With Washington clinching their playoff berth weeks ago, their doesn’t seem to be much drama at the NHL club as of right now. However, in the offices of General Manager Brian McClellan and Assistant General Manager and former Director of Amateur Scouting Ross Mahoney, their eyes are also on the dozens of prospects that are either gearing up or are in the middle of the playoffs for their respective teams themselves. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how every team a Capitals prospect is on is performing at this time of the year.
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) April 3, 2016
Even with an overtime loss to the Providence Bruins, the Hershey Bears, Washington’s AHL affiliate was able to clinch a spot in this year’s AHL playoffs. It will be their second consecutive appearance in the postseason and tenth in eleven years for the tradition laden club. With six games left in the regular season, it will be a matter of whether the Bears can clinch their division title and who they will face when the playoffs start on April 17th. If the season were to end, Hershey would face either the Portland Pirates or the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the first round. However, the Providence Bruins, Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins and Hartford Wolfpack are possible future opponents as well.
It has been a great year for Washington’s prospects playing at the AHL level this season. Jakub Vrana has been producing at a point per game rate while Riley Barber, Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker have joined Chris Bourque to be among the team’s leading scorers. Along with that, the NHL club has benefited with the continued improvement of Connor Carrick so much that he was a part of the trade that sent him and Brooks Laich to Toronto for Daniel Winnik. Lastly, last year’s second round pick Jonas Siegenthaler and 2014 seventh round pick Kevin Elgestal have joined the Bears for the rest of the season. With the playoffs coming around, it will be interesting to see how some of the younger Bears will perform and if any of them will be a sign that they can make their mark at the NHL level in the next year or so.
At the ECHL level, you will find Vitek Vanecek starting in goal for another divisional leader in the South Carolina Stingrays. Like Hershey, the Stingrays punched their ticket into the Kelly Cup playoffs and are hoping to clinch the South Division title with their last two games of the regular season. It will be important for Vanecek to play well in these playoffs, especially when you consider that Justin Peters and Dan Ellis are on the last years of their contracts. With Adam Carlson just joining the organization on a two-year entry level contract, there is a chance that him and Vanecek will battle for the starting goaltender spot in Hershey next season unless McClellan signs another veteran goaltender or two in the offseason. That will all depend on how the 20-year old Czech performs this Spring.
Coming up this Thursday will be the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, also known as the Frozen Four. Considering the nature of the annual 16-team single elimination event, it would be understandable to see plenty of surprises. In this year’s case, defending champions Providence were upset by Minnesota-Duluth after finishing the regular season as one of the best teams in the country. On that team is sophomore Brian Pinho, Washington’s sixth round pick from the 2013 NHL draft, who finished the season with 25 points in 38 games. While those numbers are very respectable considering the depth ahead of him, it is certainly not enough to guarantee a spot on an NHL lineup for an extended period of time as of now. Next season will be important one for Pinho as four of the five teammates ahead of him in scoring have signed entry level contracts and will not return to Providence next season.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame almost defeated a very talented Michigan team in the first round of the tournament as the Irish have recently become a perennial powerhouse in U.S. College Hockey. The loss was the last of Thomas Di Pauli’s NCAA career as the 2012 fourth round pick recorded 30 goals and 48 assists in 145 total games. When you include appearances for the United States at the 2014 World Junior Championships and a stellar senior season where he recorded 32 points in 37 games, it will be surprising if Di Pauli does not sign an entry level deal with the Capitals very soon.
Of the Capitals prospects that will play in the Frozen Four this year are Boston College sophomore Zach Sanford and North Dakota freshman Shane Gersich. For the 2013 second round pick, Sanford has put together a tremendous season for the Screaming Eagles with 13 goals and 26 assists in 40 games. Only 2015 first round pick Colin White and 2013 fourth round pick Ryan Fitzgerald have produced more points than him so far. As for Gersich, the 2014 fifth round pick has had his struggles fitting in to a talented roster as he finished 15th on the team in scoring with 10 points in 35 games. Time will tell if the 19-year old can find a way improve his production on a program that demands Frozen Fours every season.
Meanwhile, Steven Spinner’s team in Nebraska-Omaha failed to make the NCAA tournament this year. Like Gersich, the 2014 sixth round pick also had a hard time scoring in his first year of college hockey with only 11 points in 33 games.
There are only three Canadian Hockey League players that are in Washington’s prospect pool. Two of them are playing for a Regina Pats squad that advanced to the second round of the WHL playoffs after a four games to one upset series win over the Lethbridge Hurricanes. After having a tremendous 18-year old season, Connor Hobbs continued to produce in the playoffs with a goal and two assists and a +4 rating. Meanwhile, 21-year old captain Colby Williams played the last three games of the regular season to get ready for the playoffs after playing only 16 games due to a recurring arm injury. Afterwards, Williams returned much healthier and recorded two assists in the deciding game five along with a +5 rating throughout the whole playoff series. While Lethbridge is not a traditionally rich hockey club, Regina’s next opponents are much more of an intimidating presence in the WHL’s history. After finishing third in the Eastern Conference this year, the Red Deer Rebels will hope to rely on former first round picks Jake Debrusk, Haydn Fleury and Conner Bleackley to carry them past the Pats.
Meanwhile, Blake Heinrich’s Portland Winterhawks were swept by the Everett Silvertips. It could be the end of two eras. First, Portland suffered its worst postseason run since 2009 when they also last missed the playoffs. Mike Johnston is no longer the head coach and there is no first round talent on the current roster like a Seth Jones, Derek Pouliot, Nino Neiderraiter or Ryan Johansen. Along with that, Heinrich was never amongst the best defensemen on the team. If anything, fellow draft picks Caleb Jones (Seth Jones’ younger brother) and Jack Dougherty are more highly touted and bring a more talented skill set at a younger age than Heinrich has ever produced. With his final year of junior eligibility completed, it seems quite difficult to envision him signing an entry level deal, let alone have him play at the NHL level.
Lastly, we take a look at the team for Washington’s only prospect that is playing postseason hockey in Europe: Ilya Samsonov. This season, the 18-year old first round pick has performed well when he has been called upon for Metallurg Magnitogorsk. That being said, Samsonov has only played 19 regular season games at the KHL level as former Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Vasily Koshechkin has been getting the majority of the team’s minutes in goal. That being said, Samsonov has played five postseason games and has saved almost 92-percent of the his shots faced.
Despite the lack of playing time, he is gaining valuable experience being part of a winning culture. Mettalurg has been among the best teams in the KHL and are now one series away from winning the Gagarin Cup. With former NHL players Alexander Semin and Wojtek Wolski on Samsonov’s side, his team will now face Alexander Radulov’s CSKA Moscow in the finals. With two more years left on his KHL contract, Samsonov will hope to get more playing time in future seasons but also have more of the team-wide success that has been accomplished this season.
Ben covers the Washington Capitals at the hockey writers. He has been blogging about the NHL since March 2013. Follow him @DCSportsDork