Capitals Clearly Focused on Blue Line at 2021 NHL Draft

It has been a busy week in the NHL since last Wednesday. The 2021 NHL Expansion Draft took place on July 21 and the Seattle Kraken drafted a roster. Each team’s full schedule was released, and fans were finally able to plan their consistent returns to stadiums. And on Friday and Saturday, the 2021 NHL Draft was held virtually. The Washington Capitals made six picks over the weekend, concentrating on defense.

Capitals Focus on Defense in 2021 NHL Draft

Friday was uneventful for Washington because they had no first-round picks. They traded away this year’s spot in the acquisition of Anthony Mantha from the Detroit Red Wings. The Capitals held a total of six picks over rounds 2-6 on Saturday. Four of those picks addressed their need to strengthen the blue line, including the first three skaters selected.

Round 2, Pick 55: Vincent Iorio, Defense

Iorio, 18, competed for the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings. The Coquitlam, British Columbia native, began his WHL career in 2018 and recorded 10 goals and 38 assists with a plus-10 rating in 131 regular-season games played. During his 2018 stint, he helped Brandon claim the WHL Cup gold medal.

Iorio, standing at 6-foot-3 and a solid 191 pounds, was scouted as the 27th ranked North American defenseman, 71st overall player. He has a hard shot and can pass the puck with accuracy, especially while misdirecting opponents. The right-handed defenseman has tremendous offensive upside and can anchor the power play with his playmaking ability, but is also a physical two-way skater.

Round 3, Pick 80 (from New York Rangers): Brent Johnson, Defense

Washington landed Johnson after trading down five spots with the New York Rangers and acquiring an additional sixth-round pick (#176). Johnson, 18, is from Dallas and made his United States Hockey League debut during the 2019-20 season for the Sioux Falls Stampede. The following year, he played in 47 games and scored 11 goals while adding 21 assists. He did spend 42 minutes in the penalty box, however, but he held a solid plus-minus rating of plus-15. Johnson’s play earned him the fifth-most points (32) among USHL defensemen and a spot on the All-Rookie and Second All-Star teams.

It was odd Johnson fell this far in the draft; he was ranked 12th among North American defensemen, 38th among all skaters. His size may have attributed to the fact some teams passed on him. He is just 5-foot-11 and a slim 161 pounds, but he always finds a way to take up space. Opponents can lose his whereabouts on the ice, and as a pass-first defenseman, he uses deception to create. He is slated to attend the University of North Dakota this fall, where he will surely develop more physically. Given where the Capitals selected him, he was a great value pick.

Round 4, Pick 119: Joaquim Lemay, Defense

The Capitals continued the blue line trend in selecting Lemay. The 18-year-old Canadian prospect spent one season in the British Columbia Hockey League, recording 10 assists in 15 games and only visiting the penalty box once. His helpers were second among rookie defensemen in the BCHL. The prior season, he spent the majority of his time playing 63 games for Mount St. Charles Academy, accumulating an impressive 26 points.

Lemay has good size, standing at 6-foot-1 and weighing in at 172 pounds. He doesn’t put the puck in the net often but has great playmaking abilities, agility, and vision. He’s patient with the puck and handles it well. The defensemen will skate for the University of Omaha-Nebraska in the fall.

Round 5, Pick 151: Håkon Hänelt, Center

Hänelt, 18, is the only offensive player the Capitals selected in the draft. A native to Berlin, Germany, the center has international experience, competing for his country at the junior level since he was 16, earning captaincy twice, and is set to appear on the U20 squad this upcoming campaign. He won the Desteche Eischockey League championship in 2020-21 with Eisbaren Berlin.

At 6-feet, 194 pounds, he has great hands and can skate well. NHL Central Scouting ranked Hänelt 17th among all international centers and the 56th best international prospect overall. Though he only recorded one goal in the DEL last season, he has time to develop. Hänelt is currently on loan to Lausitzer Füchse to start the 2021-22 season.

Round 6, Pick 176 (From New York Rangers): Dru Krebs, Defense

It didn’t take long for Washington to select another blue line prospect. Krebs, 18, split time last season between the WHL and the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He spent two years with the Medicine Hat Tigers and contributed 24 points in 78 games with a plus-9 rating. He impressively almost doubled his point total from his rookie to sophomore years in 31 fewer games, helping him land a spot on his hometown Okotoks Oilers.

Krebs, the younger brother of Peyton Krebs of the Vegas Golden Knights, is another deceptive defenseman. The Canadian also skates very well and has a lot of skill. He will, however, have to work on his mechanics to bring together his game and become a complete talent if he hopes to get to the NHL. He has the potential to become a solid shutdown defender.

Round 6, Pick 183: Chase Clark, Goalie

The Capitals used their last pick on a young talented netminder. Clark, 19, is from Williamsville, New Jersey, and stood between the pipes for the Jersey Hitmen of the National Collegiate Development Conference for the majority of last season. With Jersey, he had an outstanding record of 18-2-1, posting three shutouts, a 1.92 goals against average, and a .935 save percentage en route to an NCDC Founders’ Cup and championship. In three games with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL, he went 0-3-0 with a 3.03 goals against average and a .899 save percentage.

Another goalie to develop was a need for the Capitals after losing Vitek Vanecek to the Kraken in the expansion draft. As the 23rd ranked North American goalie, He’s a towering presence in the crease, standing at 6-foot-6 and a slim 202 pounds. One note to consider is that Clark’s glove is on his right hand, which as of last March, is becoming an anomaly in the NHL.

Capitals Draft Grade: B-

Without a first-round pick, it’s difficult to find that NHL-ready talent. With the selections Washington had, plus acquiring an extra pick, they played the draft well enough. They needed to restock the defense because of their aging blue line, salary cap issues, and expiring contracts within the next couple of years. Brenden Dillon, Nick Jensen, Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, Justin Schultz, and Trevor van Riemsdyk are all over the age of 30, and outside of Dillon, not one is under contract past 2022-23. Those six also account for $18.95 million against the cap per year. Alexander Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary could be recalled from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears as early as this season, but more depth was essential. Iorio and Johnson were strong picks and will eventually reach the roster, but Lemay and Krebs need work — Lemay could be a dark horse down the line.

Drafting Clark was a good decision, but he is also very raw and untested. The one question that will remain for the Capitals is what they’re going to do at center in the future. There isn’t much on Hänelt to really grasp his potential, and with Connor McMichael almost ready to join the roster in the next couple of seasons, and last year’s 22nd overall pick Hendrix Lapierre developing at a good pace, more offensive depth for the future will need to be restocked to replace the aging stars at forward. That’s something they can address in the 2022 Draft.

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