It’s been a while since the Washington Capitals approached the draft with such trepidation in their step. In the aftermath of another disappointing first-round playoff exit, the organization’s front office must hit on their early picks or risk extinguishing any hope of winning another Stanley Cup in the Alex Ovechkin era.
Considering the quality on offer in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, the Capitals should be able to identify a promising player despite picking in the second half. While the likes of Shane Wright and Juraj Slafkovsky will be off the board by the time general manager Brian MacLellan is on the clock, lots of players taken outside the top five develop into stars.
Related: 2022 NHL Draft Guide
There are plenty of intriguing prospects that could fall to Washington in the second half of the first round. With that in mind, let’s consider five players the Capitals could select on July 7.
Jiri Kulich, Left Wing, HC Energie Karlovy Vary
It’s been a while since a prospect from Czechia was selected in the first round of the draft, but Jiri Kulich could be about to break that drought. While he’s all over the place in the rankings, the Kadan-born centreman starred at the U18 World Championship, notching 11 points (nine goals, two assists) in six appearances as captain.
Kulich has enjoyed a quietly productive season with HC Energie Karlovy Vary in the Czech top-flight, registering 14 points (nine goals, five assists) in 49 appearances from the bottom-six. He also starred at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, producing offence at a point-per-game rate.
Kulich is a sharpshooter who likes to utilize his accurate one-timer on the powerplay, he also has soft hands and a commendable work ethic that allows him to win puck battles along the boards. If he grows into his 6-foot frame, he’s on course to develop into a useful two-way player at the NHL level.
While game-to-game inconsistency continues to impact Kulich’s draft stock, he would be a savvy first-round pick for the Capitals if MacLellan wants to add more quality up the middle to his prospect pool.
Lian Bichsel, Left-Handed Defenceman, Leksands IF
If drafting a defensive defenceman is high on Washington’s priority list, MacLellan shouldn’t look any further than Lian Bichsel (if he’s available by the time the Capitals make their first-round pick). There are plenty of reasons to select the Swiss blueliner, starting with the fact that he’s huge and already knows how to utilize his 6-foot-5 frame.
Also of note: Bichsel has taken life as a professional in his stride. He’s looked comfortable playing in the Swedish Hockey League this season, registering three points in 29 appearances for Leksands IF. He also made eight appearances in the Champions Hockey League, scoring once.
Although skating isn’t a strength for Bichsel, he moves well enough to make him a worthwhile pick in the middle of round one – even after an injury derailed the second half of his season.
Luca Del Bel Belluz, Centreman, Mississauga Steelheads
In his first year of draft eligibility, Luca Del Bel Belluz has grown leaps and bounds. He struggled during his first year in the Ontario Hockey league (OHL), scoring just once in 58 appearances. This time around, he led the Mississauga Steelheads with 76 points (30 goals, 46 assists) in 68 appearances.
While the 18-year-old still has some work to do on his skating and needs to bulk up before making the jump to the NHL, he can contribute as a playmaker and shooter. He’s also a responsible defensive player, albeit lacking the physicality to make him a specialist in his own zone.
Del Bel Belluz is likely to be selected late in the first or early in the second round, meaning he should be available to the Capitals if they have taken a shine to him. If the Canadian improves his acceleration and adds size to his frame, he projects as a solid middle-six centreman in the NHL.
Owen Pickering, Left-Handed Defenceman, Swift Current Broncos
If the Capitals would like to add size to their defence corps of the future, 6-foot-5 Owen Pickering could prove to be a shrewd selection. He’s demonstrated impressive development during his first two seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos, notching 42 points (11 goals, 31 assists) in 85 appearances.
While the St. Adolphe-born defender isn’t a finished product in his own end, he has tremendous foot speed and offensive instincts. His puck-moving ability jumps off the page, as demonstrated on this assist versus the Calgary Hitmen:
However, Pickering’s defensive skillset remains underdeveloped. His positional awareness is a little patchy, meaning he carries an element of risk if selected in the first round.
Even so, there’s plenty to like about the 18-year-old, most notably his skill, size, and speed. If Pickering matures defensively, he’ll prove to be a wise pick.
Jimmy Snuggerud, Right Wing, US National Team Development Programme (USNTDP)
Committed to the University of Minnesota for 2022-23, Jimmy Sunggerud is well-placed to fulfil his potential. Although the American is two or three years away from making the step up into the professional ranks, playing in the NCAA will only help his development.
Snuggerud enters the draft on the back of a successful year in the United States Hockey League (USHL), scoring 26 points (six goals, 20 assists) in 26 appearances for the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP). Born on June 1, 2004, he’s also one of the younger players in this year’s pool.
Snuggerud has a high hockey IQ and a powerful shot which combine to make him a threat in the offensive zone. As it stands, he projects as a middle-six winger and a relatively safe bet in the draft thanks to his size and skill.
If the Capitals are looking to add a top prospect on the wing, Snuggerud could be a solid choice. But it remains to be seen whether MacLellan is planning to focus his draft resources in that area.
MacLellan Faces Make-or-Break Offseason
Following the Capitals’ first-round exit, MacLellan faces an offseason of major significance. Washington’s window to win another Stanley Cup in the Ovechkin era is closing (if it hasn’t already), meaning the front office must hit on their early draft picks this time around.
MacLellan also has big decisions to make in free agency, starting between the pipes with Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. In other words, Washington’s summer plans don’t begin and end with the draft. There’s plenty to unpack in D.C. after the Caps’ latest postseason disappointment. Change is coming.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.