The Washington Capitals are off to one of the best starts in franchise history with a talented lineup that has dominated the Eastern Conference in 2014-15. The Hershey Bears, Washington’s AHL affiliate, has not been as impressive but there are some players who will be contributors for the Caps in the future.
Hershey has slipped to the middle of the pack since winning back-to-back Calder Cups in 2009 and 2010, failing to reach the second round of the playoffs until last season under first-year coach Troy Mann. Back for his second season in Hershey, Mann has a lineup with a mix of AHL veterans and some promising first- and second-year players who are looking to work their way into the Capitals lineup one day.
Veterans Justin Peters and Dan Ellis, both of whom have NHL experience, are splitting the goaltending duties with Hershey. Neither are considered future NHL starters at this stage in their careers but Washington does have one minor league goalie with a bright future in 19-year-old Vitek Vanecek.
With Philipp Grubauer performing well as a backup to red-hot Braden Holtby with the Capitals and Ellis and Peters in Hershey, Vanecek is playing for the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays in his first season in North America. He played for the Czech Republic at the 2016 World Junior Championships in Finland.
Two of the top defensemen in the Capitals system, Connor Carrick and first-year pro Madison Bowey, have spent most of the season with the Bears—with Carrick joining Washington in December. Two other AHL rookies, Tyler Lewington and Christian Djoos, are also on the Hershey blueline.
The top-four scorers for the Bears—Chris Bourque, Paul Carey, Carter Camper, and Sean Collins—are all minor league veterans whose upside is considered limited. Highly-touted Jakub Vrana, a 19-year-old from the Czech Republic, was off to a fast start before suffering a wrist injury that has kept him out since October; forcing him to miss the 2016 World Juniors. Former Minnesota Golden Gopher Travis Boyd has played well for the Bears in his first season of pro hockey.
Jakub Vrana, RW, 19
The 13th player taken in 2014 when the Capitals selected him in the first round, Vrana impressed in training camp after spending last season in Sweden with Linkoping. Assigned to Hershey, he scored two goals with four assists and was plus-1 with two penalty minutes in six games before suffering his injury. After undergoing successful surgery on his wrist he is expected to return sometime late in January. With a combination of offensive instincts and stick handling and passing skills, Vrana is expected to be a consistent offensive threat.
Connor Carrick, D, 21
Now in his third pro season, Carrick was the team’s top scorer amongst defensemen in 2014-15. He was leading the team’s blue line corps with eight goals and seven assists in 26 games when he was recalled by Washington. Despite less than ideal size for a defenseman, Carrick plays with a combination of offensive skill and physical combativeness. Third on Hershey with 132 penalty minutes last season, he has played a more disciplined style this year and his positional game continues to evolve.
Madison Bowey, D, 21
Bowey is in his first pro season after a dominant junior career—winning a gold medal with the Canada U20 team at the World Juniors last year and then reaching the 2015 Memorial Cup with the WHL champion Kelowna Rockets. With a deep group in Washington, there is no need to rush Bowey to the NHL. Few young defensemen possess the combination of size and skating ability that Bowey does, and he plays with a physical edge to his game that makes him tough in his own end. He projects as a top-two pairing defensemen at the NHL level one day. In 33 games with the Bears he has scored two goals with 11 assists and is plus-1 with 24 penalty minutes.
Christian Djoos, D, 21
Djoos played three seasons in Sweden’s SHL with Brynas before coming to North America this year. A sound, positional defenseman who plays within himself and knows his limitations, he is still developing the strength, bulk and mobility needed to play in the NHL. Long-term Djoos is a player who may fit in a lower line role; though his upside appears limited. In 31 games with Hershey he has scored five goals with six assists.
Tyler Lewington, D, 21
Lewington began the season with the ECHL’s Stingrays before being recalled by Hershey in November. Now in his first pro season after four seasons with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers, he is another defenseman who combines size with toughness and scoring ability but is considered more of a long-range prospect. A shoulder injury suffered at the end of last season prevented him from making his AHL debut following the Tigers’ season last spring. He is not expected to put up the type of offensive numbers that he did with Medicine Hat but could be a serviceable lower pairing defender one day.
Riley Barber, RW, 21
A product of the USA National Team Development program and one of the top scorers in college hockey in his three seasons at Miami University, Barber has been solid in a middle line role for the Bears as an AHL rookie. A sixth-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, he has always been the type of player whose game exceeds the cumulation of his physical and technical skills. He may never be able to put up the type of offensive numbers at the pro level that he did in college hockey. But his determination suggests he can be a solid two-way contributor if he continues to develop.
Garrett Mitchell, RW, 24
Now in his fifth pro season, Mitchell is the team captain for the Bears. He is a veteran of over 240 AHL games but has yet to make his NHL debut. Mitchell is a hard player who plays a strong two-way game and will come to the aid of teammates. A strong skater with a limited offensive game, he could one day see action in a lower line role or as an injury call-up.
Liam O’ Brien, LW, 21
O’Brien was the surprise of training camp for Washington in head coach Barry Trotz’ first season with the Capitals last year; making the team out of training camp and appearing in 13 NHL games before being assigned to the Bears. Whether that move was designed to send a message to the rest of the Capitals or merely to reward O’Brien for his effort remains to be seen but he has been with Hershey since. A physical, energy-type player, O’Brien suffered a knee injury in November that kept him out of the lineup for nearly six weeks. In 22 games this season, he has scored one goal with five assists and is plus-3 with 63 penalty minutes.
Stanislav Galiev, LW, 23
Galiev, now in his fourth season in the Caps organization, has spent most of the year with Washington, appearing in five games with Hershey in November. A frequent healthy scratch, he has two assists in 11 NHL games. Galiev is a gifted offensive player whose positional play, particularly on the defensive end, has been a work in progress since he started his pro career. A 25-goal scorer for Hershey last season, he is working to earn the trust of the coaching staff in Washington. In his brief five game stint with the Bears this year he scored three goals.
Chris Brown, LW, 24
Not to be confused with Buffalo Sabres prospect Christopher Brown, the former Michigan Wolverine is now in his fourth pro season and has appeared in 23 NHL games; including one game earlier this year with the Capitals. Brown was re-signed by Washington to a two-year contract this summer as a restricted free agent after scoring a career-high 17 goals for Hershey in 2014-15. A hand injury suffered in Washington’s training camp kept him out of action for the first month and after returning he was sent to the Bears for a conditioning stint.
He saw 7:41 minutes of action on December 10th in a game against Florida in his only NHL game with the Caps and was returned to Hershey a week later. The Flower Mound, Texas native has scored three goals with two assists and is minus-3 with 20 penalty minutes in 16 AHL games. Brown’s size and demeanor suggest he can be an effective power forward if he can grasp the mental side of the game in Trotz’s system.
Walker is in his third season in North America after playing junior hockey in the Czech Republic. A undersized, fleet skater, he has skated in 32 of 33 games for the Bears and has five goals with seven assists. Walker grew up playing hockey in Australia before going to Vitkovice and is still learning the positional aspects of the game. His progress to this point suggests he can be an effective lower line forward though he will need to add the mass and strength to withstand the physical rigors of the NHL level.
Chandler Stephenson, C, 21
Stephenson made his NHL debut on October 15th in a game against Chicago and appeared in nine games with the Capitals before being returned to Hershey. In 22 games with the Bears this year he has scored three goals with 11 assists and is minus-4 with eight penalty minutes. Long-term Stephenson is not expected to have the big scoring numbers he put up in junior hockey but projects as a solid two-way center.
Travis Boyd, C, 22
A sixth-round selection in the 2011 draft, Boyd has been one of the top playmakers for Hershey in his first-pro season. He was signed by the Capitals in March following his senior season at Minnesota and is currently third on the Bears with 15 assists. One of three players to skate in all 38 games for Hershey in 2015-16, he has six goals and 14 penalty minutes. Boyd, while he does not have the high-end offensive skills of some of the other prospects in the Capitals’ system, is an effective passer, reads the play to create chances and skates well. He plays a strong positional game in all three zones.
Caleb Herbert, C, 24
Herbert, like Boyd, comes from a college hockey background, having skated for the arch-rival Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Unlike Boyd however, the second-year pro has yet to earn consistent ice time at the AHL level. Spending most of the 2014-15 season with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, he scored 19 goals in 42 regular season games and played in all 27 games in the team’s run to the Kelly Cup finals. Herbert’s played both wing and center for Hershey this season, and has been a frequent scratch. He recently recorded his first point of the season (an assist) in his 17th game of the year. Herbert’s size and willingness to compete (he had 84 penalty minutes last year for South Carolina) suggest some potential as a lower line forward. At this point, he is fairly low on the depth chart.
Vitek Vanecek, G, 19
Vanecek is splitting the goaltending for South Carolina with former Colgate University goalie and KHL veteran Mark Dekanich in his first pro season in North America. Skating in 14 games for the Stingrays before joining the Czech Republic U20 team, he was 6-6-2 in 14 games with a 2.00 goals against and .917 save percentage. He started all four games for the Czech Republic in pool play, going 2-2 with one shutout and posting a 2.46 goals against and .890 save percentage. He has the prototypical aspects of an NHL goaltender: size, athleticism, and side-to-side quickness. Vanecek is still a work in progress at this point but should gain consistency as he matures physically and gains experience.
Prospects at the 2016 World Junior Championships
In addition to Vanecek there are two other Capitals’ draft choices who skated for their respective countries. Goalie Ilya Samsonov, the 22nd player taken in the 2015 draft, played for Russia and defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler, taken in the second round after Samsonov, played for his native Switzerland.
Vanecek’s tournament did not end the way he hoped it would—he was replaced after the first period after allowing two goals on 10 shots in the Czech Republic’s 7-0 loss to the USA in the quarterfinals—but his play throughout the week earned him notice and was a key factor in his team advancing to the playoff round.
Samsonov made just one start in the four pool play games—stopping 17 of 18 shots in a 4-1 win over Belarus. He was huge for Russia in his second start, stopping 26 shots in a 2-1 win over the USA in the semifinals. The Russians went back to Alexander Georgiyev in the gold-medal game against Finland. Both Samsonov and the undrafted Georgiyev were a key part of Russia’s success.
Things did not go as well in the tournament for Siegenthaler and Switzerland. The 18-year-old—who has seen significant ice time for Zurich in the National A league—was minus-7 with no points in four games of pool play. Switzerland finished last in its pool, getting it’s only point in an overtime loss to Denmark. The Swiss team avoided relegation by sweeping Belarus. Siegenthaler had an assist—his only point of the tournament—and was plus-3 in the two-game relegation series.
Prospect of the Month: Thomas Di Pauli
One of three center prospects for the Capitals currently playing college hockey, Di Pauli is making a strong push for an entry-level contract. A fourth-round pick in 2012 following his second season in the USA NTDP, Di Pauli has shown steady progress in his career for the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame’s fourth-leading scorer last year as a junior, the Illinois native has already matched the career-high eight goals he scored last season in his first 19 games this year. His plus-13 rating is the third-best mark on the team. With a deep group of forwards in the Capitals system he faces steep odds in one day reaching Washington but DiPauli’s combination of scoring ability and two-way play suggest there is some potential.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @Piscottas_Way