Capitals

Which prospects have a shot at cracking the Caps' lineup in 2020-21?

Capitals

In the era of the salary cap, young players are becoming more and more important to teams with championship aspirations. Young players on their entry-level or second contracts have small cap hits. That means a team can add good prospect players to the roster for cheap and use the savings to bolster the roster elsewhere. The trick is you have to have prospects ready to play in the NHL.

The Capitals were tight against the salary cap last season and now the cap will remain flat at $81.5 million for the next two seasons and perhaps beyond that. The team really needs some cheap contracts in order to free up cap space, but, when you have a farm system ranked dead last in the NHL, there are not an overwhelming number of options.

Let’s look at some of the Caps prospects who could challenge for a roster spot for the 2020-21 season.

Should make the NHL roster

Martin Fehervary

I label Fehervary as someone who should make the roster, but I’ll clarify and say he is someone the Caps need to make the roster. The team has to clear space somewhere and if Fehervary can’t make the cut, Washington may not have any rookies on its roster for next season despite desperately needing a cheap, entry-level contract on the books.

Fehervary, who will turn 21 in October, is a very smart and physical player. He played six NHL games last season and an additional two playoff games. The biggest note I had watching him last season was that he did not seem to know where to go defensively. Knowing how high his hockey IQ is, that likely has more to do with adjusting from Hershey to Washington and the different size and speed of NHL players. A full NHL training camp and preseason will help with that. Otherwise he does not look out of place at all.

 

Fehervary is a left-shot which is not ideal because the right side is much thinner for Washington, but, as is typical of a lot of European players, he says he is comfortable playing his off-side on the right. I would not want him playing on the right in his rookie season, but it is an option if necessary.

General manager Brian MacLellan may need to trade away a lefty in the offseason to clear not only cap space, but room on the roster for all of the team’s left defensemen. If he does, Fehervary should step in on the bottom pair or possibly even see time on the second.

It’s possible

Beck Malenstyn

In some ways, it can be easier for a fourth-line player to break into the NHL than a highly skilled player because a fourth-line player can be immediately plugged into a spot in the lineup that best suits his talents and role and it will only be for limited minutes as he will be playing on the fourth line anyway.

WIth Richard Panik, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway all returning, however, there’s not much room on the roster for Malenstyn. At 22 years old, it still would be better for him to play in the AHL than to sit in the press box in Washington as a healthy scratch, but who knows if there will even be an AHL season this year? It also could be possible that he is brought in as a player who cycles in and out of the lineup on the fourth line.

There are two other scenarios that could clear the way for Malenstyn to stick in the NHL. First, if new head coach Peter Laviolette wants to play Panik back on the third line where he started last season. I personally thought Panik was at his best as a fourth-line player for the Caps, but Laviolette may feel differently. Second, if MacLellan seeks to trade away Panik or Hathaway, both of whom still have three years remaining on their contracts.

Daniel Sprong

Depth scoring is an issue for the Caps. In the 2018 Cup run, Washington got 27 goals from bottom-six forwards in just 24 games. In 2019, the Caps’ bottom-six scored only five goals in seven games against the Carolina Hurricanes and one of those goals was an empty-netter. That’s still better than 2020 when Washington had two goals from the bottom-six in eight postseason games and zero in five games against the New York Islanders.

Sprong already has 97 NHL games under his belt with 19 goals and 30 points. In 2018-19, he scored 14 goals with the Anaheim Ducks. That’s more than Panik scored for Washington last year.

 

The Caps need a backup goalie, a right defenseman, possibly a top left defenseman and depth scoring. MacLellan is going to run out of cap space pretty fast so maybe this is one area where he could look at Sprong as a viable and, most importantly, cheap option.

Complicating this is the fact that Sprong is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. Now, a player with only 97 games and 30 points is not likely to break the bank, but I am sure MacLellan will not want the uncertainty of arbitration considering how tight things are going to be with the flat cap.

Long-shots

Alex Alexeyev

Another left shot, Alexeyev was regarded as the team’s top defensive prospect until a concussion kept him out of the entire 2019 training camp and postseason. With so many left defensemen on the roster already, Alexeyev will have to really surprise some people at camp to make a run at the roster.

Currently, Alexeyev is on loan with the KHL. Let’s see if he can stay healthy there before training camp.

Shane Gersich

After playing three games for the Caps in 2018, I think it is fair to say at this point that Gersich’s development has taken longer than the team had hoped. This can sometimes happen when a player is a top offensive threat in college then has to adjust to a much smaller role in the pros. The fact that he could not even make the final cut to travel with the team to the bubble in Toronto, however, is not a great sign after two full years in in the AHL.

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby

In terms of skillset, Jonsson-Fjallby is very similar to Carl Hagelin. His play tends to sswing wildly and he needs to find more consistency before he can crack the NHL roster.

Connor McMichael

For a 19-year-old to crack the NHL roster, he has to elevate his play to such a degree that a team can no longer justify leaving him off the roster. It will take more than a good season at the junior level against amatuer players his own age, many of whom are not going to be NHL players, to do that. Perhaps he could dazzle at camp, but even if he plays well, the Caps already have Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd down the middle so there’s not muich room for him.

I wrote more on why McMIchael likely will not make the NHL squad out of camp here.

It’s not happening

Brian Pinho

When Todd Reirden needed to shakeup the lineup in the playoffs, he scratched Travis Boyd in favor of PInho, giving him his first two career NHL games. I was surprised by the move as I have never viewed Pinho as an NHL player. The move was even more head-scratching when he played only four shifts in his first game for 3:22 of total ice time. He’s a minor-league player and I don’t really see what Pinho could bring this team at the NHL level.

 

Vitek Vanecek

The Caps need a backup, right?

In this age of goalie tandems, however, I just can’t see the Caps going with Ilya Samsonov and Vanecek together, pinning the hopes of one of the team’s final years of Stanley Cup contention on two goalies with a combined 26 games of NHL experience, all from Samsonov.

The Dallas Stars are in the Stanley Cup Final because they have Anton Khudobin who could step in when Ben Bishop got injured in the playoffs. The Boston Bruins have Jaroslav Halak behind Tuukka Rask. The Toronto Maple Leafs had to trade for Jack Campbell because they did not have a dependable backup behind Frederik Andersen. The Montreal Canadiens just traded for Jake Allen to back up Carey Price. The Vegas Golden Knights traded for Robin Lehner at the trade deadine.How many more examples do you need to show you have to have a dependable backup? I don’t know if Vanecek can be a dependable backup or not, but I am not going to risk it with the starter being a 23-year-old in his fifst year as the team’s No. 1.