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Prospect report: Why now for Jakub Vrana?

Prospect report: Why now for Jakub Vrana?

Hershey update: 11-4-3-1, 3rd in the Atlantic Division. Last week: 3-0-0-0

One of the players to watch this preseason was 2014 first-round pick Jakub Vrana.

Vrana has yet to make his NHL debut, but has shown clear talent in the AHL and was thought to be one of the few players with a chance of breaking into a stacked Capitals roster. Ultimately, he was cut and sent back to Hershey.

On Wednesday, Vrana was recalled to Washington and could potentially make his NHL debut on Thursday against the New York Islanders.

So what changed?

Vrana’s biggest weakness in the preseason was puck distribution. He has shown improvement in that area recently, however, with four assists in his last three games.

Vrana currently sits tied for third in the AHL with nine goals. Goal scoring is his clear strength, but he is showing more versatility now with seven assists as well.

The Caps have been inconsistent offensively of late which explains why they would look to someone like Vrana, but his recall was made possible because he now seems to be more responsible with the puck.

What other players could be playing their way into a call-up this season?

Christian Thomas’ signing did not garner much attention in the offseason, but he has been spectacular in Hershey. Thomas currently sits tied with Vrana for the team lead in goals. Travis Boyd notched two goals and two assists in Hershey’s last three games and now is tied for first on the team with 17 points (four goals, 13 assists).

Nathan Walker showed the NHL isn’t too big for him with an impressive showing in the preseason. He carried that momentum with him to Hershey. With two goals and one assist last week, the Australian prospect now has 11 points on the season. He also leads the team with a plus-13.

Defensively, Madison Bowey is day-to-day with an injury, but he has at least tried to stay ready should he get the call to the NHL.

“I watch the Capitals whenever I can and see their system because you never know when the call might come and you want to be ready,” Bowey told Don Scott of the Lebanon Daily News. “I take notes on what their D-men are doing because I know that will help me here and to get up there.”

Barring injury to Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer, we won’t be seeing Vitek Vanecek in D.C. anytime soon, but the way he has played certainly opens the possibility that he could get a shot next season.

Vanecek continued his impressive play with another two wins between the pipes. The Czech netminder earned his second shutout of the season with a 24 save performance over rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and added a second win on Saturday against Springfield. You can see highlights here:

Vanecek finished the game with 16 saves on 19 shots. One thing to note about all three goals he allowed is that they came in low. Perhaps that is an area in which he needs to focus over the next few weeks.

One quick injury update, Riley Barber has been out of the lineup since Nov. 13 with an upper-body injury. According to Scott of the Lebanon Daily News, Barber is not expected to return until January.


Other prospect notes:

— Damien Riat and Jonas Siegenthaler have both been named to the initial roster of Switzerland’s U20 World Junior Championship team. The team will have cuts after the first week of camp and again after two preliminary games so both players will have to earn their final spots in order to play in the tournament in Canada.

— One player who surprisingly did not make his country’s junior team is Regina defenseman Connor Hobbs. His exclusion from Team Canada’s roster is a surprise given that he attended the team’s development camp in the summer and is one of the WHL’s top scoring defensemen with 29 points in 21 games.

— Greg Harder of the Regina Leader Post did a feature on Hobbs and how the snub has motivated him to work harder. Check it out here.

— Shane Gersich had another impressive week offensively for North Dakota. On Friday, the forward prospect scored his 11th goal of the season and notched two more assists as he contributed to all three of his team’s goals on the night.

— Gersisch has clearly emerged as the top scoring threat on his team and one of the top threats in the nation and it’s a role he has embraced despite being only a sophomore, writes Tyler Buckentine of Minnesota Hockey Magazine.

— Goalie Ilya Samsonov may only be 19-years old, but he is already one of the best players in the world who is not yet playing in the NHL. Bleacher Report ranked the best players not currently in the NHL and the young Samsonov came in at No. 6.

“Samsonov is the backup goalie for his team but plays a lot and has been outstanding this season. The KHL is a strong European pro league, and Samsonov's strong performance at such a young age suggests the Capitals could have an impact goalie prospect on their hands.”

In 18 games this season in the KHL, Samsonov has registered an impressive .934 save percentage and 2.14 GAA.

One thing to note about the Bleacher Report’s analysis, however, is that it indicates the Caps may bring him to the AHL next season. They actually can’t do that because he is under contract with his KHL team until 2018. So for any fans out there who read the full article (which you certainly should), don’t get too excited. It will be at least another year before he plays in North America.

— One last piece of goalie news, congratulations to Adam Carlson who earned his first professional shutout on Sunday. Carlson turned aside all 19 shots he faced against Atlanta leading the South Carolina Stingrays to the win. Both teams were locked in a scoreless tie at the end of regulation, meaning Carlson had to stay perfect for over 60 minutes to get the win.


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Prospect Joe Snively was cheering outside Capital One Arena when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup

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Prospect Joe Snively was cheering outside Capital One Arena when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup

There were many incredible aspects to the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, but one of the best was how fans took over the streets in the Stanley Cup Final. Little did we know that a future Cap was among the faithful outside of Capital One Arena.

Forward prospect and Herndon, Va. native Joe Snively was signed as a college free agent in March 2019. He is an alum of the Little Capitals local youth hockey program and, not surprisingly given his background, he grew up as a Caps fan.

For all Washington fans, June 7, 2018, is a day that will never be forgotten as it was the day the team won its first Stanley Cup. We all have our own story of where we were that day and how we watched. Snively is no different.

“I was downtown DC outside the arena watching on the big screen,” he told Mike Vogel in an interview at the team’s development camp.

“It was a great feeling,” Snively continued. “At that time I didn’t know I’d have the opportunity to sign with the Capitals and it was an amazing feeling. I’ve been a Caps fan ever since I started watching hockey and it was great to see them after all those years in the playoffs to win the Cup. It was amazing.”

The Alex Ovechkin era is important to Washington hockey not just because he brought the city a Cup, but because of the increased interest at the youth level. Interest early on should increase the sport and the team’s popularity. That, in turn, should lead to more youth participation which should lead to a more competitive youth program and homegrown talent entering professional hockey. The increased interest from that should further boost hockey in the region thus repeating the cycle.

Snively is just the first example.

It kind of makes you wonder how many other future Caps were in that crowd watching the team win the Cup.


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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the power play get back to an elite level?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the power play get back to an elite level?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2. 

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.  

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.   

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we look at a power play that dipped out of the top 10 last season. Can a unit that has been so consistent for so long get back to that top level? 

This comes back to tactics more than personnel. The same players are back who have been part of this unit for years. Alex Ovechkin is the ultimate weapon in the left face-off circle, John Carlson mans the point, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov do their thing on the half wall and below the net and T.J. Oshie is the trigger man in the slot. 

Those five players all had 227 minutes of power-play time last year or more. Ovechkin had 17 goals which is about standard for the best ever. Kuznetsov came next with eight goals and 13 assists. Backstrom had four goals, but 17 assists. Carlson had two goals and 27 assists. 

Oshie missed 13 games so his numbers are a little down, but in the games he did play he still hit six goals and eight assists. Tom Wilson was Oshie’s primary replacement in that bumper position and he had three goals. 

Not too bad for Blaine Forsythe’s group. He’s the assistant coach who has run the power play the past five years. You can’t argue with the track record. Unfortunately, the expectations for Washington’s power play are massive given that talent level and it’s fair to say it fell short at 12thoverall in the NHL at 20.8 percent.

Again, 49-for-236 isn’t bad. It’s just the talent level says it should be better. The Capitals were seventh in 2017-18 (22.5 percent), fourth in 2016-17 (23.1 percent), fifth in 2015-16 (21.9 percent), first in 2014-15 (25.3 percent), tied for first in 2013-14 (23.4 percent) and first again in 2012-13 (26.8 percent). The last time Washington finished outside the top 10 on the power play was in 2011-12 when it cratered to 18th (16.7 percent). 

There are a few issues that could be tweaked. The Capitals managed just 236 power-play chances. That tied for 16thin the league. To even break into the top 10 in that category they’d need 16 more penalties drawn. 

Only three times after Oct. 22 did they score two power-play goals in the same game and never more than that. How does that even happen? They had two or more power-play goals four times in the first eight games alone, including four on opening night. After that? It was one and done, 

Kuznetsov is one of the best in the game at getting the puck into the offensive zone. Fans loathe it, but the drop pass – or “the slingshot” – has become an effective way, when used properly, to get the puck into the offensive zone on the power play. It just didn’t seem to work all that well for Washington last year. 

One wonders if Forsythe will make some tweaks there. Kuznetsov was often the player on the receiving end of the drop passes, which can keep the penalty kill off balance, but can also waste precious seconds when it doesn’t work. Then you have to regroup and try again. 

It’s not going away, though – even for those who want to slingshot the drop pass to the moon. It’s used all over the league. Some teams like to use two players as options when coming up ice using the slingshot. That’s easier to defend in some ways, but it also gives your team a certain level of unpredictability. 

Maybe teams have just become better at defending the Capitals on the PK simply because they have had the same personnel and coaching for years now. Opposing coaching staffs have hours of video on this group to break down and analyze. 

But there’s no reason to change too much. That Ovechkin one-timer is the ultimate weapon and you don’t want to stifle the creativity of players like Backstrom or Kuznetsov.

Maybe quicker unit changes would help keep players fresh. Ovechkin is almost always going to be out there for the full two minutes and it would be silly to take that shot off the ice. But developing a more reliable second group might help, too. 

Last year’s “second” unit by ice time was Lars Eller, Jakub Vrana, Wilson, Brett Connolly and Dmitry Orlov/Matt Niskanen. Connolly is gone via free agency. Niskanen is gone via trade. One wonders why Andre Burakovsky was hardly used (18:25), but he’s gone, too, in a trade. 

Will be interesting to see if Forsythe can come up with a more reliable second group centered around Ovechkin, Eller and Vrana, who deserves more power-play time even if he’s buried on this roster, and Wilson as the big body in the middle. Richard Panik was fifth on the Arizona Coyotes in power-play minutes last season (146:16) so maybe he has a role there. 

The very best Washington power plays in recent years had secondary players like Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams around before the salary cap cleaved that depth. The Capitals were still a very good power play in 2018-19, but they could use more of that. These are minor changes that could get them back toward the very top of the league and helps take pressure off its 5-on-5 play.