What else is there to say with the Washington Capitals this year? They are not only the best team in the league, but this year’s iteration has a chance of having one of the most historic regular seasons in not only team history, but also in NHL history. As of today, the team is on pace for 129 points. Not only would that shatter the 121 points the 2009-10 team pulled off, but only the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings stand in their way for the most regular season standings points, notching 131 points that season. If you take standings points percentage into account, Washington’s 78.9% is only topped by that same Red Wings team and the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks.
Those are incredible feats, but clearly the ultimate goal for any team, let alone this year’s Capitals, is to win four playoff series and win the Stanley Cup. That is certainly not lost on general manager Brian McClellan as he hopes the roster he has constructed will be the most equipped for the arduous journey that starts in April.
As a result, youngsters that have been drafted or signed by the team but haven’t worn an NHL jersey might be a piece to complete a trade for an NHL veteran that will help the big club win now. Add the fact that over a month has passed since the World Junior Championships and now seems like the appropriate time to see how the best prospects are fairing in Washington’s talent pool. Without further ado, here are the 10 best with a few honorable mentions.
In parenthesis are each prospect’s age before Sept. 15 (the usual date for to be age-eligible for each summer’s draft) and their current cumulative NHL equivalent goals, assists and points. For a comparison to how they performed the previous season, please take a look at Matthew Speck’s rankings from last Summer.
Honorable Mentions: D Jonas Siegenthaler (18.7 years old, 0-3-3), C Chandler Stephenson (21.3 years old, 7-13-20), D Connor Hobbs (18.4 years old, 4-10-14)
Many scouts and general managers love Siegenthaler for his underrated mobility for a player his size, but I am not there yet when it comes to his goal-scoring ability. That certainly can be a harsh criticism on my end considering that playing in the top level of European hockey will make NHL totals look bad for any prospect, and being the top defenseman for a poor Swiss team at the World Juniors could only benefit his reputation. I just need to see more evidence that Siegenthaler can make the leap to North American hockey more than most people.
It is nice to see Stephenson get nine NHL games this season and his production has improved in this season, like all the youngsters playing in AHL Hershey. The fact that he has to compete with so many forwards for NHL ice time, however, and that he is considered undersized for a potential bottom-six role. That said, more time in the AHL could only benefit him and there’s still time to see what kind of a NHL career the 21-year old can produce.
While I am more pessimistic on Siegenthaler, I am much more optimistic on Connor Hobbs. While it seemed at first that Washington continued their unnecessary habit of drafting Regina Pats players, Hobbs certainly hasn’t been a slouch, especially for one taken in the fifth round of last summer’s draft. Despite only playing 39 of a possible 52 games due to a concussion, Hobbs still leads all Regina defensemen in points and is fourth on the team in that category. Not bad for someone that only played 55 career WHL games previously.
10. C Travis Boyd (22.0 years old, 7-14-21)
Despite being considered only as a two-way player and penalty killer last year, Boyd’s numbers have continued to improve. After producing 41 points in 32 games in his senior season with a usually deep University of Minnesota team, the 22-year old hasn’t skipped a beat, racking up 14 goals and 35 points in 50 games. Only AHL leading scorer Chris Bourque stands in the way from him reaching the team-lead in points. If Boyd keeps this up, he would have to be higher in McClellan’s and Barry Trotz’s pecking order as to who will get called up to the Capitals next.
9. G Vitek Vanecek (19.6 years old)
Despite having a solid outing at this years World Junior Championships for the Czech Republic, things have not gotten better at the ECHL level for Vanecek since we last checked up on him. His save percentage has now dropped to 90.2 percent and is now worst amongst all 20 goaltenders that have been in net for 900 minutes of ECHL action. He may be still 19, but Vanecek is running out of time to impress front office management if he continues to perform like this, especially with Philipp Grubauer and Ilya Samsonov already in their ranks. Add the fact that Washington lost a third round pick to trade up in the draft to get Vanecek and it’s looking like that investment is more and more not paying off as well as the Capitals would have liked.
8. D Christian Djoos (21.1 years old, 4-9-13)
Weighing in at 162 pounds, Djoos will always have his critics when it comes to his adaptability to the smaller ice surfaces and hard-hitting style of the NHL. However, the 21-year-old Swede continues to rack up points and has already scored the most goals than at any professional season since being drafted in 2012. He is still a project in comparison to his higher ranking teammates at Hershey, but he isn’t that far off the radar either.
7. RW Stanislav Galiev (23.6 years old, 9-10-19)
After many years where it looked like Galiev might not play in the AHL again, let alone the NHL, the 24-year old now has 16 career games wearing a Capitals uniform. It is a wonderful achievement for a skilled forward that hit such low depths and he has been able to deliver great puck possession for the limited times he has been playing for Washington. If this were any other NHL team, Galiev would be getting a sweater more periodically and develop into a scoring third line winger. Instead, he is usually a healthy scratch. With his age limiting him for any more potential growth, could he be among the prospects McClellan thinks about trading? Would it be best for Galiev to return to the AHL to make sure he stays fresh by getting more playing time? Such is the life for a prospect, general manager and head coach for a team on the brink of a President’s Trophy.
6. G Philipp Grubauer (23.7 years old)
With 32 NHL games under his belt, the 24-year-old Grubauer is slowly establishing himself as an NHL backup goaltender. While saving 92.1 percent of his shots as a Capital (including 92.6 percent at even strength) and recording a quality start percentage of 58.3, he is on his way to doing so. The question now will be whether or not he will get enough playing time while backing up one of the best goaltenders in the world in Braden Holtby. Will he prefer to move on to another NHL team to prove that he worth a chance as a starting goaltender or is he still up for staying in Washington as the long-term answer at backup goaltender?
5. D Connor Carrick (21.3 years old, 4-13-17)
After playing 34 NHL games as a raw 19-year old under the infamous Adam Oates regime, it is nice to see Carrick return to the big club with three appearances this season. Since Barry Trotz has taken over as head coach for the Capitals and Troy Mann has been behind the bench in Hershey, the 21-year-old American has been fantastic as an offensive defenseman by putting up 18 goals and 65 points in 113 games. At 5 feet 10 inches and 191 pounds, Carrick’s size has gotten better, but it will always be in question at the NHL level. If another injury crisis occurs along the blue line or certain defensemen get moved the next handful of offseasons, Carrick could become a roster player for the Capitals. Until then, he is among the first names in Trotz’s list for who will get called up.
4. D Madison Bowey (20.4 years old, 5-11-16)
After having such a breakout season as a team captain for WHL Kelowna and a member of Canada’s World Junior Championship team last year, this season has been a bit more trying for Bowey. He is still on a strong patch to make it into the NHL, but considering the depth Washington has along the blue line and their plan to develop defensemen slowly, Bowey will be expected to play in AHL Hershey more often. The 20-year old isn’t the first and certainly not the last to struggle from the junior or college ranks in North America to the AHL level, but it is a bit surprising considering the hype surrounding him previously. It is certainly understandable to have Bowey higher than Washington’s fourth best prospect and this is certainly his worse case ranking. To me, having Bowey fourth is more a celebration of the three prospects in front of him rather than criticizing Bowey’s supposed lack of progress.
3. RW Riley Barber (21.6 years old, 13-16-29)
While all the talk will be on 2013 first round pick Jakub Vrana, the former Miami Redhawk is making a name in own right. After three straight years of averaging at or near a point per game in college, Barber has transitioned to the AHL and has continued to rack up points with 15 goals and 34 points in 48 games. Despite weighing in at less than 200 pounds, Barber can play any style when called upon. He can battle along the boards along the cycle game, he can break up plays in the defensive zone and he certainly won’t be out of place on a scoring line. If Jason Chimera or Brooks Laich hits the free-agency market, Barber will certainly be among the top names considered to take their place.
2. G Ilya Samsonov (18.5 years old)
After getting off to such a wonderful start to the KHL season, Samsonov has cooled off a little bit, only playing 17 games this season out of a possible 58 and only playing one game at this year’s World Junior Championships. However, his save percentages are quite solid and he has returned to play four games for Mettalurg’s MHL team, Stalnye Lisy. Along with that, Samsonov has been gaining valuable experience backing up former Tampa Bay Lightning draft choice Vasily Koshechkin. In short, there shouldn’t be too much to worry about for the 18-year-old Russian wonderkid. He is still young enough to have time to develop and has two more years left on his KHL contract after this season. There is simply no rush in having him perform in North America anytime soon.
1. LW Jakub Vrana (19.5 years old, 11-14-25)
Even with a lengthy spell away from hockey due to an injured wrist, Vrana is now the hottest prospect on the Capitals thanks to his 16 points and 13 games at Hershey. It is his first full professional season in North America and he has not looked like he has skipped a beat since his productive final season in Sweden. Now that Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky have graduated to the NHL ranks and that Washington will always flirt towards the salary cap while it contends for championships, it is important for the next generation of high-end talent to show up — Vrana is one of them.
Ben covers the Washington Capitals at the hockey writers. He has been blogging about the NHL since March 2013. Follow him @DCSportsDork