Capitals Top 20 prospects, Fall 2007

By Ryan Bright

Top 20 at a glance

1. (1) Nicklas Backstrom, C
2. (NR) Karl Alzner, D
3. (2) Eric Fehr, RW
4. (3) Semen Varlamov, G
5. (4) Francois Bouchard, C/RW
6. (6) Michal Neuvirth, G
7. (5) Tomas Fleischmann, LW
8. (10) Keith Seabrook, D
9. (7) Chris Bourque, F
10. (11) Oskar Osala, LW
11. (8) Jeff Schultz, D
12. (17) Mathieu Perreault, C
13. (NR) Josh Godfrey, D
14. (NR) Teddy Ruth, D
15. (9) Patrick McNeill, D
16. (NR) Phil DeSimone, C
17. (14) Sasha Pokulok,
18. (15) Andrew Gordon, RW
19. (12) Sami Lepisto, D
20. (16) Travis Morin, C

1. Nicklas Backstrom, C

Drafted: 1st round, 4th overall, 2006

On May 22, 2007, Backstrom officially signed a long-awaited NHL contract with the Washington Capitals. The multi-talented Swede gives Washington a potential all-star playmaker and much needed depth at center, while also providing Washington with one of the best top two forward lines in the NHL.  Receiving Peter Forsberg comparisons, Backstrom produced well in the SEL, winning the Rookie of the Year honors in the 2005-06 season and averaging almost a point per game in his 2006-07 campaign, with 12 goals and 28 assists in 45 games.  Backstrom may in fact take some time to get used to the North American style, but is already an early favorite for NHL Rookie of the Year.  Not the biggest or most aggressive player, Backstrom might have trouble on a team with little talent. But with other highly talented youngsters surrounding him such as Alexander Semin and Alexander Ovechkin, as well as fellow Swede Michael Nylander joining the team, Backstrom could very well produce from the start.

2. Karl Alzner, D

Drafted: 1st round, 5th overall, 2007

With the fifth pick in the 2007 NHL entry draft, the Capitals chose Canadian defenseman Karl Alzner.  The Capitals received a solid, puck controlling defenseman whose personality and mindset toward the game of hockey is stellar.  Alzner should fill a big hole, considering their need for a talented, steady, and mature presence on defense.   At 6’2, 206 lbs, Alzner is an excellent passer and puck mover, as well as steady defender.  Not huge in the offensive game, Alzner hopes to develop a more complete style of play, getting physically stronger while also contributing more on offense and defense. Alzner was selected to the Canada-Russia Super Series which began on August 27, and was awarded the MVP for the first game in which Canada won 4-2.  After the Super Series, Alzner will be with Washington when Capitals rookie camp begins on Sept. 8, and depending on his play there will either be sent back to the WHL, or be brought up to the NHL permanently.

3. Eric Fehr, RW

Drafted: 1st round, 18th overall, 2003

Eric Fehr is a pure goal scorer.  At 6’4 and with success at the AHL level (22 goals and 19 assists in 40 games in 2006-07), Fehr is a prime candidate to be successful in the NHL.  With limited time in the NHL due to a serious back problem, Fehr’s window of opportunity with Washington is closing regardless of his talent.  When healthy, Fehr can really play.  He has as solid two-way game and is very good in the clutch.  His size allows him to control the puck around the boards well and win positioning around the net.  Fehr will make a case during training camp to become a second to fourth line winger for the Capitals this season, though if he shows side effects of his back problem, or cannot make the cut for the NHL in camp, he will be assigned to Hershey.

4. Semen Varlamov, G

Drafted: 1st round, 23rd overall, 2006

The highest touted goalie prospect to come out of Russia since Ilya Bryzgalov, Semen Varlamov could very well be the future starting goaltender of the franchise.  The select goalie for Russia’s junior international team, Varlamov has the raw talent, positioning and big game ability to become a very solid NHL starter.  Not impressive at the 2007 WJC in Vancouver, Varlamov looked solid in the first game of the Canada-Russia Super Series in which he stopped 19 of 23 shots.  Despite giving up some early goals down low, Varlamov looked phenomenal at times, stopping a very offensive Canadian team.  Varlamov will continue to wait in the wings for a shot at the NHL, but there is no doubt that when the Capitals do in fact shift their goaltenders, all eyes will be on the young Russian.

5. Francois Bouchard, C/RW

Drafted: 2nd round, 35th overall, 2006

With a huge offensive upside, Francois Bouchard has the potential to be an excellent special teams player and point producer at the NHL level.  Having dominated the QMJHL last season with 45 goals and 80 assists in 68 games, Bouchard displayed his vast offensive capability.  Despite having a very nice 18 points in 11 playoff games in 2007, Bouchard has been working to dispel rumors of a lack of discipline and hard work on a consistent basis. He has also gained the cursed reputation of not being a big-game player. Although these type of characteristics stick with a player well until they have proved otherwise, Bouchard is still young, and will have time to mature both himself and his game in the QMJHL before moving up in the hockey ranks.

6. Michal Neuvirth, G

Drafted: 2nd round, 34th overall, 2006

Michal Neuvirth is a classic style goaltender who is poised and plays well in big games.  He has shown his ability in the OHL, posting the league’s best 2.32 GAA and a .932 save percentage for the Plymouth Whalers.  Though he played well toward the end of the season, he did however have trouble making routine plays during the season and played poorly in the 2007 Memorial Cup, with consistency and rebound control as his main issues.  It is believed that his poor play in the Memorial Cup could have been due to the importance and size of the venue at hand, and very well could have had a deer in headlights effect of Neuvirth.  Regardless, Neuvirth is a solid goaltender and given the time, confidence and the coaching, could very well become an excellent NHL player.  It will be interesting to see the improvements of Neuvirth and Semen Varlamov in the upcoming years as they battle for roster spots in the NHL.

7. Tomas Fleischmann, LW

Drafted: 2nd round, 63rd overall, 2002

Falling from the fifth spot in the Capitals’ top 20 ranking, Fleischmann is running out of time to show what he is capable of at the NHL level and win himself a new contract with the Capitals.  With excellent offensive skills, mainly his adept hockey sense, Fleischmann lacks the two-way game necessary for any serious ice time with Washington.  Though he possesses NHL level offensive abilities and has proved his worth at the AHL level, Fleischmann does not contribute consistent offensive numbers and struggles on the defensive end of the ice.  Fleischmann will get another shot to prove himself during training camp, in an attempt to secure a more firm role.  If he succeeds into making the roster, it will be a welcome surprise to a Capitals club who needs depth players like Fleischmann to step up for a serious run at the playoffs.

8. Keith Seabrook, D

Drafted: 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2006

Seabrook is a potential dominating young talent.  With excellent offensive upside, and power play quarterback capabilities, Seabrook has the talent to become one of Washington’s top prospects.  Seabrook began to make a name for himself in the NCAA with solid play at as a true freshman tallying 13 points in 37 games for the University of Denver.  He showed much improvement, beginning the season slowly but progressing to become a very solid player.  If this progression continues, and Seabrook reaches even close to his potential, he will make a serious case for an NHL roster.  Seabrook has to work on his defensive positioning as well as his all-around defensive game.  This should come to him in the NCAA where he will likely spend three more seasons before coming to the pros.

9. Chris Bourque, F

Drafted: 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2004

Bourque is a player you would love to have on your team.  Despite his small stature at 5’7, he plays larger than he actually is and is very competitive leader on the ice. He has quick feet and can hold his own when carrying the puck against larger players.  He has excellent hockey intangibles, but Bourque is lacking the offensive skill which could have had him in the NHL sooner.  Without offensive potency as well as being below the physical size deemed acceptable for even the new NHL, Bourque will need to work extra hard and continue to prove his worth at the AHL level before given a look at serious time with the Capitals.  Bourque does have the work ethic and the hockey mind to become a role player for the Capitals in the future. For this he will need to show the Capitals’ front office beginning in training camp, that he can be a contributor to a young team.

10. Oskar Osala, LW

Drafted: 4th round, 97th overall, 2006

Finnish forward Osala has been on the rise ever since coming to North America from Finland in 2005-06.  With excellent offensive skills matched with equally as impressive physical attributes (6’4 and very quick), Osala struggled with North American style of play early on but has really caught on, improving his overall game immensely since his debut.  Osala was a minus-19 in 68 games in 2005-06 with the Mississauga Ice Dogs of the OHL, but turned his defensive woes around quickly posting a plus-11 in 54 games in 2006-07.  Osala outshone other young Finnish prospects at the WJC, scoring five goals and three assists in six games and earning one of the top three stars for Finland.  With his proven ability to progress in the North American style of game, Osala can easily become one of Washington’s top prospects in years to come.

11. Jeff Schultz, D

Drafted: 1st round, 27th overall, 2004

Schultz is more of a physical talent than a skilled one.  His size of 6’6, 224 lbs, with a long reach makes him valuable from a real estate point of view on the backend.  He has become more reliable defensively in his short time with the Capitals, but is purely a defensive defenseman.  His hard shot is inaccurate and consistently gets blocked. Also his lack of aggressiveness does not complement his incredible size.  Yet in spite of his drawbacks, with the correct coaching Schultz could turn out for the Capitals, who understand his potential and would gain a monster on defense if he can come close to fulfilling it.

12. Mathieu Perreault, C

Drafted: 6th round, 177th overall, 2006

Mathieu Perreault is an enormous offensive talent.  Lighting up the QMJHL in 2006-07, Perreault had 41 goals and 78 assists in 62 games.  At only 5’9, 155 lbs, his size is a concern as he moves up in the ranks, especially in a more physical NHL.  Though the new NHL is more suited for quick players like Perreault to succeed, he will likely need to add strength before being able to hold his own against the battle ready players in the NHL now.  Perreault will need to play bigger if he is going to get a serious look to play for the Capitals in the future.

13. Josh Godfrey, D

Drafted: 2nd round, 34th overall, 2007

Josh Godfrey is a prototypical offensive defenseman.  Measured at 99.7 mph, Godfrey’s slap shot from the point has been compared to NHL great Al McInnis’.  Though he is not very sound in his own zone, Godfrey has the potential to make it up with the points he produces on the offensive end.  The 6’0, 197-pounder had 57 points in 68 games last year, and will need to learn a lot about playing solid defense to become an everyday player in the NHL.  Godfrey will continue with Sault Ste. Marie next season.

14. Teddy Ruth, D

Drafted: 2nd round, 46th overall, 2007

Unlike his 2007 draftee counterpart Godfrey, Ruth has a very well-rounded game.  Mixing solid offense with very good defense along with his high level of work ethic and leadership ability, make Ruth a future captain as well as potential No. 1 or 2 defenseman in the making.  Ruth plays a gritty, old school style of defense, using physicality along with solid skating and passing skills to excel.  Ruth is attending the University of Notre Dame in the fall, but with his maturity and talent, Ruth could be skating with Washington before his graduation.

15. Patrick McNeill, D

Drafted: 4th round, 118th overall, 2005

McNeill, a 6’0 offensive defenseman, once lacked a complete game.  But in only a few seasons he managed to adapt his play to become a more all-around defender and in turn, a very solid prospect. With a combined minus-48 in his first two seasons with the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL, McNeill changed his game in the next two seasons, and improved his numbers to a combined plus-32 from 2005-07.  McNeill has the tools to be a solid NHL defenseman, but especially as a power-play specialist.  He scored a point a game in 2006-07. The 20-year-old turns pro this year.

16. Phil DeSimone, C

Drafted: 3rd round, 84th overall, 2007

Speedy forward Phil DeSimone has the offensive skills to be a potent force.  USHL Player of the Year, DeSimone made a major name for himself, scoring 73 points in 60 games in 2006-07, becoming one of the league’s top scoring threats.  The 5’11 center does not possess a great defensive game, which could be a problem as he moves up in the ranks.  But if DeSimone matures as a player, working on a more complete game, he could open eyes in the upcoming seasons and make a jump to the top of Capitals’ prospect rankings. He begins at the University of New Hampshire this fall.

17. Sasha Pokulok, D

Drafted: 1st round, 14th overall, 2005

Polulok, 6’4, has the tools necessary to become a solid, well-rounded defender at the professional level.  But suffering a debilitating concussion early in the 2006-07 season with the Hershey Bears, and a second one shortly after recovering from the first, have put Pokulok’s career in jeopardy.  Pokulok’s use of his size, matched with his good stickhandling ability, made him one of the best defensive prospects in the Capitals’ system before the injuries.  If Pokulok stayed healthy throughout the 2006-07 season it would be very likely that he would be contending for a job in the NHL.  But now, a good season will just mean staying healthy throughout. 

18. Andrew Gordon, RW

Drafted: 7th round, 197th overall, 2004

Gordon is more than meets the eye.  At 5’11 180, he plays like a much bigger player and is surprisingly tough.  With quick hands and agile skating ability, Gordon is a consistent scoring threat whenever he is on the ice.  With 22 goals and 23 assists in 39 games with a good St. Cloud State team, Gordon was voted WCHA Player of the Week three times and was selected first-team All-WCHA.  Gordon will forgo his senior year at St. Cloud to turn pro in 2007-08.  With the rare combination of high energy, toughness and skill Gordon possesses, he could prove to be one of the biggest sleepers in training camp.

19. Sami Lepisto, D

Drafted: 3rd round, 66th overall, 2004

Lepisto started off his career well with two back-to-back solid years in Finland before injuries slowed his pace.  Known as one of the best young defensemen in Finland, Lepisto has not yet made the transition to North America which has slowed his development. Playing in only 26 games in the 2006-07 season due to nagging injuries, Lepisto is a very good offensive defenseman when healthy.  Cool and calm under pressure, Lepisto can stickhandle through traffic and make solid passes consistently.  Much like other young offensive blue liners, Lepisto is lacking a solid two-way game, as well as the strength needed to win crucial battles along the boards.  A move to the AHL should help cure some of Lepisto’s strength issues while also making him a more solid defender in the long run. But do not expect to see him in a Capitals’ uniform until then.

20. Travis Morin, C

Drafted: 9th round, 263rd overall, 2004

A ninth-round draft surprise, Morin has developed into a very good complete forward.  With 17 goals and 22 assists in 38 games, Morin proved he could play with the top players the NCAA has to offer.  Morin is a clutch player who logged a ton of minutes in college.  A very solid power-play presence, Morin is an excellent puck handler.  He will need to build some more muscle mass before he can be as effective at the professional level as he was at the NCAA level.  Expect to see Morin in Hershey for the 2007-08 season.

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