HERSHEY, Pa. – With the Capitals season ending in the first round of the playoffs, that gave me a chance to head to Hershey to catch a couple Bears games and watch several of the team’s top prospects.
Washington will be dealing with some salary cap constraints in the offseason, meaning there may be a few spots open on the roster next season for some of the prospects to step into. I saw Caps goalie coach Scott Murray at Game 3 on Tuesday and Todd Reirden at Wednesday’s morning skate, so clearly Washington is paying close attention to the prospects in Hershey and how they perform in the playoffs.
With that in mind, here are the players who stood out the most in Games 3 and 4 when I was in attendance:
Nathan Walker, F
Walker was easily the most noticeable player on the ice for the Bears in both Games 3 and 4. He relentlessly battles for the puck, was very good on the penalty kill and is someone an opposing player would hate to have to play against. His tenacity was rewarded in Game 3 as he scored Hershey’s lone goal of the game as he battled for position in front of the net and got his stick down for the redirect.
You can see how this can get him into trouble at times, though. He would rather take a penalty than lose that puck battle, and he also fights for the puck so much, he can be prone to chasing and getting out of position as a result. Still, he appears to be someone who has learned everything he can at the AHL level. If he can be coached into staying in position and not puck chasing, he could be a good fourth-line player at the NHL level.
If the Caps want him, however, they will need to re-sign him, as Walker is an unrestricted free agent.
Garrett Pilon, F
The offensive instincts are all there, it is just a matter of growing into the type of player he looks like he can be. There were a lot of situations in which you could see the play Pilon was going for, but he just could not finish, whether it was getting a cross-ice pass over to a wide-open teammate after drawing the defense to himself, or getting enough power behind his shot. In Game 4, Pilon had a chance to score on a power play as a shot deflected off the boards and back out to him. Charlotte’s goalie was not set against the post and Pilon fired the puck, but did not have enough power behind the shot to beat the goalie.
Pilon needs to gain some power and learn how to finish plays, but the offensive potential is there to eventually develop into an NHL forward.
Vitek Vanecek, G
While all eyes have been on Ilya Samsonov this season, Vanecek has actually been the better goalie.
I have seen Vanecek in training camp a few years and at development camp, and at no time did I think I was watching an NHL goalie. Vanecek, however, is a much better game player than practice player because he was very good in his start in Game 3.
Vanecek is a much more developed goalie, which makes him look much smoother and controlled when he plays than Samsonov by comparison. His ceiling appears to be higher than initially thought, but he is also probably closer to that ceiling than the undeveloped Samsonov.
Vanecek made a jaw-dropping save in Game 3 to deny Dan Renouf on what looked like a sure goal. Vanecek slid to his right, extending the pad to defend the net, but the puck was sent back in the other direction to a wide-open Renouf. Vanecek somehow managed to change the direction of his momentum almost mid-slide to extend the pad and the glove left. He got a glove on the puck for the incredible finish.
Head coach Spencer Carbery called it “as good a save as I've seen all year.”
I still do not see Vanecek as an NHL starter, but I think he is a high-end AHL starter and possible NHL backup.
Connor Hobbs, D
Coming into the AHL, Hobbs was known more for his offense, and he had some room to improve defensively. Watching him play, however, it was the defensive play that really impressed.
The first thing you notice of Hobbs when he is on the ice is his size. The Bears list him at 6 feet 1 inch tall, 200 pounds and he was every bit of it. He would not look out of place at all in the NHL, at least in terms of size.
Hobbs is also very calm under pressure. When facing the forecheck from Charlotte, he never seemed to panic. There was one instance in Game 4 in which he was facing a double forecheck behind the goal line. He turned his body to protect the puck against the first forechecker, turned again as the second forechecker approached, then made a quick pass past both players to start the breakout. There were times where he did appear a bit too relaxed and was pickpocketed down low, but it is easier to teach a player when to feel the pressure than it is to teach him not to panic.
The offense, which was thought to be his strength, just does not seem to be there yet. He has not found a way to create enough space in order to get off his monster slapshot as much as he would like. He does seem to rack up the shots, but it is more from flinging the puck on net from the blue line looking for tips or deflections. There is more to his offense than we have seen yet at this level, and he needs to find it because that is a major part of his game.
Ilya Samsonov, G
There are some goalies that seem to be always in control of every movement and always very calm, such as Braden Holtby. Then there are goalies who subscribe to the Dominik Hasek style of goaltending, which is make everything look as crazy and as difficult as possible at all times. Samsonov, for now, very much falls into the latter category.
Samsonov plays very low, almost as if trying to compensate for his size. He is extremely athletic and can cover just about every spot on the net, but he does so with completely chaotic movements and seemingly little control. That can get him into trouble as with that lack of control, he can drift out of the net while sliding to make the save. On the second goal he allowed on Wednesday, that was exactly what happened as he sold out to make an initial save, but drifted out of the net allowing an easy shot. That is something that can be corrected with coaching as he learns how to control himself and his movements.
But if anyone is worried whether the talent is there or not, don’t worry. The great saves were on display as well.
In the second period of Game 4, Samsonov faced a breakaway shot, made the initial save, then stretched the pad out back to cover the post and make the incredible rebound save.
The talent is there, but this season certainly revealed he remains a work in progress before he becomes the No. 1 NHL starter the Caps envision him to be.
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