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Prospect report: Nathan Walker out four-to-six weeks with broken hand

Prospect report: Nathan Walker out four-to-six weeks with broken hand

Hershey update: 21-13-7-3, 5th in the Atlantic Division. Last week: 1-0-0-1

After a rough month, the Hershey Bears tried to end January on a high note with three points in two games. But there was some bad news as well as Nathan Walker suffered a broken hand that will keep him out for the next four-to-six weeks.

Walker broke his hand blocking a shot in the Bears’ win on Saturday over Springfield. The injury comes at an inopportune time not just for the team, but for him as well. When talking about bringing prospects in from Hershey on Monday, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz brought Walker’s name up specifically.

“Nathan Walker was a name that we were thinking about bringing up and he got hurt this weekend so he’ll be eliminated there for a little bit.”

While the NHL was enjoying its All-Star weekend, the AHL held its All-Star festivities as well. Travis Boyd scored two goals and one assist in the 3-on-3 tournament as the Atlantic Division fell in the championship game.

Following the NHL All-Star break, the Caps recalled defenseman Christian Djoos and forward Chandler Stephenson. The callup was the first NHL callup for Djoos who, as Trotz said, was being rewarded for good play.

With the Bears off for the AHL break, the time allowed the Caps to get a closer look at Djoos. He may not have gotten into a game, but he did get some valuable practice time at the NHL level.

Stephenson, meanwhile, played in his third NHL game this season on Wednesday in place of an injured Justin Williams. He was reassigned to Hershey on Thursday, but with the Caps playing in Montreal on Saturday, it is likely the team will make another call up for an extra body on Friday.

Scott Murray, the associate goaltending coach for Hershey, spoke to the Lebanon Daily News about the Bears’ goalie tandem this season including prospect Vitek Vanecek:

There’s always room for improvement, regardless of how young or old a goalie is, but if you look at last year Vitek exceeded expectations with South Carolina. We didn’t want to rush him so if he needed to go back there again that’s what would have happened but he earned himself a spot here. So far this year he has exceeded expectations again, is pushing the envelope, and that’s a good trend for him.

As a high pick it isn’t always easy to do that. The ultimate goal for anybody in that position is to prove himself as fast as possible, without rushing it, so he can be an option to give us great minutes but also be available to do the same thing for Washington quicker than was in the original plans.

Coach Troy Mann does an unbelievable job of setting up how we protect our goalies but when we needed them to come up with the big saves, Vitek has really done that to keep things going in our favor or holding the fort. He’s done a really good job of finding those saves to help us turn things around.

Vanecek made 37 saves on 39 shots on Friday in the team’s shootout loss to Providence.

RELATED: Trotz calls Backstrom one of the best passers ever

Other prospect notes:

Buzz is starting to grow as the NHL trade deadline nears. While everyone focuses on the big NHL names that could be on the move, there are always some prospects added to trade deals as teams shop around young players as trade bait. Ross Sellers provided an interesting trade scenario on the Mile High Sticking blog between the Capitals and the Colorado Avalanche.

The Avalanche are clear sellers at the deadline which means a player like Jarome Iginla will be on the market. Sellers posits Washington as a possible trade partner because the team could use a leader like Iginla given its recent history of playoff struggles. The most interesting part is what he thinks Colorado could get in return.

Unfortunately, the Capitals are also right up against the salary cap, and would probably need the Avs to take a player like Daniel Winnik or Lars Eller home with them.

If the Avs do end up taking on a contract like that, then they can ask for more in return from the Capitals.

The Avs could possibly ask for a 2nd round draft pick, and a middle level prospect like Jonas Siegenthaler, especially if they throw in a fourth round draft pick themselves.

First off, you can take Lars Eller off the table given Washington acquired him in the offseason specifically for depth scoring in a playoff run. No way the Caps break up the third line and trade away a player they targeted to help them in the postseason.

As for Siegenthaler, keep in mind that this is a player the team traded up to get in the 2015 draft. When I say the team, I don’t mean George McPhee, I mean Brian MacLellan, the current general manager. He saw something in Siegenthaler that made him trade into the second round to get him.

Could the team have soured on Siegenthaler since? Sure. He struggled in his first stint in Hershey last season and dealt with personal issues in training camp that made it hard to really evaluate where he was in his development. But Siegenthaler’s stock should be high again after a tremendous performance in the World Juniors tournament. To think MacLellan would be interested in shopping around a second-round pikc like Siegenthaler now at the deadline seems unlikely.

Tim McGauley’s second professional goal was a big one as he scored the overtime winner on Saturday to lift South Carolina over Florida.

Other big performers this week were Beck Malenstyn who scored three goals for the Calgary Hitmen (WHL) and Chase Priskie who scored twice in Quinnipiac's win over Arizona State on Friday. Connor Hobbs had one goal and two assists including a game-winning one-timer with just 24 seconds remaining to lead Regina over Moose Jaw on Wednesday.

Finally, forward Brian Pinho sat down for a video segment on “This Week in Friars Hockey” in which he talks about being a team leader as a junior and he gives his Super Bowl prediction.

MORE CAPITALS: Caps struggle to diagnose the problem with the PK

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I Am The Prospect: Capitals' prospect Alex Alexeyev is focused on one goal - making the roster

I Am The Prospect: Capitals' prospect Alex Alexeyev is focused on one goal - making the roster

Alex Alexeyev is the third Washington Capitals' prospect featured in NBC Sports Washington's I Am The Prospect series. Click here to check out more profiles from I am The Prospect.

Like most prospective NHL players, Alex Alexeyev dreams of the day he gets to lift the Stanley Cup over his head.

“It’s the best league in the world," Alexeyev said. "In childhood, they (are) always dreaming about raising that Stanley Cup. It’s my dream too.”

Standing at 6-foot, 3.5-inches tall, the 19-year-old from St. Petersburg, Russia, was the Capitals' last pick of the first round in the 2018 NHL Draft.

“He’s an untapped resource," Capitals head coach Todd Reirden said. "I was really impressed with him last year, seeing him for the first time."

Alexeyev's journey to the big leagues began three years ago when he made the move from Russia to North America, earning a spot on the top pair of the Red Deer Rebels' roster in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. It was there in March of this past year that he sustained a "scary" knee injury, almost certainly sidelining him for the time being.

“I was scared and I felt like something (was) definitely wrong with my knee but after some time where I figured out, everyone figured out that it’s not that scary,” Alexeyev said.

Alexeyev rebounded quickly, rehabbing his injury with the Capitals' AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears.

“The injuries, it’s too bad, but players do get injured and that’s something that can’t be helped, Capitals assistant general manager, Ross Mahoney said. "But he had a really good first half of the season with the Red Deer and exceptional World Junior Tournament, the under-20 tournament.” 

Since then, Alexeyev was a standout at the Caps' Developmental Camp in June.

“He just looks like he’s at a different level than the rest of the kids both physically and ability to play," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. "He’s big, he’s strong, he’s got a good skill level, he moves the puck well, he seems to have a good attitude a good work ethic, I’m excited to see him in training camp and see his progression here as the year goes on.

With the loss of Capitals' veteran defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, Alexeyev is focused on making the Caps' 2019-20 roster.

“Alex is a really intelligent player," Mahoney said. "I think he’s got great vision on the ice. He has that ability also to be very patient with the puck.” 

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Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

WASHINGTON -- Midway through the second period of the Capitals’ preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, Ilya Samsonov looked like he could barely contain himself. Knowing he would soon be in the game, Samsonov put on his mask and leaned on the bench, just waiting for his opportunity. Finally, the puck was stopped, the whistle blew and on he skated. Samsonov and teammate Vitek Vanecek were splitting the game. Vanecek had gotten the start. Now, it was Samsonov’s turn.

Samsonov came in cold, but he needed to be ready to go. Soon after entering the game, the Caps were called for two minor penalties and Samsonov was tasked with protecting the net for 65 seconds of a two-man advantage. Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, who scored 10 goals last season and an additional two in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, unloaded a one-timer at the young Samsonov, but the rookie goalie absorbed the shot with no trouble and no rebound.

The ovation was louder than you would expect for what amounts to a meaningless preseason game, but it reflects the excitement over Samsonov as a prospect and the fans’ interest in one of the biggest roster battles at Caps training camp.

There’s no question who will be the Caps’ top goalie heading into the season. Braden Holtby enters as the undisputed starter. The intrigue is over who the team will ultimately keep as the backup.

Three goalies are currently competing for the job as two young netminders are pushing to make the NHL roster and challenge last year’s incumbent, Pheonix Copley.

"We do have two up and coming guys,” Todd Reirden said. “You see Vanecek really continues to improve and get better, earned a nice contract this summer. Samsonov's our most highly touted prospect. No secrets there. We've got to continue to push him to be ready to play here and he's going to get the opportunity to do that.”

As Reirden noted, the most heralded of the three without question is Samsonov.

A first-round pick in 2015, Samsonov, 22, is considered the top prospect in the organization. He has spent the past four years since he was drafted dazzling with his play, particularly in the KHL and in junior tournaments.

Last season was Samsonov’s first in North America. He played 37 games in Hershey where, after a rocky start, he rebounded again with a spectacular second half to the season.

Samsonov’s teammate in Hershey, Vanecek, is also competing for an NHL spot.

Vanecek, 23, was a second-round draft pick by the Caps in 2014. Since 2015, however, he has been living in the shadow of Samsonov, but he held his own in Hershey last season even with all the excitement over Samsonov’s arrival. Vanecek had the better season and was named Hershey’s representative to the AHL All-Star Classic.

Vanecek entered camp as the more polished goalie between the two rookies. While many assume Samsonov is higher on the team’s depth chart, Vanecek is focused on showing he doesn’t need any more time to develop and is ready to graduate from the AHL to the NHL now.

“Yeah, I feel like I'm ready,” Vanecek said.

“This is my fifth year,” he added. “I think I've got some experience and now it's just the step to NHL. Get there and just start playing the NHL. But it's not easy. It's tough. There is two good goalies, Holtby and Pheonix, and then Samsonov and me. It's really hard, but I will try my best to get there this year.”

Goalie may not be the most important position in hockey, but it is certainly the most impactful. Samsonov and Vanecek’s ascendency gives the team four goalies it believes they can rely on.

That is a good problem to have.

“They're far enough into their development where they've got lots of pro experience,” Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray told NBC Sports Washington. “They've gone through the trials and the tribulations at a high level, and they've developed their game where they can make an impact at any level that they play at.”

Both players will be competing against Copley, 27, who took over as the backup in the 2018-19 season after the team traded Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche. With only two games of NHL experience to his name, plus with how much the Caps relied upon Grubauer the year before, the move was seen as a gamble, but a gamble that paid off.

Copley went 16-7-3 in his first full NHL season with a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. His 16 wins were one more than Grubauer earned the season before when he supplanted Holtby as the starter.

“[Copley] embraces that opportunity to continue to earn every opportunity he gets,” Murray said. “That's just the way he's wired. For him, he just he goes about it day by day and focuses on the things that make him play well and that's why he's a pro and that's why he adjusted so quickly last year and did his job very well when he was called upon.”

Copley’s season was certainly good enough to earn him another year as the backup. Plus, as Holtby is a goalie who likes to play as much as possible, one must ask if it even makes sense to have a young goalie serve as the backup as opposed to playing in the AHL and getting regular playing time.

While Murray acknowledged the importance of continuing to get the two young goalies game experience, neither Samsonov nor Vanecek seem daunted by the challenge of less playing time.

“I'm a professional,” Samsonov said through an interpreter. “I should be able to play in any situation. I'm just going to do what the coaches tell me so if I play in Hershey or play here, I'll adjust to any situation.”

“If I will be backup goalie, I don't get too many games,” Vanecek said, “But doesn't matter I think because the NHL is the top league in the world so I think that will be great for me.”

Still, the transition from playing frequently to becoming a backup can be difficult. The fact that Copley has shown he can handle that role helps make his case.

The problem for Copley, however, is that even though he earned the role last year, even though he showed he can handle that role, even though relying on one or two rookie goalies to win 16 games like Copley did last season is a huge risk, outside factors have forced the team to at least consider if Vanecek or Samsonov may be ready for a bigger role.

And so, after a season in which Copley silenced much of his doubters, he now finds himself back to square one having to prove himself all over again.

“[Copley] knows the situation,” Murray said. “He knows, he understands pro hockey. You can look at our organization and understand where it's at.”

“I think every year you've got to go in and earn your spot,” Copley said. “This year's no different. I'm prepared to come in and do my best and give myself the best chance to make this team.”

The main theme of Washington’s offseason has been trying to navigate the salary cap. The Capitals are right up against the ceiling and, when Evgeny Kuznetsov returns from suspension, tough decisions will have to be made to make the team cap compliant.

Of the three goalies competing for the backup role, Copley has the largest cap hit of $1.1 million as opposed to Samsonov’s $925,000 and Vanecek’s $716,667.

The uncertainty surrounding Holtby, who is in the final year of his contract, also would seem to necessitate getting playing time for the younger goalies. They are not just competing for a backup job this year, but Samsonov, in particular, is auditioning for a starting role next season. If he shows he can handle it or that he is on the right path in his development, it will make the team’s decision on what to do with Holtby when his contract expires that much easier.

The salary cap situation is tough and the team knows it. In addition, no one is blind to Holtby’s contract situation or to the fact that the team may have a new starter next season.

But when it comes to deciding who will play this year, none of that matters.

From the players to the coaches to the management, it is understood that whoever plays behind Holtby this season will be the one who earns it with his play.

“You have a grand plan in mind, but it just seems like more often than not the performance really helps dictate a lot of those decisions,” Reirden said.

“Pheonix's job is to push the envelope to make it hard for us to make a move on him,” Murray said. “Ilya's job is to push the envelope to make it hard to have him play a ton in the American League and Vitek's is the same job. Yeah, you're cognizant of the situation and you understand that there could be some movement, but we've got four good guys here that understand the situation.”

That attitude is one shared by the goalies themselves.

“It's not my job,” Samsonov said when asked if he paid attention to the salary cap. “My job's to go on the ice and everything else will work itself out.”

“That kind of stuff works itself out,” Copley said. “But for me, I just want to give myself the best chance and that is not paying attention to that stuff. Whatever happens there happens.”

Obviously for the organization to say none of those other factors matter would be disingenuous. They matter. It is MacLellan’s job to think and plan around those factors. But the team is not saying those factors don’t matter, just that those off-ice issues will not dictate the decisions that are made on the ice. Performance will. Everything else is secondary.

“To me, the play on the ice will make that decision,” Reirden said.

“We're really happy with where our guys are at and obviously it makes for competition and that's good,” Murray said. “That's what you want in any position is you want competition, you want guys pushing to become better and pushing the envelope to move to the next level.”

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