Capitals 2005-06 rookie review

By David Rathbun

The Washington Capitals kicked off the post-lockout NHL by showcasing many young players. Committed to rebuilding from within, the Caps rotated several prospects between the NHL and their AHL affiliate in Hershey, PA, with hopes that the slow introduction to the NHL will aid in the development of their future team. Eleven rookies played for the Capitals this season, three defensemen and eight forwards.

Alexander Ovechkin, LW
Height: 6’2 Weight: 215 DOB: Sep 17, 1985
(2004 Draft, 1st overall)

Coming out of the lockout, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin were the talk of the NHL. It was Ovechkin who came out on top this year’s stacked rookie class.

The product of the Moscow Dynamo hockey school, he was highly touted as being an elite prospect several years prior to him being drafted in 2004 first overall.

Ovechkin is the total package. He has managed to practically score at will this year, and has dazzled audiences — and goalies — with his slick skating and stick-handling ability. He has a tremendous shot, a knack for finding open spaces on the ice, and can also handle the puck at great speeds and in high traffic areas. Ovechkin also delivers huge open-ice hits with frightening regularity, and has certainly made his physical presence known. He also possesses the maturity and the love for the game of a 20-year NHL veteran, and he continues to charm fans, teammates, and the media with his poise and overall likeability.

Ovechkin was easily the best rookie in the history of the Washington organization. Despite the limited offensive skills of many of his teammates, Ovechkin was able to shatter every Capitals rookie record, and even finished second in franchise history with 106 points (52 goals, 54 assists). Ovechkin also led all NHL rookies in goals, points, power-play goals (21) and shots (425). He finished the season third among all NHLers in points and tied for third in goals. His 425 shots on goal was the fourth-highest total in NHL history — also league leading.

Oveckin, the favorite to capture the Calder Trophy this season, has headed back to Europe for the offseason, and plans to represent his native Russia in this summer’s World Championships. With rumors circulating that Washington plans to pursue a first line center to help complement Ovechkin, coupled with the fact that highly-touted prospect Alexander Semin will be returning to the Caps next fall, fans can only wait for next October where they hope that “AO” can build upon the success of his record-breaking rookie campaign.

Brooks Laich, C
Height: 6’2, Weight: 208, DOB: June 23, 1983
(2001 Draft, 193rd overall – Ottawa)

Center Brooks Laich shined when given the opportunity this year, and remained with the big club for the remainder of the season following his call-up in the third week of the season.

Acquired in the highly controversial Peter Bondra trade in late February 2004, Laich had high expectations from Capitals fans when he first entered the league. Like most rookies, Laich did have to adjust to the speed of the NHL game, but his consistent and solid overall play have rewarded him with what many believe is a full-time roster spot with the Caps.

Laich often centered the third and fourth lines, and also got involved from time to time on the second power play and penalty-killing units. He is a very versatile two-way center, and is commonly paired up with other rookie call-ups from the AHL, a testament to his defensive abilities. He also has a decent shot, and is deceptively fast with the puck. He has decent overall game, and his most notable attribute is his propensity to find open spaces and create scoring chances.

Laich may have found a niche with the Caps as he really came on near the end of the season, finishing the year with seven goals and 14 assists in 72 contests. Although he does not excel at any one aspect of the game, Laich does play a high-energy style and can be counted on night-in and night-out to play his hardest.

When the season ended, Laich was reassigned to Hershey (AHL) to gain some very valuable playoff experience with the Bears. Look for Laich to easily make the team next fall, and to also center Washington’s third line should free-agent center Jeff Halpern not return to the Caps next season.

Jakub Klepis, C
Height: 6’2, Weight: 209 lbs, DOB: Jun 5, 1984
(2002 Draft, 16th overall — Ottawa)

Klepis made his NHL debut this season with fine fashion. He scored a clutch second period goal against Atlanta in his first NHL appearance that was of the highlight variety, deking one defender, and then out-waiting and roofing a shot over the outstretched goalie’s flailing glove. Two nights later, Klepis picked up an assist giving him two points in his first two NHL contests. Unfortunately for Klepis, his first two NHL tilts were the highlight of his season as the young center struggled with inconsistency and was also prone to many defensive lapses.

Klepis appeared in 24 games with Washington during this past season, and finished with only four points (1 goal, 3 assists) and a -11 rating. Although his 24 games were intermittent as Klepis was recalled and sent back to Hershey on numerous occasions this year, it was apparent that he, like most rookies, had a tough time with the speed of the NHL game. However, the good news for Klepis is that the tools for his success are already in place. He has great size and is a really fine skater, with or without the puck. He also possesses terrific vision and can make plays despite the fact that his talents lie in his finishing ability. In fact, many fans are beginning to draw comparisons with Klepis’ game, to that of Red Wings center Robert Lang, a late bloomer in his own right. For example, when Klepis is cruising over the blue line with the puck, he’s hardly moving his legs at all and glides into the attack zone. This causes defenders to pause and slow down themselves, thus allowing Klepis time to decide whether to dish the puck off or make a move of his own. He has Lang’s “curl-and-drag” down pat as well.

Klepis has also proved to be very versatile as he can also play the wing position. In that respect, he often looks to take offensive chances instead of necessarily concentrating on two-way responsibilities as a center would. All in all, Klepis has great ability and should eventually find a home at the NHL level if not next season, then the year after. He is a contender to challenge for a roster spot in training camp this fall, but another developmental season in the AHL probably would not hurt.

Tomas Fleischmann, LW
Height: 6’0, Height: 190 lbs, DOB: May 16, 1984
(2002 Draft, 63rd overall — Detroit)

Fleischmann has been progressing nicely since he was acquired two years ago in a trade that sent Robert Lang to the Detroit Red Wings. His production has gone way up from last season, leading the Hershey Bears (AHL) in goals (30) and finishing only one point shy of the team lead (63). He also led all Bears’ forwards in plus/minus with a +14 rating.

“Flash,” as fans have dubbed him, really excels at the speed aspect of the game. Not only can he absolutely fly out there, but he can also handle the puck at those speeds and can place well-timed and highly accurate shots. He is a decent passer and picks up his defensive assignments very well, and the 20 plus pounds that he has added to his frame in the last 2 ½ years also aided in his strength along the boards.

Like fellow countryman Klepis, Fleischmann also saw his first NHL action this season, appearing in 14 games with the Caps this year. Although he did not find the back of the net, he did pick up two assists despite only averaging about seven minutes of ice time per game and also skating on an offensively-challenged fourth line.

In Hershey, it is apparent that the game is getting to be too easy for him. It would appear that this may be his last AHL season, as he figures to seriously challenge for a permanent spot next season in Washington. His great speed and defensive play will aid the Caps in many regards, and may add serious scoring prowess to a second line that will most certainly feature recently “re-acquired” winger Alexander Semin.

Mike Green, D
Height: 6’1, Weight: 205 lbs, DOB: Oct 12, 1985
(2004 Draft, 29th overall)

The Caps may have struck gold at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft with the 29th overall pick. Green was coming off of two terrific WHL campaigns when he was signed by the Caps last summer, and was easily the standout in training camp. But despite his stellar play, Green was assigned to Hershey to begin his pro career in Hershey. However, it did not take Green long to be recalled, and he made his first NHL appearance in just the second week of the NHL season, skating in a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Like most Caps prospects this year, Green was recalled and sent down several times. He did not put up the offensive numbers that he is known for in the WHL and AHL, but he did show tremendous poise and looked more like a veteran than a rookie defender. Green averaged just under 15 minutes a game with the Caps and displayed tremendous poise under pressure. He showed no signs of being rattled, and he played his position very well and battled in the corners with great intensity despite the fact he was facing larger and stronger forwards. Green looked very comfortable just carrying the puck and staring breakouts, and was even able to register his first NHL goal on Feb. 6 against the Maple Leafs when he one-timed an Ovechkin pass that blew by future hall of famer Ed Belfour — not a bad first NHL goal by any means. In 22 games with the Caps this year, Green registered three points (1 goal, 2 assists) and finished with a rating of -8.

Despite his stellar play, Green did seem a little overmatched at times by the size and strength of the NHL level. However, Green “prefers a physical game,” and pretty soon his maturity and talent will catch up to one another, making a fine defenseman.

It is uncertain what the Caps have in mind for Green next year. Caps owner Ted Leonsis has hinted the possibility of acquiring a few mid-tier defenders to bolster what was one of the worst defensive corps in the NHL this season. If that happens, Green may just have to spend one more season in the minors before becoming an NHL regular. However, he is surely to be the first player recalled should the Caps suffer injuries.

Green also had a fine regular season in Hershey this year, registering 43 points (9 goals, 34 assists) and was even named to the AHL All-Rookie team.

Eric Fehr, RW
Height: 6’3, Weight: 210 lbs, DOB: Sep 7, 1985
(2003 Draft, 18th overall)

Eric Fehr came into training camp off of two straight 50-goal campaigns in the WHL, and started his pro career right where his junior career left off by leading the Bears in almost all offensive statistics right from the start.

After a few months, Washington recalled Fehr to see if his offensive abilities could transfer to the NHL and provide Washington with a more balanced scoring attack and take pressure off of the Caps’ top line. Fehr made his highly-anticipated NHL debut on Dec. 18 against the Florida Panthers, and despite his very limited ice time, looked pretty good. He almost scored a goal in the third period when he ripped a shot that just grazed Panthers’ goalie Roberto Luongo’s shoulder and drifted over the crossbar. However, the most notable play that Fehr made in his NHL debut was a penalty that he took — a good one — that canceled what would have been an odd-man rush the other way.

Fehr went through a late season scoring slump in Hershey this spring, and Washington recalled him to skate out the final remaining eight games in hopes that the speed of the NHL may benefit him and make things seem “slower” at the AHL level when he returned for the playoffs. Fehr even got the chance to log a few minutes on the power play with the Caps’ top line. However, Fehr almost appeared as if he was holding the stick a little too tight at times, as he just could not find the back of the net. The scoring chances were there, but Fehr was the victim of very little ice time (5 mins a game) and a few spectacular saves by opposing goaltenders.

Fehr is projected to be a future power forward for the Caps, and could also become a first or second line winger if he can reach his full potential. He has significantly improved his skating, which is average at best, since the beginning of the year. He has also bulked up nicely and is hovering around 210 lbs, up from the 180lbs that we weighed when he was drafted 2½ years ago. He does stand out in the physical department, and is also very skilled along the boards. He also has a very quick release, and he can get the puck up in a real hurry with well-timed wrist shots.

Fehr may be a good candidate to spend another season in the AHL, and will most assuredly see some call-ups from time to time next season. But, depending on what the Caps do — or don’t do, as they are content with rebuilding from within — in the off-season, Fehr could make the club out of training camp next fall and play on either the second or third line.

Dave Steckel, C
Height: 6’5, Weight: 220 lbs, DOB: May 15, 1982
(2001 Draft, 30th overall — Los Angeles)

Steckel appeared in his first seven NHL games this season, and played pretty well even though he really did not stand out. He had a few nice plays, and even looked pretty good at times when cycling the puck in the offensive zone and was one of a few Caps’ players this year with a positive plus/minus rating (+1). He worked hard when he was on the ice, and seemed more content to adhere to his defensive assignments than to generate offense chances. He has great size, and is deceptively quick for such a big body. He could one day become a permanent fixture on the penalty kill in Washington, similar to his role in Hershey.

Although Steckel is a very consistent point producer at the AHL level, it is unclear that he will ever become a good scorer in the NHL. The biggest knock on Steckel is that he is not overly physical. He does play the body and stand up players, but he has the size to really man handle opponents and rarely uses it to his advantage. The talent seems to be there, and with his size, Steckel could turn into the kind of towering fourth-line center that teams only dream of. However, with a very well-rounded group of prospects with higher-end talent ahead of him in the Caps’ organization, Steckel will have his work cut out for him to become an NHL regular — other than occasional injury call-up. Look for Steckel to make it deep into cuts at training camp, but continue his development in Hershey again next season.

Joey Tenute, C
Height: 5’9, Weight: 190 lbs, DOB: Apr 2, 1983
(2003 Draft, 261st overall — New Jersey)

Another Brian Gionta? Likely not…but it cannot be overlooked that Tenute has been able score in bunches at whatever level as played at. Tenute appeared in his first and only NHL game this season and did not look out of place. He only skated on 12 shifts and saw just over seven minutes of ice time on the third and fourth lines. Playing along side other inexperienced Caps, Tenute really did not do too much to distinguish himself, but did register a shot on goal and was not on the ice for any goals against. He did, however, seem to be pushed around a bit, and was the recipient of a pretty solid check near center ice.

It’s not entirely certain where Tenute fits into Washington’s rebuilding scheme. He has great offensive instincts, and despite the fact the he is only 5’9 tall, he is right around 190 lbs and his pretty solid on his skates. A player of Tenute’s stature may be able to flourish in the new NHL. He has a good shot, possesses decent speed and stick-handling ability, and can find the open man with crisp, tape-to-tape passes. But like Steckel, Tenute is also behind several players on the prospect totem pole, and will have to really prove himself in order to become an NHL regular.

Since the Caps have stated over and over again that they are committed to rebuilding from within, Tenute will have more opportunities to prove himself in the NHL although he is far from being a shoo-in to make the team out of training camp next fall. Look for Tenute to continue to build off of his impressive AHL rookie season next year, and possibly crack the Caps line-up on occasion during the course of the 2006-07 NHL season.

Louie Robitaille, D
Height: 6’1, Weight: 205 lbs, DOB: Mar 16, 1982

A fan favorite and a real energy guy in the locker room, Robitaille was awarded with his first NHL appearance this season and skated in two games with the Caps. A pugilist by trade, Robitaille recorded over 300 penalty minutes in Hershey this year, and was brought up to the Caps in early February to provide a little toughness as more and more teams looked to rough up Caps star Ovechkin. Robitaille did find a “dance partner” in his first NHL game, and also finished the contest with a game-high of four hits.

Robitaille is a first-rate, AHL-level enforcer. The new NHL — although fighting does exist — is tailored to having enforcers with more skill and speed, especially at the defense position. Now that’s not to say that Robitaille will never play another NHL game, but look for Robitaille to make future NHL appearances under certain circumstances, games where there was “bad blood” between the two teams during their last meeting, etc. In his two games with the Caps, Robitaille finished with five penalty minutes and plus/minus rating of -1.

Jonas Johansson, RW
Height: 6’2, Weight: 210lbs, DOB: Mar 18, 1984
28th overall (Colorado) in 2002

With one more season left on his entry-level NHL contract, Johansson will have one last chance to prove that he is a viable NHL prospect. Johansson was a surprising call up for the Caps’ season finale against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Considered light when he was drafted, Johansson has put on 30 lbs of muscle, and is the perfect size for an NHL winger. However, despite his frame, Johansson is a very passive player and he frequently shies away from heavy contact. That being said, it is possible that his propensity for staying away from physical play is hurting his development because loose pucks and potential scoring opportunities can be squandered when defensemen are not aggressively challenged in the corners.

Johansson is one of those players that make coaches scratch their heads. He has the size, the skating ability, the skill, the shot, and the passing game to become an NHL player. But where does it go? Like Klepis, Johansson struggles mightily with inconsistency, and throughout his pro career he has been shipped back and forth between Hershey and South Carolina of the ECHL.

In his NHL debut though, Johansson actually looked really good. He had a few very nice passes, and had a few opportunities where he was wide open for what would have been sure scoring chances is the puck could have made it to him. He did not have any points, and finished the game with an even plus/minus rating.

But where we go from here is the question. Unless he has a truly outstanding training camp, it is unlikely the Johansson will make the team next fall. He could though, finally find his stride in Hershey and receive occasional call-ups next year. But the 2006-07 season will almost certainly be Johansson’s last shot at making it in the Capitals organization.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.