Capitals Should Be Patient with Their NHL-Ready Prospects

Even with one of the most recognizable cores in the entire NHL, the Washington Capitals will have some roster questions to answer this season. With aging stars susceptible to trendy load management (rarer in the NHL than other leagues) and nagging injuries, skaters from the Capitals’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Hershey Bears, may make NHL appearances this year.

Capitals Should Examine what They Have, but Shouldn’t Force the Future

In 2020-21, six Hershey standouts reached the Washington roster: Philippe Maillet, Connor McMichael, Garrett Pilon, Brian Pinho, and Michael Sgarbossa. Except for Sgarbossa, they all skated in their NHL debuts.

Washington Capitals Prospects Martin Fehervary, Connor McMichael, and Alexander Alexeyev

The five players combined for two points and a minus-1 rating in 15 games. The important stat, however, is time on ice. And though they totaled just about an hour and of half of experience, it’s experience nonetheless. Sgarbossa accounted for both points and 49 of those minutes, but he has also played in 55 career games between his stints in Colorado, Anaheim, Florida and Washington.

Here’s a look at who will spend a lot of time with the Capitals in 2021-22, who is guaranteed to be called up, and who has a chance at their debut.

The Time is Now

Martin Fehervary, 21, will likely be on the Capitals’ opening night roster on Oct. 13 against the New York Rangers. The defenseman played six games for Washington in 2019-20 and added two appearances during that postseason. He has registered an assist and a minus-2 rating in his NHL career so far, but his play in Hershey has been outstanding. In two seasons, Fehervary has posted seven goals, 24 assists, and a plus-minus rating of plus-25 in 80 games. The Slovakian is big and physical and defensive-minded, containing a keen ability to break up opportunities and quickly close in on opponents. 

Martin Fehervary Washington Capitals
Martin Fehervary, Washington Capitals (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The decision to recall Fehervary is two-fold. He’s the most NHL-ready player in the Washington system right now, but it’s also out of necessity. After trading Brenden Dillon to the Winnipeg Jets, the Capitals have a major void to fill on the left side of the blue line. Michal Kempny is set to return from injury, but other than the versatile Dmitry Orlov and newly-acquired Matt Irwin, Washington doesn’t have any other option than to insert one of their star prospects into the lineup. He will be ready, and perhaps an X-factor as the season moves along.

Nice to See You Again

The offense is set and ready to have another strong season, but the center position is something to pay close attention to this year. Depth was a major issue and vulnerability was exposed when Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller were both out of the lineup. T.J. Oshie even had to skate at center earlier in the season.

With this in mind, McMichael is sure to be offered more opportunities in 2021-22. The 20-year-old has recorded 27 points in just 33 games for Hershey, leading the team in scoring during his first season. The young Canadian was selected 25th overall by Washington in the 2019 NHL Early Entry Draft and named to the AHL All-Rookie Team last year. He’s fast, balanced, and possesses a quick stick and high hockey sense.

The issue, however, is calling him up too early. If he isn’t needed on a game-to-game basis, which is most likely the case with Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Eller, and Nic Dowd already on the roster, general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Peter Laviolette would be wise to scatter his appearances. It will be good to get him experience, but too much ice time could adversely affect and hinder his development if he’s not truly ready to make the jump.

Washington Capitals Connor McMichael
Washington Capitals forward Connor McMichael (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Along with McMichael, expect Pilon and Pinho to receive extra opportunities, especially the former. Pilon, 23, has 85 points in 146 career games for the Bears compared to Pinho, 26, who has recorded 61 points in 145 career games in Hershey.

Sgarbossa will likely be on the roster as needed, but Maillet signed a one-year deal with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) this offseason. Veteran Matt Moulson, 37, who finished second on the Bears in points (24) last year, could also add some emergency depth at some point as well.

Welcome to the NHL

The Capitals system has been considered one of the worst in the league. However, the NHL roster is mostly locked up for the next two seasons—Daniel Sprong is a restricted free agent and Nic Dowd is an unrestricted free agent next summer. This will allow key prospects time to develop and make the re-build more of a transition into the next era. The top candidates to skate in their first NHL games this season are Alexander Alexeyev, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, and Brett Leason. 

Alexeyev, 21, is the most likely to make his Capitals debut. Though he isn’t as polished as Fehervary, this could very well be a move out of necessity. He also skates on the left side of the blue line, is big, and rarely makes mistakes. The NHL is a different animal, of course, but gaining at least some experience will benefit the young Russian and Washington. Kempny is an unrestricted free agent after this season, so the defense will continue to be a question mark that needs a more stable solution. He’s not a risk-taker on offense, totaling 30 points in 70 AHL games, but he boasts a plus-19 rating and has only accumulated 20 penalty minutes in Hershey. In comparison, Fehervary has spent just over an hour in the sin bin during his AHL career.  

Alex Alexeyev, Hershey Bears
Alex Alexeyev, pictured with the Hershey Bears, may see brief time with the Capitals this year (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Leason, 22, was actually added to the Capitals’ roster in last year’s playoffs for emergency depth. He’s appeared in 83 games for Hershey, tallying 12 goals and 22 assists. He was the fourth-leading point-getter (20) on the Bears’ roster last season. The right-winger is big, standing at 6-foot-5, and a solid 225 pounds, moves well off the puck and has great coordination.

Fjallby, 23, patrols the left side of the red line. The winger spent last season in Sweden playing for Vasterviks IK, but he’s accrued 41 points in Hershey in 108 AHL games. Speed is his game, and though he will spend almost all of 2021-22 back in Hershey, he may slip into a Capitals sweater for a game this season if depth again becomes an issue.

Outlook for Capitals Prospects

Fehervary will be inserted into the Capitals’ lineup on Oct. 13 and stay there for the foreseeable future. McMichael will be given more than one game worth of experience, but his time should be scarce and not forced. Pilon and Pinho may get more opportunities, but that will mostly depend on healthy scratches or an unfortunate injury to the Capitals’ loaded group of forwards rather than performance issues. Alexeyev may see more action than Leason and Fjallby, but their appearances will be slim to none, similar to how McMichael, Pilon, and Pinho were used last season.

This is a sensitive time for Washington’s organization. The future is needed, but the worst mistake they could make is risking these players’ overall development. The core at their best still makes the Capitals a Stanley Cup contender. There’s no point in jeopardizing the transition for an experimental edge derived from anxiety. Giving up draft picks at the trade deadline, which is a favorite pastime of MacLellan, can be easily forgiven if the alternative is tarnishing the progression of the next era already in the system.