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Capitals prospect report: Hershey head coach evaluates Caps’ future

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Capitals prospect report: Hershey head coach evaluates Caps’ future

Spencer Carbery is in his first season as head coach of the Hershey Bears. The start to the season was a rough one as the Bears had an influx of new players to go with their new coach and it took time to adjust. Now, however, Hershey is one of the hottest teams in the AHL with four straight wins and a 10-game point streak.

Carbery has a unique perspective of many of the Caps prospects as their head coach. He’s not a scout watching from the press box, he’s in the locker room and on the bench with these players, utilizing them in his lineup to maximize their talents.

I spoke with him about several top prospects to get his perspective.

Ilya Samsonov

Much like the team, Samsonov struggled early in the season, but has been brilliant of late with a 6-0-1 record in his last seven games. For Carbery, Samsonov’s integration into American culture has as much to do with his turnaround as his adjustments on the ice.

“Everything was different for him and understanding simple things like calls for breakouts, communicating with a teammate or a defenseman, watching his video and asking him to certain things in practice,” Carbery said. “It was all very, very challenging for him. Some guys adjust quickly, some guys it takes a little bit more time and I think that was just a case with Ilya where now he's completely integrated in the culture, the country, the food, the living situation, the organization, his teammates. It's just now it looks like, and you can visually see it from the way he acts and the way he interacts with his teammates and the way he walks around with his teammates, it's night and day from the beginning of the year.”

At 6-foot-3, Samsonov has the size of an NHL goalie, but he is also extremely athletic which allows him to move very well in the crease despite his size.

“He is a big, big kid that takes up a lot of the net,” Carbery said. “So just when you're going down as a shooter and you look at him, there's not a lot of net at all. So he's got that imposing figure to him. His athleticism I've been most impressed with. For a guy of his size, his ability to get around the net and side to side and make huge recoveries, and that's one thing that I know our goaltending department's been working with him on, trying to minimize a little bit less movement, but when he pushes and covers ground, it's impressive. He is extremely quick and covers a ton of area.”

Lucas Johansen

It’s been a tough season for Johansen, but things are finally starting to look up. Johansen had been out since Nov. 23 with an upper-body injury, but finally returned to the lineup on Wednesday and tallied an assist.

Known more as a puck-mover than a shutdown blueliner, Carbery saw dramatic improvement defensively before the injury and was using Johansen on a shutdown pair.

One of the other major talking points that always surrounds Johansen is his weight, but Carbery said he has worked very hard with Hershey’s strength and conditioning coach to become a heavier presence on the ice.

“We saw a lot of that early in the year when he was involved where it didn't look like someone that couldn't handle themselves physically down low against power forwards or 6-foot-3, 220-pound men down low in the defensive zone where usually if you're light defensemen or you can't handle that small space in those big bodies, it usually shows there. I didn't have a problem with his game down there so I felt like that area had grown and that kind of speaks to his strength and conditioning, him putting on that weight and strength to be able to handle himself in those situations.”

Shane Gersich

Gersich’s first taste of professional hockey was in the NHL where he stuck with the Capitals through the Stanley Cup run last season. Going from that to the AHL can be a tough transition, but Carbery has been impressed with how well he has handled it.

“Coming to the American League and Hershey, [Gersich has] been nothing short of, from a standpoint of buying in, doing everything we're asking from a development standpoint to video, to here's what we've got to work on, just all-in, all the time. And that has been really, really impressive to watch.”

Connor Hobbs

The discussion around Hobb’s potential usually begins and ends with how special his shot is. He is seen by most scouts as an offensive defenseman who can play on the power play, but who’s defensive acumen remains limited. Carbery strongly disputed that notion saying “that doesn’t tell really the story. His shot’s just a small part of his game.”

“[Hobbs] has an excellent stick, he's very good at closing and reading where offensive players want to put pucks and what they're trying to do to him,” Carbery added. “He breaks up a ton of plays. That's the one everybody talks about is shot, shot, shot. Obviously you want to use that whenever you can and we try to put him in spots where he can use his shot, but there's so much more to his game that I think is going to be important at the next level and being just a guy that's known as a one-trick pony or just because of his shot is something we've kind of tried to steer away from and try to get other parts of his game developed and focused on.”

Tobias Geisser

In Geisser, Carbery sees another defenseman in the mold of a Jonas Siegenthaler. He’s a big bodied defenseman who is still incredibly mobile.

“The size and the skating ability are impressive,” Carbery said. “Normally when you get into that size of a defenseman, the skating ability, quickness, agility, lateral movement all starts to decline. He's a really good skater for his size which I think gets a lot of people excited because obviously he can defend really well, you're quick, you're agile, point A to point B you win races and then you've also got this 6-foot-5 frame where you're just able to cover so much more ground.”

What has really stood out to Carbery is how well Geisser has played in his first season in the AHL. That transition can usually be tough for European players, but especially for a 19-year-old playing against grown men. Yet, Geisser has not looked out of place or overmatched.
“He's playing with men right now and fitting in fine and that's impressive,” Carbery said. “That sometimes is really difficult for not only forwards but defensemen to play consistently in the American League at 19, 20 years old.”

Garrett Pilon

Pilon was a dominant player in the WHL and that presented some early changes for his AHL career. Not everyone can be Alex Ovechkin or Connor McDavid and dominate at every level of the game and the Caps project Pilon to be a third, perhaps second line NHL player. Moving up a level to the AHL and finding out you’re not one of the best players on the ice can be a shock.

“Really competitive kid, puts a lot of pressure on himself, wanted to do well right away,” Carbery said. “It's a big jump coming from major junior to the American League where now everybody was the best player on their team or everybody that played major junior could argue that they dominated at times. I think it was an adjustment getting used to the pace, getting used to the strength. For a skill guy that needs the puck on his stick, that needs time and space, that wants to create whether that's off a rush in the offensive zone, that time and space, because of the speed, because of the strength, was limited and he wasn't able to do some of the things that he knew he could do and wanted to do.”

Carbery, however, was encouraged by how Pilon reacted to his initial struggles. Rather than just getting frustrated, he worked at improving his game and has adjusted how he plays.

“He's strong on pucks, he's physical,” Carber said. “His pace now is completely up to speed. He knows the league, he knows how he has to play fast, he knows when he needs to be hard on pucks and when he needs to absorb contact and when he's going to get hit he rolls off instead of ending up on his butt on the ice. … I know the points and the goals, he'd probably like to have more and you could argue that deservedly so with some of the chances that him and his linemates have had, if you watch the games and you break down the film, he's having a large impact on games at this point in the season consistently now.”

Alex Alexeyev

Though Alexeyev is still playing junior hockey in the WHL this season, Carbery got a chance to coach him in the rookie tournament in the offseason. He walked away very impressed with the Caps’ first pick of the 2018 draft.

“It really stuck out to me with how many different things he did well,” Carbery said. “Usually players out of junior, there's maybe one or two things that they do really well whether it's a speed guy that can fly down the wing but needs to work on the hockey sense or his puck handling. Or it's a guy that sees the ice really, really well, but he's a little bit light. Alexeyev was a player that he did a bunch of things really well. Defended well, good stick, moved really well, could bomb a puck, competitive with blocked shots. Just a lot of different areas that really made him jump off the page.”

Other prospect notes:

  • Chris Kuc of The Athletic spoke with assistant general manager Ross Mahoney on a number of the Caps’ prospects. You can read his article here.
  • Samsonov set a new career-high in saves on Wednesday when he turned aside 35 of the 37 shots he faced in a win over Springfield.
  • Riley Barber was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Month for January on Friday. He had 14 total points in 10 games including two game-winning goals. “It’s a great honor,” Barber said to Chocolate Hockey. “This is a really good league and a really hard league to produce in. And to be seen as Player of the Month is awesome.”
  • Nathan Walker was suspended one game for kneeing Christian Wolanin of the Belleville Senators. He served his suspension on Wednesday. You can watch the incident here: 
  • Beck Malenstyn dropped the gloves on Saturday in Hershey’s win over Lehigh Valley and…wow. Carbery referred to Malenstyn on the Old Barn Hockey Show podcast as Hershey’s Tom Wilson. Watching the fight, you can see why. 
  • Lots of Martin Fehervary content this week. Japers’ Rink interviewed the Caps’ defensive prospect which you can read here. You should also check out this profile on him from Nova Caps.
  • Chase Priskie has been named one of 20 finalists for the Walter Brown Award. The award is given annually to the best American-born college hockey player in New England.

 

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Todd Reirden praises Jakub Vrana's commitment to his teammate in first NHL fight

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Todd Reirden praises Jakub Vrana's commitment to his teammate in first NHL fight

The Capitals' Wednesday night matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning had everything a hockey fan loves; goals, high stakes and fighting.

In the second period of the Caps' 5-4 OT loss, Michael Kempny was knocked out of the game with a lower-body injury after a back-and-forth scuffle with Cedric Paquette. Forward Jakub Vrana decided to stick up for his teammate and dropped the gloves with the Lightning's Yanni Gourde in what was the 23-year-old's first NHL fight. 

"That's our team. That's something that is acknowledged whenever a player does it," head coach Todd Reirden said on 106.7 The Fan's Sports Junkies Thursday. "It's not an easy thing to do. It obviously takes courage and pride and major, major credit is sent his way between periods and after the game for doing something like that. "

Vrana, who made the Caps' roster back in 2017 and cemented himself within their lineup during their Stanley Cup championship run with two game-winning goals, has officially made it clear he's got his teammate's backs. 

"Anytime a player steps outside of their box and grows, especially in a situation like that, he's not a guy that gets into fights...he stood up for the Washington Capitals," Reirden added. "And I can not put enough praise on something like that because that's at what the end of the day, that's commitment to your teammate, that's togetherness, that's team, and especially a guy like Gourde [who] has fought Tom [Wilson]." 

Vrana was sent to the penalty box after fighting who the NBC Sports Network commentators described as a "pocket Hercules" in Gourde. While Reirden would have liked the speedster to have been on the ice for the Caps in the following moments, he couldn't help but praise the strides he took as both a player and teammate. 

"And like I said, Vrana's been a phenomenal player for us this year, and you don't necessary like the tradeoff of not having Jakub on that situation, but that was something that he did and I'm really proud of him for that," he said. "Not just for what happens in a hockey game, but for him as a young player." 

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Todd Reirden excited for 'amazing opportunity' of visiting White House

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Todd Reirden excited for 'amazing opportunity' of visiting White House

WASHINGTON – The Capitals will visit the White House on Monday for the traditional visit reserved for the Stanley Cup winners and head coach Todd Reirden is pretty excited about that.

“I think it's an amazing opportunity,” he said. “Something for the last five years you drive to the rink, you see this, you hear about it, you think about it.”

In the wake of the announcement there were questions over who would ultimately decide to attend the event. Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly have already gone public that they intended not to go.

On Wednesday, however, Reirden presented a united front to the media.

“I was really excited about the invitation and will be going and be happy to be going. In that respect, I get it. I understand our players and their decisions and I respect it. They're allowed to make their own decisions. It's important that we support them in whatever decision that they make.”

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