocked out in the first round.

Like many other defensive prospects in the Capitals’ system. McNeill is known for his contributions on the offensive side of the ice. He skates and moves the puck well, and really started to find some consistency on the back line for the Bears. Like most young defenseman, he needs to gain strength and experience before he’s ready for the ultra-fast, ultra-physical NHL. He’ll likely spend next season with Hershey, but he could see time in Washington as an injury call-up.

13. (15) Philipp Grubauer, G 6.0D
Drafted 4th round, 112th overall, 2010

After being traded to Kingston last summer, Grubauer assumed the starting role for the Frontenacs, posting a record of 22-13-3 to go along with a mediocre 3.62 goals against average and an average .903 save percentage. Kingston didn’t have the talent that Windsor had, and it was reflected in Grubauer’s slightly disappointing season. He was sidelined for the postseason with mononucleosis, but he has since recovered.

Grubauer is excellent at taking away the bottom of the net, but he’s beaten by high shot frequently. He can be inconsistent, and the bout with mononucleosis certainly didn’t help him get into a groove. He needs more time to develop the natural skill he possesses, and will see time in either Hershey (AHL) or South Carolina (ECHL) next season. He’s still several years away and it remains to be seen if he’ll ever get his shot will the goaltender-rich Capitals.

14. (19) Garrett Mitchell, RW 5.5C
Drafted 6th round, 175th overall, 2009

In his fourth and final season of junior, Mitchell captained the woeful Regina Pats (WHL). In 70 games, he potted 18 goals and added 34 assists to go along with his impressive 140 penalty minutes. Regina was one of the worst teams in the WHL and didn’t qualify for the playoffs.

Mitchell had a few late season auditions with the Bears, and will look to make the team full-time in 2011-12. Not the most remarkable scorer, Mitchell is known for his physicality and leadership. He’s also an effective agitator who isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. He needs pro seasoning to develop his two-way play, but Mitchell looks to be a safe bet to crack the fourth line in the NHL in a few seasons.

15. (10) Caleb Herbert, C 6.0D
Drafted 5th round, 142nd overall, 2010

A gifted offensive threat, Herbert led the Sioux City Musketeers (USHL) in scoring with 51 points in 50 games, despite missing a few games due to injuries and international tournaments. However, his Musketeers fell to Sioux Falls two games to one in the first round of the playoffs.

Committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Herbert will join a thriving program where he’ll hopefully take steps to solidify his chances of making it as a pro. He needs to prove he can score at higher and higher levels and also needs to add some mass to his frame. He’s a long-term project, but there’s no doubt he can score, at least right now. He’s still several years away from even sniffing an NHL roster spot, but stay tuned.

16. (13) Dmitri Kugryshev, RW 6.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 58th overall, 2008

Kugryshev was less-than-impressive in his first season with Hershey, posting a meager 14 points and a subpar minus-seven in 64 games with the Bears. He was sent down to the ECHL for a few games, where he only managed a few assists, possibly as a wake-up call. He didn’t see any postseason action in Hershey.

A decent scoring forward, Kugryshev was dogged by battles with injury and inconsistency in his first pro season. Lacking foot speed and creativity, he struggled to produce in Hershey’s system. If he’s not going to stick as a scorer, he needs to seriously work on his defensive acumen if he hopes to make in the NHL as a bottom-six forward. Look for him to earn a spot with Hershey, where he’ll hopefully be able to regain his scoring touch if he ever hopes to stick in the NHL.

17. (12) Francois Bouchard, RW 6.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 35th overall, 2006

Bouchard’s stock plummeted along with Kugryshev, as he continued to struggle to find consistency at the pro level. In 74 games with the Bears, he potted 12 goals and added 12 assists to go along with a disappointing minus-five. In six playoff games, he added a single goal.

Like many young scorers, Bouchard has stretches of dominance and longer stretches of ineffectiveness. He’s great at making moves one-on-one and has superb playmaking abilities, but he has trouble bringing his ‘A’ game every night. His average size and defensive shortcomings make it hard to envision him sticking as a grinder at the NHL level. Hopefully he can find his game and his scoring touch in the coming season with Hershey, otherwise he may never get an opportunity with the Capitals.

18. (NR) Brandon Anderson, G 6.0D
Acquired as a free agent, September 2010

After impressing as a tryout at training camp in 2010, the Capitals quickly signed Anderson to a three-year, entry-level deal before returning him to Lethbridge (WHL) for his second full season with the team. He took over the role of starter, and posted a disappointing 17-26-12 record to go along with a 3.77 goals against average and a .888 save percentage. Lethbridge was one of the worst teams in the WHL, and it was reflected in his record.

A smaller goaltender, Anderson has been lauded for his compete level and athleticism. When the Capitals decided to take a chance on him, they were looking more towards his potential rather than his current results. Hopefully with more experience and guidance from the Capitals’ goaltending coaches, he can get his game back on track with Lethbridge. He’s shown flashes, but he’s yet to put all of his tools together and will require time at the AHL or even ECHL level before he’s ready to battle for an NHL roster spot.

19. (16) Zach Miskovic, D 6.0D
Acquired as a free agent, March 2009

A solid two-way defenseman, Miskovic was a steadying force on the blue line when he wasn’t battling injuries. In 58 games with Hershey, he posted 16 points and plus-12, proving himself to be a reliable defenseman. He was held pointless in five playoff games.

Miskovic is solid, if unspectacular, in all three zones, relying on good decision-making and smart positioning in order to be effective. An older player, he may have reached his ceiling already as an effective AHL defenseman. He may see time with the Capitals as an injury call-up, but will likely spend the 2011-12 season with Hershey, continuing to develop and hone his game in the hopes of making the NHL as more than a depth player.

20. (20) Dustin Stevenson, D 6.0D
Acquired as a free agent, April 2010

A bruising defenseman, Stevenson got into 63 games with South Carolina in his first professional season. In those 63 games, he posted a modest 12 points but a lackluster minus-16. He didn’t get into any playoff action with the Stingrays.

Stevenson is a massive body on the back end and also has a howitzer from the point. He put up a few points, but he struggled with his positioning in the defensive zone. He has the size to play in the NHL, but it doesn’t appear he has the full package of skills to complement his hulking frame. Hopefully, he’ll take the next step in his development by playing full-time with the Bears next season, but he may not have the upside of some of Washington’s more heralded defensive prospects.