Winning is the goal for every NHL team, but it comes at a cost and the Capitals prospect pool has been paying for the team's success for several years. Success in the regular season means lower draft picks. Looking for impact players in trades costs prospects and draft picks. Present success often comes at the expense of the future and that is certainly reflected in The Athletic's prospect pool rankings from prospect expert Scott Wheeler.
Wheeler ranks the Caps' prospect pool 29th out of 31 teams saying, "There’s an easy case to make for the Capitals having the thinnest prospect pool in hockey. ... All told, though, you’re looking at a pool that runs four or five prospects deep, with a steep drop-off from there. "
If you want the optimistic view of this, Corey Pronman ranked the Caps 30th in August so at least that's progress.
As part of Wheeler's commentary, he ranks the team's top 15 prospects. Not surprisingly, Connor McMichael tops the list.
McMichael began the world juniors on Canada’s fourth line, and then he did what he has always done: He scored, and he scored some more, and he worked his way up into a prominent role. He’s one of the better goal scorers in the 2019 draft class, he has been borderline unstoppable in the OHL and his play off the puck has always made him a dependable defensive player. For a little while, I saw him as a kid who was going to be able to impact the game as a middle-six forward and doesn’t drive a line but can play with a variety of player types. Now I see him as more than that. I think he’s got a real chance to be a line-driving forward, whether at center or the wing, while still playing a sound positional game that’s above the puck. While I wouldn’t rave about his puck skills, he’s perfectly fine playing a bit of a give-and-go style because of his finishing touch. If he can continue to improve his skating, he’ll make waves in the NHL.
McMichael is the only top tier player in the system according to Wheeler with Alex Alexeyev, Aliaksei Protas, Brett Leason and Martin Fehervary rounding out the top five and all ranked a tier below.
Everyone below the top five he calls "long shots."
"I think there are three clear divisions between players, with a significant gap between McMichael and everyone else," Wheeler writes, "As well as a pronounced drop after No. 5 into a group of players who I would describe as long shots."
Other prospect notes
- Wheeler is effusive in his praise of Alexeyev and writes, "He's got second-pairing complimentary defenceman written all over him." Most likely he is a second pair guy, but I do think he has the potential to exceed expectations. Having spoken with him and watched him, this is a player where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He has outstanding confidence and maturity and raises his level of play to the competition. A concussion prevented him from playing in the preseason, but I really want to get a look at him practicing with NHL players and see how he looks.
- The biggest surprise for me from Wheeler? Goalie prospect Mitchell Gibson at No. 6. Gibson was pretty unremarkable the few times I have seen him and his numbers in the USHL weren't great, but he has been fantastic in his first collegiate season at Harvard with a .932 save percentage and 2.21 GAA. Writes Wheeler, "He’s one of those goalies who is a student of the game, studies his positioning and angles, and reads the play well. Though he’s a little twitchy in the net, he has done a better job this season staying compact and aggressive." There may be more to his potential than previously thought which is good news for a Caps' team whose goalie prospect depth has suddenly been depleted by Ilya Samsonov's graduation to the NHL.
- Surprised Leason made Wheeler's top five? Don't be. It is way too early to close the book on him. One goal and eight assists in 37 games is not great for his first professional season, but I knew the transition would be a bit more difficult for him. At 6-foot-4, 201 pounds, he is a big guy. In juniors, Leason was usually the biggest or one of the biggest players on the ice every time he played. Now he has to get used to playing grown men in a very physical AHL where is not the biggest player on the ice. He was always going to be a project.
- Wheeler has come to the same conclusion I have regarding Lucas Johansen as he writes, "Johansen's NHL opportunity won't ever come in Washington."
- Axel Jonsson-Fjallby is a confusing player, as reflected by Wheeler who ranks him 10th among the team's prospects. "Every organization has that one player who just skates really, really fast, never stops moving, provides constant energy, isn’t particularly talented and fashions out a role regardless. Jonsson-Fjallby is that player in the Capitals’ system." Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. He falls off the radar, then scores six goals and eight points in 11 playoff games in the SHL. He lasts only a few weeks in Hershey in 2018, then puts together another strong postseason in Sweden, this time with seven goals and 12 points in 19 games. He looks awful at the Prospects Showcase tournament and at Caps' training camp, but has 10 goals and six assists for the Hershey Bears this season. There's a chance Jonsson-Fjallby can develop into a Carl Hagelin type player -- a speedy, bottom-six winger -- or maybe he doesn't. It is really hard to get a good read on him.
- Just as significant as who did make the top 15 and where they were ranked are the players who did not make the list at all. Among the players who did not make the cut, the three most notable are Shane Gersich, Joe Snively and Vitek Vanecek. Nos. 11-15 seem pretty interchangeable and I don't see much separation between any of them and Gersich, Snively or Vanecek. The point, however, is that an NHL future for any of those players is far from guaranteed which I don't think many fans realize.
- A lot of rankings this week. Prospect expert Corey Pronman released his 2019-20 midseason NHL prospect rankings on Wednesday. McMichael came in ranked No. 21 landing in Pronman's tier of "High-End/Very good Bubble." There are concerns over his skating and size, but McMichael is showing all the doubters that he is a high-end prospect. Writes Pronman, "I still have minor concerns over his average skating and size, but it’s become clear watching him this season that his vision and finishing ability are going to lead to NHL goals. He’s got an elite brain and makes unique plays frequently. He also shows a shot that allows him to finish plays from long-distance frequently."
- Protas is No. 62 in Pronman's rankings which puts him among the "Very Good NHL Prospects." The issue is his skating. He showed in the preseason that he has NHL talent and NHL instincts, but boy is he an awkward skater. At 6-foot-6, however, that can happen to bigger players and it is something that can be improved on over time. What I will say is that while it may have looked ugly watching him get from Point A to Point B, he still was able to get there fairly quickly. I don' think his skating is to the point where there should be concern over whether he can eventually play in the NHL.
- Moving on, the Caps need to improve defensively if they hope to win a Cup, specifically they need a top-four right defenseman. Why not try Fehervary? He is a lefty, but he has been playing on the right in Hershey. I would be intrigued to see how he handles that type of role. Maybe it is too much too soon, maybe he is not ready for the NHL, but if this is an option the team should try it sooner rather than later to get him comfortable at the NHL level. Plus the trade deadline is just over one month away and the team needs to know if there is a solution on defense in-house or not.
- Christian Djoos leads all Hershey defensemen in points with 18 despite playing in only 27 of Hershey's 41 games.
- Eric Florchuk was involved in a trade at the WHL level as he we sent from the Saskatoon Blades to the Vancouver Giants, joining fellow Caps' prospect, Alex Kannok-Leipert. A trade at the junior level has no bearing on who owns his NHL rights. He recorded three assists in his first two games with Vancouver.
- Martin Hugo Has elected to come to North America where his junior rights were held by the North Bay Battalion in the OHL. The Battalion immediately flipped him to the Guelph Storm, but that is good news. North Bay currently sits dead last in the OHL standings, but Guelph is in third place in the Midwest Division and in the thick of the playoff hunt. The move to Guelph will ensure Has plays in some meaningful games. He made his OHL debut on Jan. 11.
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