When teams gather for the draft, they make each selection with one goal in mind: to select the best and most NHL players. No team, however, bats 1.000 when it comes to its prospects. Not every player within an organization is going to make it to the NHL. The problem is that we don't get to see those players very often so it is hard to judge their skill level. Plus, it's not as if a team will ever come out and say "we drafted this guy in the third round, but now we don't think he's going to make it past the AHL."
Capitals fans have likely seen a lot of rankings of late ranking the team dead last in terms of its farm system. Are they right? How many NHL players does the team actually have among its prospects and how good can they be?
Here's a look at where I put the potential of the team's prospects based on what I have read, what I have heard and what I have seen from these players.
The new guys
It's too soon to really judge the 2020 draft picks. Sure, you can read article after article and draft profile after draft profile, but you have to take those with a grain of salt. Ultimately, if they were all that accurate then we would not see nearly as many draft busts as we do every single year.
Even if I think it's too soon to declare which players are possible NHLers, here's a quick look at each of the newest Caps prospects.
F Hendrix Lapierre
Lapierre was considered to be a high to mid-first-round draft pick based on his play-making ability and hockey IQ, but he began to slide due to injury concerns. This is a player who quite possibly would have gone in the top 10 if not for reportedly suffering three concussions in a 10-month span in 2019. That, however, was not the case as Lapierre was later diagnosed with other vertebrae issues and Lapierre said after the draft that he had only actually suffered one concussion.
General manager Brian MacLellan decided the potential was worth the gamble and traded a third-round pick to jump up making Lapierre the team's only pick in the first three rounds.
“I know he’s had a rough year with injuries," MacLellan said. "We’ve had our doctors, our trainer check him out as we went through the whole draft process. There probably is a little risk there, but I thought at our pick, where we were at, the upside just made up for it. He’s a skilled player with potential to be a top-six centerman. Has real good character, real good personality, lot of positives about the player.”
F Bogdan Trineyev
At 6-foot-3, 198 pounds, Trineyev certainly has the size teams want in an NHL player. He scored 12 goals and 14 assists in 36 games in the MHL in 2019-20. Because of his size, he is able to win puck battles and get to the dirty areas of the ice and he said after being drafted that he does try to play physically. That skill doesn't always translate when players reach the AHL and NHL and start to play against guys who are just as big or bigger than they are so it will be interesting to see how he adjusts when he gets to North America. He lacks quickness so if he wants to be an NHL player, he is going to have to learn to play a very physical style of game.
F Bear Hughes
Hughes plays for Spokane in the WHL, a junior league the Caps frequently like to pick from. He had 16 goals and 31 assists in 61 games for Spokane in 2019-20. In the summers he has been known to work with Tampa Bay Lightning forward Tyler Johnson who is also from Spokane.
Hughes seems to do a lot of his damage in front of the net by crashing the crease and getting in front of the goalie's face. His journey to getting drafted is a unique one as he was a relative unknown before the 2019-20 season.
"He came on very early this year," assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. "Interesting story, really didn't play a high level of hockey until this year. Basically was a walk-on for Spokane Chiefs in the Western League, end up making the team and end up playing quite a bit on the second line, third line. We feel that he really has a lot of growth ahead of him just because of the path that he's taken. I think his potential is pretty untapped right now. We expect him to make a big leap next year as far as his progress."
G Garin Bjorklund
Another WHL player, Bjorklund plays goal for Medicine Hat where he registered a 20-5-1 record with a 2.91 GAA and .897 save percentage in 2019-20, playing significant time for a 17-year-old. As you can tell, the win statistics don't really match the personal statistics, but it is felt he frequently put his team in a position to win with his effort and you can certainly tell that from his highlight reel.
Bjorklund plays a very chaotic, non-positional style similar to Jonathan Quick. That is going to make it hard to really evaluate him. There are times his style looks really ugly, but he is still able to make the save which is what matters. He will be a challenge for goalie coaches who need to figure out how to tap his potential while not coaching his style out of him.
F Oskar Magnusson
Magnusson spent the majority of the 2019-20 season playing in the J20 SuperElit league in Sweden, but did make the jump to the SHL for four games. With his junior team, he scored 22 goals and 26 assists in 38 games. So impressed with him were the Caps that the team ultimately traded into the seventh round to get him specifically.
"We really thought we needed to get that extra pick in order to get him and we had him rated higher than where we took him," Mahoney said.
He added, "Smaller player, a little bit smaller stature, but can skate. Very competitive and can put up points."
Elite NHL players
The franchise players, the all-time greats, the Alex Ovechkin's who you can build a team around and be confident that team can compete for a Stanley Cup for years to come.
Don't get me wrong, the Caps have some very good prospects, but if you're hoping for an easy transition from the Alex Ovechkin years to the next all-time great franchise player, it's not going to happen. That player just isn't in the organization yet.
High-end NHL players
Top-six forwards, top-four defensemen and starting goalies.
D Alex Alexeyev
Alexeyev is an immensely talented defenseman and incredibly mature. He has both supreme confidence in his abilities and the self-awareness to know he is not a finished product. I see him as a top-four, puck-moving defenseman, possibly top pair. The only concern is the injuries.
Alexeyev's WHL career ended with a knee-on-knee hit that ended his 2018-19 season. He then suffered a concussion in a rookie tournament that kept him out of the entire Caps' training camp in 2019. Those injuries seemed to take a toll on his development.
In 2019, Alexeyev was far and away the most highly regarded defensive prospect on the team. Now it seems as if Martin Fehervary has surpassed him on the depth chart. Fehervary earned his opportunities last season, but I do believe Alexeyev's injuries put him behind where he was hoping to be in his first professional season.
"It took [Alexeyev] a bit maybe to get his skating to where he wanted," Zack Fisch, the voice of the Hershey Bears said. "I thought he really improved on his foot speed and being able to keep up with the pace of play as the season progressed and his conditioning and strength are just things that he's going to continue to work on. That's just a product of not getting the games because of the injuries he had."
The biggest goals for Alexeyev in 2021 will be to stay healthy and play at a consistent, high level.
D Martin Fehervary
I expected Fehervary would be a full-time NHL player in 2021, but it appears the Caps had other ideas. Still, I see that more as a reflection of the team's Stanley Cup or bust mentality for 2021 than a knock on Fehervary. This is an NHL defenseman who is going to be in the big leagues sooner rather than later.
Fehervary is a more defensive player than Alexeyev and I don't think his ceiling is quite as high, but I do see him as a top-four player. He is a defensive defenseman in a more modern sense in that he is still a good puck mover, good on the breakouts and mobile. He has good closing speed and uses his body well defensively. He is not going to be a statue out there just used to park in front of the net and block shots, he is a defensive player who can fit into the modern mold of the NHL.
F Connor McMichael
McMichael was the team's first-round pick in 2019. In his first season after he was drafted, he had a breakout year with 102 points in 52 games playing for the London Knights of the OHL. McMichael's hockey sense and skill are undeniable, it is just a matter of waiting for McMichael's body to catch up to his skills. Plus, he will not be able to make the jump to the AHL this season and will have to play another year in juniors. That's not ideal considering McMichael's stats say he has nothing left to prove at that level.
“Curious to see the gains [McMichael] will make strength-wise, that’s probably one of the biggest things for him is to get stronger so I think I am curious to see how he does," Mahoney said when asked what he would be watching for in training camp."
Depth NHL players
These guys have the skills to be full-time depth NHL players.
F Axel Jonsson-Fjallby
Jonsson-Fjallby looks like he can be the next Carl Hagelin. He has great speed, but lacks the finishing skills to make him a major offensive threat at the NHL level. He's not going to be a 20-goal scorer (and if he is, it will be a one-year peak), but he will be a solid third-line speedy winger and a strong penalty killer.
The biggest issue with Jonsson-Fjallyb is just consistency. He scored six goals in 11 playoff games in the SHL in 2018, tallied only three points in 16 games for Hershey the following season before returning home to Sweden, was very quiet in the regular season, then exploded in the playoffs again for 12 points in 19 games. Last year, he was awful in the rookie tournament prior to training camp, but turned in a decent season in Hershey with 12 goals and 11 assists.
"[Jonsson-Fjallby] came in this year invested, had double-digit goal total, was a big part of the PK," Fisch said. "I remember saying this on a podcast, he's got to get the hands, the head and the feet working together. Sometimes he's too fast for his own good. Much better at that this season, his shot was much more accurate."
At the very least, Jonsson-Fjallby has NHL speed, but I'm not convinced he can play with the consistency to really challenge for anything other than a bottom-six role.
F Beck Malenstyn
Sometimes it is harder for highly skilled players to make the transition from the AHL to the NHL because those players need top-six roles to thrive and teams don't want to hand those roles to players coming right out of the minors. A player like Malenstyn, however, could step into an everyday role for the Caps tomorrow without skipping a beat. That's because he is a fourth-line grinder.
Fisch said of Malenstyn that "He grinds, hits hard, fearless shot-blocker and penalty killer and is tough as nails. He can drop 'em, he'll stand up for his teammates and is just a really good guy that fits right in anywhere."
F Aliaksei Protas
Watching Protas in the 2019 preseason just weeks after he was drafted by Washington, I was convinced he was an NHL player. I feel even more convinced after he exploded for 80 points in 58 games in the WHL.
I don't believe he has the shot, hands or offensive acumen to be a top-six forward, especially as a center, but I could see him being a third-line, two-way center at the NHL level.
F Daniel Sprong
Not only is Sprong an NHL player, but I believe he will be an NHL player this season for Washington. In 2018-19, he scored 14 goals for Anaheim in the NHL. The Caps have a hole on the third line and Sprong looks like an obvious fit.
"He has an NHL shot," Fisch said. "That's the most exciting thing for me about him that is going to translate right away. His shot is as good as I've seen in the American Hockey League."
Sprong's defensive game needs some work and that is likely why he has struggled to stick in the NHL. Coaches want two-way players in the bottom-six. A third-line player is going to struggle to get enough playing time to produce and justify his spot on the team if that's the only thing he brings to the table. For Washington, however, this team desperately needs depth scoring. They should coach up Sprong as best they can then try to be patient with any defensive mishaps. He is only 23, after all.
G Vitek Vanecek
Vaneck has stuck around within the organization since the Caps drafted him in the second round back in 2014. In that time, he has still yet to play an NHL game. This is somewhat in part due to the team's depth in net and luck in terms of injuries, but it also has to do with the fact that Vanecek's ceiling just is not as high as a player like Ilya Samsonov's.
"Vanecek's not the biggest goaltender as far as size go," Fisch said. "He's not the 6-foot-5 mammoth netminders that you're seeing in there, but he moves very well. He never gives up on a puck and his movements are very solid. But he's not afraid to be a bit unconventional when he needs to."
I see Vanecek as an NHL goalie, but as a traditional backup. I don't think he can be an NHL starter or a 1b as teams move more and more towards tandems. He does not have the size to be as effective a butterfly goalie as he is in the AHL. I think he has a tendency to play too deep in his crease which also doesn't help. His play can be maddeningly inconsistent at times with him looking unbeatable for almost an entire game, then letting in a handful of soft goals.
Vanecek can be an NHL goalie in the right situation, I'm just not sure if that situation is ultimately going to be Washington.
The jury is still out
These are the guys who are still developing and it is too soon to close the book on what exactly the team has in them. While some are early on in their hockey career, others are on the cusp of breaking out and showing that they belong in the big leagues. For others the clock is ticking and they need to show that they can play at the highest level.
F Kody Clark and F Riley Sutter
Said Fisch, "It was tough for some of our first year guys like a Kody Clark and Riley Sutter, they got hurt early which put them behind the eight ball a little bit."
D Tobias Geisser
There were just too many defensemen in Hershey last year for Geisser to get any consistent playing time so he ultimately returned to Europe to play in his native Switzerland. At 6-foot-4, 201 pounds, he has NHL size, but I'm not sure yet if he has the skills to be an effective NHL blue-liner.
F Shane Gersich
Gersich went straight from the NCAA to the NHL, playing three games for the Caps in 2017-18. A lot of people expected him to be an NHL regular from that point on, but it hasn't worked that way and, thus far, Gersich has not yet made it back to the NHL. It was always going to be a tough transition for him, considering he was a strong offensive player in college but he needed to transition to playing more of a bottom-six, two-way role in the NHL, but that transition is taking longer than expected. He was not even among the players taken by the Caps to the Toronto bubble over the summer. Gersich was in training camp, but was among the last cuts heading into the postseason.
"He's settled into a really good role where he can realize what it's going to take for him to get to the NHL being a bottom-six player," Fisch said, "Grinding, working hard, Nathan Walker-like in the sense that he'll get in your kitchen and he's going to let you know that he's there and not make it comfortable for you and he'll get under guys' skins. I think his foot speed is really strong. It's a fast game. We know speed is the name of the game right now. He scored 10 goals this year, he took the next step, he was a big part of the penalty kill. He knows that's probably where his role is going to be as an NHLer."
G Mitchell Gibson
Gibson's one year in the USHL was nothing to write home about (.890 save percentage, 3.50 GAA, 13-21-4 record), but his first season at Harvard certainly was (.916 save percentage, 2.61 GAA, 11-3-8 record). As a freshman, Gibson stepped in and established himself as the team's top netminder.
D Martin Has
D Paul LaDue
LaDue has 69 games of NHL experience and will either be on the Caps' roster or the team's first call-up when it needs a right defenseman. I assumed he was a minor-league signing when Washington signed him as a free agent, but he was then given a jersey number and a press conference with the media, things normally reserved for NHL players.
"I've been working a lot this summer on my skating," LaDue said. "I think I can bring more of a physical presence to my game. I've been focusing on that a lot. I think a little bit has to do with consistency, just bringing my game every night. In the end, I'm just going to go out there, I'm going to play my game to the best of my ability and we'll see what happens from there."
LaDue added, "I'd say right now I'm an all-around defenseman who really prides myself on the defensive part of the game, but, at the same time, I can use my offensive abilities to contribute on the offensive zone."
F Brett Leason
The reality that faced the 6-foot-4, 201-pound Leason in 2019=20 was that he was no longer the biggest kid on the playground and he struggled with that. The good news is that he seemed to settle in towards the back-end of the season so it's just a matter of building on that and continuing to trend in the right direction.
"Brett Leason I thought made great strides," Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery said.
Leason was drafted to be a skilled NHL power forward. He was not going to be as dominant physically in the AHL or the NHL (not everyone can be Tom Wilson) as he was in juniors, but he has to be able to add more physicality to his game as he continues to develop.
D Benton Maass
D Lucas Johansen
At this point, I am convinced that if Johansen is going to have an opportunity to make it to the NHL, it will be with another team. Frankly, I was a little surprised he was re-signed as a restricted free agent.
Injuries have completely derailed Johansen's development and he was limited to just 54 games over the past two seasons.
"Just has never got that consistency factor down because he's been hurt," Fisch said. "Part of that's bad luck. I don't know exactly how you develop when you don't have the ability to play this many games."
Johansen has to be better in his own zone not just defensively, but on the breakouts as well. He is a puck-moving defenseman, but I often see him struggle against a forecheck when trying to distribute the puck.
D Bobby Nardella
Nardella has been opening eyes in Hershey with his play, but he's only 5-foot-9, 174 pounds and on a team loaded with left defensemen. Even if he does have NHL skill, I think it more likely that he will only serve Washington in the form of a trade at some point.
F Garrett Pilon
F Damien Riat
F Joe Snively
NHL subs/High-end minor league players
These are the players who you may see in the NHL as a call-up. Heck, some of them may get extended looks. They can handle themselves in a pinch, but ultimately they are not quite good enough to be full-time NHLers and it is best for them and their NHL squads if they remain big fish in the AHL pond.
G Pheonix Copley
Copley did well in 2018-19 to win 16 games as the backup in Washington, but there were aspects of his play I did not like that were masked by his win total. He struggled to track pucks and gave up bad rebounds on shots he should have been able to grab and freeze. He was also slow in his lateral movements.
The fact that Vanecek supplanted him on the depth chart over the summer despite having no NHL experience and it came just one year removed from when Copley was the NHL backup is a reflection of the deficiencies in his game.
F Brian Pinho
My opinion of Pinho clearly differs from that of the Caps as evidenced by the fact that he played two games in the playoffs for Washington against the New York Islanders. I expect he will be in play to make the NHL roster as the 13th forward this season. In my mind, I just don't see it. I don't think there is any aspect of his game or skillset that I would label to be NHL caliber. I like him in the AHL a lot, but I am not sure what he adds to Washington other than just a body and a cheap contract.
Fisch described Pinho as, "A very productive player that's responsible in his own zone, that kills penalties, is good on faceoffs and can play the wing. Now is he a guy that's going to come in and score 20 goals at the NHL level? Probably not, but he's older, a little bit more seasons, couple years under his belt and got a look. Now a new coaching staff has to re-establish himself with now Peter Laviolette, but I think he's certainly in the mix."
Minor league players
Players whose skill level is a notch below the NHL. They may get a call-up here or there, but these guys are all ultimately minor-league players.
F Daniel Carr
Carr was the AHL MVP in 2018-19. He is a great AHL player, but I wonder if the Caps added him more as a possible depth piece than just a great pickup for Hershey. Salary cap constraints will force teams to get creative in 2021. Still, even if he does see NHL time this year, it won't be long-term.
G Zach Fucale
F Philippe Maillet
There can be a disconnect sometimes when people assume that just because a player is good at the AHL level, it means he should be good in the NHL or at least next in line to make the jump. That's not the case. The AHL and NHL are two different leagues and sometimes there are players who are just good at the AHL level. That's where they fit and it doesn't mean they are in line for an extended look at the NHL.
Maillet is a very good AHL player. He scored 44 points last season for Hershey and 54 points the season before with the Ontario Reign, but he's not someone in the mix to make the NHL roster. Maybe he could get a call-up on a short-term basis if needed, but that's about it.
"[Maillet's] an older player that's on his first-ever NHL contract, but did lead the Bears in points, continues playing like he does at the American League level," Fisch said. "Probably more of a call-up, but hopefully he has a good camp to keep him on the radar."
F Kristian Roykas-Marthinsen
D Cameron Schilling
F Michael Sgarbossa
D Sebastian Walfridsson