Although it’s been only six months since they captured their league-record ninth Calder Cup championship, the Hershey Bears are already gearing up for another lengthy playoff surge. Their renewed success is due largely in part to the plethora of young talent being stockpiled by a Washington Capitals organization that is committed to building a winner from within. Currently, the Bears boast many of the organization’s top prospects, and with their close proximity to Washington, the Caps have enjoyed the convenience of funneling players up and down I-83.
Last year, Eric Fehr enjoyed a very productive first pro season and was one of Hershey’s most prolific forwards. This season the winger is currently on pace to shatter his rookie point output.
Although he is still searching for his first career point at the NHL level, Fehr’s progression in the AHL has been superb. After a stellar rookie campaign when he scored 53 points (25 goals, 28 assists) in 70 regular season contests, Fehr has hit the ground running in 2006-07, posting 13 goals and 15 assists at only the one-third pole (24 games), and is on pace to score more than a point per game. His skating has significantly improved from only a season ago, and in addition, has elevated his defensive play as he is currently tied for second on the team in plus/minus with a +11 rating, up from the -12 he posted in 2005-06.
Fehr has played two games with the Capitals this season. With the Caps playing surprisingly well this year, it is unknown if he will be coming back up at any time soon. Fehr’s progression has him pegged to become no less than a solid top-six forward at the NHL, and Fehr could emerge as a solid contributor as early as next fall.
Fleischmann, affectionately dubbed “The Flash,” was slated as a surefire bet to make the Caps this season after his monstrous 2005-06 campaign in Hershey. However, he was less than stellar at training camp this fall, and was subsequently returned to Hershey about midway through camp as he failed to show the fiery play and stunning scoring repertoire that he so commonly displayed all of last season.
After his 2005-06 breakout season when he finished second on the team in overall scoring (63 points), Fleischmann picked up right where he left off and is currently averaging well over a point per game. He has 10 goals and 12 assists in just 16 contests, and would very likely be leading the team in scoring if he hadn’t missed several games when he was recalled by Washington. Fleischmann has appeared in eight games with the Caps this season and has registered one assist.
Fleischmann really excels at the speed aspect of the game. He is a powerful skater who can shoot and handle the puck at very high speeds. Although he is known for his scoring touch, Fleischmann is a decent playmaker in his own right and can find the open man with crisp, well-timed passes that often lead to scoring chances. He is also conscious of his defensive responsibilities, and although he is a far cry from his +14 defensive rating of a season ago, he is however, currently carrying a +2 and will likely build upon that as the season progresses.
Fleischmann’s progression has been excellent over the past two seasons, and all are patiently waiting to see if he can transfer his scoring touch to the NHL. With tremendously gifted forwards like Alexander Semin, Alexander Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom in the system, Fleischmann should be able to find a niche at the NHL level as he is a player that excels when the talent around him is high. Look for him to see more increased playing time with the Caps during the course of this season as Washington continues to evaluate his eventual permanent jump to the NHL.
David Steckel, C — Hershey Bears (AHL)
Height: 6’5, Weight: 220 lbs
2001 Draft, 30th overall — Los Angeles
Steckel is continuing to establish himself as one of Hershey’s steadiest players. Although he did not register any points while skating in seven games with Washington in 2005-06, he did not appear out of place and was the lone Caps’ prospect with the Bears to post a positive defensive rating (+1) last season.
With the apparent promotion of Boyd Gordon to Washington, Steckel has taken over as the cornerstone on the Bears’ penalty kill. He is solid defensively, and his huge frame (6’5) allows for a greater pokecheck radius and is a big body for defenders to work around when cycling the puck at the points. Despite his size, he is not overly physical, but does use his body well and occasionally delivers a big check. Steckel is also a great skating player despite his towering size, and has decent playmaking skills as well. He has 21 points in 26 games and is +11.
The Caps are currently skating with a plethora of third and fourth-line veteran players on their active roster which may make it difficult for a player like Steckel to crack the Caps’ lineup. Whether or not he will become a mainstay in the NHL is anybody’s guess. He is, however, a solid minor leaguer, and his speed, size, and defensive awareness could make for a great fourth-line center in the NHL someday. Another year in the minors would not be detrimental to his development, and could give him just the right edge to emerge in a Washington organization committed to skating and solid defense.
Joey Tenute, C — Hershey Bears (AHL)
Height: 5’9, Weight: 190 lbs
2003 Draft, 261st overall — New Jersey
Originally selected by New Jersey in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Tenute was never signed by the Devils. He had an impressive 2004-05 season in which he earned him ECHL Rookie of the Year honors with the South Carolina Stingrays, and jumping at the opportunity to bring him into the organization, the Caps rewarded Tenute with a contract in November of 2005.
At only 5’9, Tenute is a small player who excels at the speed and finesse aspects of the game. Although he is short in stature, Tenute is hovering right around the 200 lb. mark, and can be very difficult to defend against when he gets going in the corners and along the boards. So far this season, Tenute’s stats are down a bit from what they were a year ago when he netted 20 goals and 30 assists in 61 games in 2005-06. He has five goals and 10 assists in 21 games, with a –3 rating.
Tenute did find his way up to the Caps for one game last year but did very little to stand out. Tenute is a great depth player for Washington’s minor league system. He is a productive player who sees time on the power play and can also be counted on to score the occasional big goal as well. However, Tenute may lack the overall physical strength to compete in the NHL level and will have his work cut out for him establishing himself among the multitude of talented prospects currently working their way through the Caps system.
Chris Bourque, LW — Hershey Bears (AHL)
Height: 5’8, Weight: 190 lbs
2004 Draft, 33rd overall
Bourque battled inconsistency and suffered from nagging injuries from time to time during his first pro season in 2005-06. After missing eight games due to a concussion that he received early last season, Bourque did manage to get on a decent roll, and was able to put up 36 points (8 goals, 28 assists) while skating on Hershey’s second and third lines.
Bourque has really bulked up in the last two years since the Caps selected him in the second round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, and his added size and strength are starting to pay dividends. He has added over 20 lbs in the last two years, and although he can be overpowered at times, Bourque can really hold his own on the ice and is a fierce competitor when battling for loose pucks. He is arguably the best pure skater in the entire Washington system, and is a tremendous stickhandler who possesses solid on-ice vision and creativity. Bourque is pretty much on pace to equal his rookie point totals from a season ago, but has far more goals to assists, with 10 and 8 respectively in 28 games. In fact, he is already two goals above last year’s total. With a hot streak, he may be able to surpass last season’s totals and his increased ice time on the power play may help that area as well. He is also getting better on the defensive side of the puck, as evidenced by his +7 rating – up from the -5 rating from a season ago.
Although Bourque has yet to get a crack at the NHL, the Caps organization is very high on his talent. With luck, he may develop into a solid top-six player who scores points in streaky bunches. Despite his upside, Bourque is still a little rough around the edges and will likely continue to hone his skills in the AHL until he proves that he is ready to take the next step.
After spending four seasons playing for the Umass – Amherst Minutemen, Werner made the jump to pro hockey this past spring when the Caps signed him to a two-year contract.
In four games with the Bears last season, Werner wasted no time transferring his scoring touch to the AHL level when he posted a respectable three assists in four games. The 2006-07 season has been another story, however, as Werner has struggled in the early on and only has one assist in 12 games played and is -2. To make matters worse, Werner was recently sent down to the Stingrays and will miss a few weeks due to an injury sustained in last Wednesday’s game against Augusta. Prior to the injury, Werner registered six points (4 goals, 2 assists) in his first five games with South Carolina.
Werner is not an overly physical player, but he is solid on his skates and possesses average size for an NHL forward. He has an above average shot, plays a fairly sound defensive game, and despite his shooting accuracy, is very unselfish with the puck and makes good, hard passes that are usually on the tape.
Werner, the Chevy Chase, MD, native, is looking to become only the second Washington area native to play for his respective hometown club (after Jeff Halpern). The Caps are very high on his potential, but he does have to prove that he is worthy of becoming an impact player in the NHL, and will need to emerge as a solid contributor at the AHL level first. Werner is projected to be a third or fourth-line scoring winger if he reaches his full potential.
Jonas Johansson, RW — Hershey Bears (AHL)
Height: 6’2, Weight: 210 lbs
2002 Draft, 28th overall — Colorado
Washington had high hopes that Johansson would emerge as a potential star when they acquired him in a trade that sent current team captain Steve Konowalchuk to the Colorado Avalanche in the fall of 2004. Since then, Johansson has done very little to make himself stand out, and has been frequently jumping back and forth between the AHL and ECHL.
This season Johansson is playing better hockey. So far in 2006-07, Johansson has enjoyed modest point production for the first time in his pro career, and has amassed a respectable five goals and 12 assists in 26 games and is +1. He has nearly doubled his point output from a season ago (5 goals, 5 assists, 47 GP), and has settled in nicely as a fixture on the Bears’ second line.
Johansson is a puzzling player. He has great size and skating ability, possesses swift and dazzling skating and stick-handling skills, and can be deadly in one-on-one situations. But Johansson can never seem to put it all together. One drawback is his lack of physical play, as the young Swede can often get rattled by hard checks from opposing players. He is also prone to taking occasional dumb retaliatory penalties as a result.
All in all, Johansson is an extremely gifted and talented player. His contract is up at the end of this year and it is likely that his play this season will serve as a determining factor as to whether or not he figures to be in Washington’s long-term plans. Johansson will try to prove himself in the AHL on a full-time basis this season.
Matt Stefanishion, RW — Hershey Bears (AHL)/South Carolina Stingrays (ECHL)
Height: 6’3, Weight: 225
Signed as a free agent, April, 2006
After two seasons playing at Ferris State University, Matt Stefanishion, an undrafted free agent, signed with Washington this spring to begin his pro career.
Stefanishion’s overall package would suggest that he was a pick up to provide long-term depth at the AHL level. He did skate three games with the Bears this fall, but looked somewhat out of place with the skill level around him. He finished his brief AHL stint without registering a point and had a plus/minus of -1.
In the ECHL, Stefanishion has enjoyed considerably more success. In just 11 games with the Stingrays, he has registered four goals and seven assists — a point per game. He is also playing responsible defensively, and is currently carrying a +9 rating.
Stefanishion has the makings of a steady, rugged forward. While his skating ability is slightly above average, his physical play and competitive edge is by far his most attractive attribute. He is a hard-working forward that plays a physical, grinding style of hockey and works hard every shift. As of now, Stefanishion is a project.
Jeff Schultz, D — Hershey Bears (AHL)
Height: 6’6, Weight: 225 lbs
2004 Draft, 27th overall
After a successful WHL career that saw him consistently rank among the league’s top-scoring defensemen, Schultz’s play has taken a new direction this year as the young defender appears more confident with his size and physical play, and is concentrating more on playing solid defense.
Schultz has matured a lot in the last year. Although he could stand to continue adding weight to his tall frame, he is slowly but surely filling out and is no longer the lanky kid that he was on draft day 2004. As of now, he is right around 230 lbs, and despite his size, is a good, smooth skater.
Schultz joined the Hershey Bears for the beginning of their playoff run last spring and looked very good right away. He scored a goal and added three assists in seven postseason games with the Bears, and finished his stint with a respectable +3.
This season, Schultz’s offensive flair has yet to materialize as the towering defender has registered just three assists in 27 games. He is, however, a solid +8 and is beginning to look far more comfortable using his body as opposed to his long pokecheck that he has relied upon in the past. Although still not overly physical, Schultz is using his body well, and is a tough one to move in the corners. Instead of delivering devastating body checks, Schultz more or less tends to utilize a “stand ‘em up” type of hit that drives his opponent off the puck and minimizes his chances of being out of position.
Schultz is another player who will likely see occasional call-ups, and possibly as soon as this season. The Caps are rotating seven defenders this year, and Schultz is the likely first candidate to see some action. Schultz is still a ways away from breaking into the league permanently, but with a little time, could blossom into a solid fifth or sixth defender.
Sasha Pokulok, D — Hershey Bears (AHL)
Height: 6’5, Weight: 230 lbs
2005 Draft, 14th overall
After two respectable seasons at Cornell University, Pokulok decided to forego his remaining NCAA eligibility and turned pro this summer when he signed an entry-level contract with the Caps. Pokulok has only appeared in one game to date, however, as the young defender has been nursing a concussion that he suffered during the opening game of the Bears’ season.
While Pokulok has unfortunately not yet been given the chance to prove why he was the Caps’ first pick in the 2005 NHL draft, he may be cleared to play soon and is likely eager to get back and prove his wares. Concussions can be tricky injuries, and with the Bears already 15 games over .500, there is no real hurry to bring him back until he is fully recovered.
For a 6’5, 230 lb. player, Pokulok is quite agile and is even decent carrying the puck. Although he is a far cry from ever becoming the next Caps’ power-play quarterback, he is however, a decent prospect who may eventually pan out and give Washington some valuable and reliable depth on the blue line — a third or fourth defender perhaps. He is also not overly physical for someone of his size and ability, and since occasional injuries were a concern while he was at Cornell, the hope is that this is injury is by no means a trend or a testament of his overall durability.
Jamie Hunt, D — Hershey Bears (AHL)
Height: 6’2, Weight: 200 lbs
Signed as a free agent, April, 2006
Hunt is another undrafted player that Caps GM George McPhee nabbed from the NCAA. So far this season, Hunt is showing significant promise and is the Bears’ second highest scoring defender with two goals and eight assists in 23 games and a +1.
Hunt has shown significant improvement from the beginning of the season and appears to be getting better each week. At 6’2, he does possess ideal size for an NHL defender, but he is still under 200 lbs and will need to add strength if he is going to be able to keep up physically with large, powerful NHL forwards. His physical play is also sometimes lacking, and his propensity to join the rush has cost him several points against while he is on the ice. But at the ripe old age of 22, the Caps may have found themselves, at the very worst, a solid minor leaguer to help bolster their depth.
Hunt is another player who may get a shot in the NHL this year if the Caps lose some regular defenders to injury. With older defenders such as Jamie Heward and Bryan Muir being in the final years of their contracts, positions on the Caps’ blue line may be up for grabs next fall as it is unlikely that Washington will dip heavily into the free-agent pool this offseason. However, in order for Hunt to challenge for a roster sport, his positional play and strength need to improve. His skating is also above average at best.
Viktor Dovgan, D — South Carolina Stingrays (ECHL)
Height: 6’2, Weight: 202 lbs
2005 Draft, 209th overall
Dovgan was the center of some controversy when the Caps selected him with their seventh-round pick at the 2005 draft. Claiming that they had proof that his age made him eligible that year rather than the next, the Caps eventually won their case and added a player they believed would have been a surefire second-rounder in 2006.
Dovgan is a nice find for the Caps. He is a tall, strong defender that is of the stay-at-home variety. Unlike most European players, Dovgan, a Russian native, likes and initiates physical contact. He is a fearsome competitor who can be counted on to give his best effort on every shift, and the fact that he is eager to play in North America at the tender age of 19 is also promising as well. The Caps just signed him to a three-year entry-level deal this week.
He is currently skating for the Caps’ ECHL affiliate in South Carolina, but recently suffered a groin injury that will keep him out for a week or two. He has a goal and an assist in 22 games nad I +1. Expect Dovgan to continue to improve and adjust to the North American game at the ECHL level.
Maxime Daigneault, G — Hershey Bears (AHL)
Height: 6’3, Weight: 205 lbs
2002 Draft, 59th overall
After several seasons of bouncing back and forth between the AHL and ECHL, Daigneault continues to be an integral part of the Caps future due to the lack of goalie depth in the Washington farm system – but for how long?
Once a contender to one day succeed star goalie Olaf Kolzig, Daigneault continues to remain No. 2 on Hershey’s depth chart largely due to the stellar play of Calder Cup hero Frederic Cassivi. Daigneault has played 12 games, posting a .913 save percentage and 2.53 GAA. Since Washington selected two goalies with high, consecutive picks in the 2006 NHL draft, Daigneault’s future in the organization may be in jeopardy. With one year left on Kolzig’s contract after this season, Washington’s Brent Johnson is the likely candidate to succeed Kolzig while young hopefuls Michal Neuvirth and Simeon Varlamov mature. But of course it’s tough to predict the team’s needs and openings.
Daigneault is a big, flashy butterflier with quick reflexes and a good glove hand. Although his positional play can lead to the occasional sharp-angled goal, he makes up for this through pure athleticism. Daigneault has the tools and the potential to be a No. 1 netminder, but an NHL backup is more likely – especially in the Caps’ system.
Daren Machesney, G — South Carolina Stingrays (ECHL)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 190 lbs
2005 Draft, 143rd overall
Earlier this spring, the Caps signed Machesney to a three-year entry-level contract and elected to have him turn pro right away. Currently, he is with the Stingrays, playing backup to Davis Parley.
Machesney is used to splitting time in the cage, sharing equal goaltending duties with Kevin Couture when he was playing in Brampton last season. He put up only mediocre overall numbers last year, but the Caps felt that he was ready and he got his first taste of professional hockey this fall.
Although Machesney is playing only about 30 percent of the time in South Carolina (7 games), he does have a modest edge in his GAA (3.24) over Parley (3.40). However, his save percentage is only .878, and neither that nor his GAA is particularly good.
Machesney is an average sized goalie with slightly above average ability. He possesses quick reflexes and his positional play in the crease is sound. However, like Daigneault, Machesney has several obstacles ahead of him should he eventually rise to the NHL. Machesney is still several years away, and in order to achieve that goal, will eventually have to graduate to Hershey and perform at a high level in the AHL before getting a serious opportunity.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.