The Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League have produced their share of NHL defensemen over the years, from Josh Gorges and Shea Weber to Luke Schenn and Duncan Keith.
None of those blue liners played in more games (259), scored more goals (58) or produced more points (172) than Capitals top defensive prospect Madison Bowey did in his four years in the lakeside town of Kelowna, British Columbia.
“You hope eventually he’ll be a top four defenseman for us,” Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said during last week’s development camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “It’s all a process and we’ll see how it works for him.”
“Is Madison the next John Carlson?” Hershey Bears coach Troy Mann asked rhetorically. “We hope so.”
Since taking Bowey in the second round of the 2013 NHL draft (53rd overall), the Caps could not have mapped out a better plan for the 20-year-old blue liner from Winnipeg.
In his first season with Kelowna after being drafted Bowey set a Rockets record for goals by a defenseman with 21. Last season he won a gold medal for Canada in the World Junior Championships and captained Kelowna to the WHL title and the championship game of the 2015 Memorial Cup, where the Rockets lost to the Oshawa Generals 2-1 in overtime.
“It kind of gave me a taste of losing a little bit and it doesn’t feel good at all,” Bowey said of his Memorial Cup experience. “But besides that, it gave me a chance to play at a high level against some of the top teams in Canada for my age group.”
Including regular season, playoff and tournament play, Bowey played in 84 games last season and 86 the year before.
“That’s a lot of hockey,” Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden said. “But you can see how much he’s grown in that time.”
Bowey, who stands 6-foot-1, has beefed up from 195 pounds in his draft year to 210 pounds. He said he’d like to be in the 210-215-pound range in his first pro season, which is likely to begin with the Bears in September.
“He’s a lot stronger than the guy we drafted,” Mahoney said. “If you go back and look at some of those pictures from draft day and then you look at him now, he’s starting to turn from a young adult into a man. Madison has progressed really well. He’s had a couple excellent seasons since we drafted him.”
Reirden pointed out that when defensemen log the kind of minutes Bowey skated in Kelowna, they tend to make more risky plays, knowing they have the speed and talent to erase mistakes. Bowey said his greatest attributes are his skating and his ability to make a good first pass and he’s working on simplifying his game at the pro level.
“In junior you can get away with trying to do too much and making those mistakes,” he said. “But as I played in the World Junior tournament and the Memorial Cup, you’ve got to really limit your mistakes and really make the simple play.
“You know what? Playing in those tournaments really taught me a lot about making that first pass and not looking off my option when I see a play to make. All week (at development camp) that’s something I tried to do and I think that’s huge in the pro game, especially as a defenseman. You want to give up a limited amount of chances at your own net and try to make the most of the offensive chances at the other end.”
Bowey said he needs to be a little more physical in the defensive zone and close on forwards quicker, two areas he said he will work on this summer when he resumes workouts.
Mahoney and Mann said the real challenge for the organization will come at training camp, where Bowey’s skill set could entice the Caps’ coaching staff to re-route Bowey from a scheduled stop in the AHL to a direct trip to the NHL.
“We’ve always said we’d rather overcook them than undercook them,” Mahoney said. “That’s part of what the American League is, it’s a developmental league. It’s a lot easier to go down there and play a lot of minutes and get the instruction you need and learn from your mistakes and make sure you’re ready to step in and contribute in the NHL.
“There’s a danger when you rush players into the NHL too quickly and we do have a veteran defense, so we’re fine with being patient with our younger players and make sure they’re ready to step up and contribute.”
The Capitals took a similar approach with Carlson and Karl Alzner, who played parts of two seasons (2008-10) in Hershey before playing full-time with the Caps.
“I think we’re going to have to be patient with him to some degree,” Mann said. “It’s not an easy position to play and we could potentially have up to three rookie defensemen (Tyler Lewington, Christian Djoos).
“It’s not ideal off the hop, but Bowey will certainly get that first opportunity. He’s going to play some power play. (Bears assistant coach) Bryan Helmer had a great career (as a defenseman) and I think he’s a great mentor.
“There’s going to be some deficiencies defensively that we’re going to need to work on, but he’s got a great pedigree, almost like a John Carlson-type coming in for us. If you look back at Carly, who I had in Hershey as an assistant coach, to me Bows is in that same category. We’re not going to push him, but we’ll see how far we can take him this year.
“They’re both right shots, both big bodies. I see a difference in his makeup in terms of his physicality. He’s becoming more of a man. The American League is not an easy league and he’s going to have his challenges, but I think if we work with him all year. …
“Is he a call-up guy? We’ll see. It just takes time for defensemen. We’ve got our work cut out for us but we’re up t the challenge.”
Bowey, who will be paid to play hockey for the first time in his career, said he is as well.
“Obviously, this is a dream come true for me,” he said. “The real business all starts now. Every time I step on the ice now I can’t take a night off or a shift off. That’s what the pros are all about and I’m really excited about get going.”