Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.
For a few years now the Caps' top prospects have had to bide their time in Hershey, waiting for their chance to finally crack a stacked lineup. Washington has been in championship mode, filling holes on the roster with proven veterans rather than turning to their unproven youth. Now the Caps face several questions this offseason and will undoubtedly have some holes to fill throughout the lineup. On Tuesday we talked about the defensive prospects who could crack the lineup, now let's look at the forwards.
Today’s question: What forward prospects will make an impact next year?
Sorenson: There are three forward prospects I see making an impact this upcoming season for the Capitals. The first is Riley Barber. He played three games with Washington in February, and played well. Even though he missed a good chunk of the season in Hershey with a broken hand, he was effective with 27 points in 39 games. Next, I am extremely excited to see Nathan Walker make his NHL debut. The Capitals re-signed him this offseason, and I’m confident we’ll see history as Walker will become the first Australian to play in an NHL game. His work ethic and positive attitude will fit perfectly in Washington. Finally, I’m hoping we get to see center Travis Boyd make his NHL debut this season. That’s a little tougher to count on, as getting a center some time in this lineup is difficult, barring an injury. Boyd stood out during the preseason and I’m hoping he gets his shot to shine in Washington this year.
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Regan: Jakub Vrana is going to make an impact one way or another. Either he is going to make the team out of training camp and be a regular player next season or he is going to get traded. It’s clear he can’t go back to Hershey. He wants to be in the NHL and just does not seem committed to playing at the AHL level. If he doesn’t earn a place on the roster this year, the Caps will trade him. He is the only prospect I see possibly contributing somewhere in the top three lines. There is at least one roster spot on the fourth line next season, maybe two. Those spots will be up for grabs. Riley Barber seems the most ready for that spot, but I could see a rotation of sorts to fill that role if he struggles. Nathan Walker also seems a likely candidate, but his position is made more complicated by the fact that he is no longer waiver exempt. If he doesn’t have a strong showing in training camp, it will be hard for the Caps to justify keeping him at the NHL level. They are not going to go through the Stan Galiev saga again and keep a player in the NHL even though he can’t get into the lineup and they can’t risk exposing him to waivers. I would not be surprised to see Chandler Stephenson, Liam O’Brien or Travis Boyd get some looks at the NHL next season as well though I am skeptical as to whether any of those three are regular NHLers.
El-Bashir: If you count the six forwards who are under contract for next season, the three RFAs and factor in one UFA, that would leave two jobs up for grabs in camp—three if you allow for an extra. Come September, that will be a welcomed change for the kids down on the farm who haven’t had many real opportunities for advancement the past two seasons. You’ll see some familiar names in the running—Vrana, Barber, Stephenson, Boyd and Walker, among them. I don’t consider Carey to be a prospect—he'll be 29 in September—but the Caps like his speed and versatility and because of that he figures to be in the mix, too. As far as the youngsters I’m expecting to make an impact, Vrana and Barber are at the top of my list. Vrana, as I wrote recently, had an inconsistent year in Hershey and showed flashes in 21 games with the Caps (3 goals, 3 assists). GM Brian MacLellan recently said Vrana will “have to earn it” in camp. That said, he’s the team’s top forward prospect and if there was ever a time to find out what the 2014 first rounder’s got, this is it. As far as Barber (13 goals and 14 assists in 39 games with the Bears), I see him as a leading candidate to seize a spot somewhere in the bottom six. After Barber made his NHL debut in February, Coach Barry Trotz praised the prospect’s hockey I.Q. and his game-day tenacity, saying he’s a “big game type of guy.” Those attributes will give Barber an edge as he battles for a full-time job in camp.
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