It’s common to hear analysts use the phrase “win-now mode” when discussing the Washington Capitals. While it’s true that they have traded away many draft picks for NHL talent over the past half-decade, they still have quality minor leaguers knocking on the door to the majors. Their stars are signed through 2025, and there’s no chance they’ll let Alex Ovechkin get away when he’s up for free agency in 2021.
Therefore, they can play the long game to develop their prospects, and I expect them to draft the best available player, who fits with the front office’s strategy, at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. They don’t have to draft for need, presumably because their NHL roster may look a lot different by the time this pick is NHL ready.
The Caps’ farm system may rank 29th in the league, but that’s because of quantity, not quality. From March 2014 through February 2020, the Capitals traded away 15 draft picks and netted four in return. Nine of those 15 picks were top-100 selections, compared to just two that they acquired.
These numbers exclude “corresponding transactions” (a term I just invented), when a team trades away, for example, a 2020 second-round pick to Team A but then acquires another team’s 2020 second-rounder via a separate trade. Those transactions negate each other, even though the exact draft slot is different.
For the most part, the organization’s better prospects are playing in the AHL (the top developmental league for the NHL), the Hershey Bears. The Capitals have two prospects in The Hockey Writers’ Top 100 NHL Prospects list. Uber prospect and 2019 first-round pick Connor McMichael along with fellow 2019 pick Alexei Protas (2019-20: 31 goals, 49 assists in 58 games) are still in juniors in the OHL and WHL, respectively.
McMichael hit his growth spurt this season, rising from being unranked to No. 20 by way of total domination in the OHL. He posted video game-like numbers, scoring 47 goals and 55 assists in 52 games, and will join the big-league club sooner rather than later.
Selected in the first round in 2018, defenseman Alexander Alexeyev was the other Caps prospect in the THW Top 100 NHL Prospect list (No. 80), though he’s a few years away from moving from Hershey to Washington, DC. The Bears are chock full of future NHLers who should get their shot within the next season or two, including D Connor Hobbs, D Lucas Johansen, and LW Axel Jonsson-Fjällby.
What the Capitals do have is age. They were the 10th-oldest team to begin the 2019-20 season, which is not a great look if your farm system is lacking stock. (from ‘Sizing up the NHL: 2019-20 NHL teams by age, height, weight and nationality,’ The Athletic, 10/09/2019) The team’s average age is 28.7, and only 7 teams from 1998-99 to 2018-19 have won the Stanley Cup at or above that age.
It’s not that this group doesn’t have the skill to win a Cup. They haven’t lost too many players from their 2017-18 Stanley Cup Championship roster, whose average age was 28.4. It’s not that they can’t win; it’s that they’ll have to go against historical precedence to do it if their prospects don’t pan out.
All of this is to say that the Capitals can select the best available player in the 2020 draft’s first-round. They can be patient with this player’s career development, because their core is under contract for the next several seasons, and their minor leaguers are challenging for roster spots. They’re projected to have a back-end draft position, so we’ll look at players who may be available between picks 27-31.
Since general manager Brian MacLellan took over in May 2014, his draft picks have averaged 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds. He hasn’t selected a player in any round under 6-feet tall since 2014. With that in mind, here are the top-5 prospects that the Capitals may consider drafting at the end of the first round.
Table 1. Top 5 first-round targets for the Capitals in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft
|NCS||THW||EP||PLAYER NAME||HEGHT||WEIGHT||POSITION||TEAM (LEAGUE)|
|10||20||14||MERCER, DAWSON||6′ 0″||180||RW||CHICOUTIMI (QMJHL)|
|14 Euro||27||25||WALLINDER, WILLIAM||6′ 4″||191||D||MODO JR. (SWE)|
|16||22||70||BARRON, JUSTIN||6′ 2″||195||D||HALIFAX (QMJHL)|
|18||42||26||POIRIER, JEREMIE||6′ 0″||196||D||SAINT JOHN (QMJHL)|
|20 Euro||26||48||JURMO, JONI||6′ 4″||190||D||JOKERIT JR. (FIN)|
THW = The Hockey Writers’ Top 400
EP = Elite Prospects
Dawson Mercer, RW
Mercer split time between two QMJHL teams (Drummondville Voltigeurs “A” and Chicoutimi Saguenéens) this season and scored 60 points in 42 games. His season was cut short by injury but it won’t keep him off the ice if the season continues. THW’s latest mock draft has him selected 31st overall by the Anaheim Ducks — even though he’s a top-20 talent — but I think that the Capitals should pounce on him if he’s available.
He’s a complete forward, with a two-way game. He’s creative with the puck in the offensive zone, plays good defense, and finishes his checks. He didn’t get on the scoresheet at the World Junior Champions this season – which is why he’ll drop to the end of the first round – but the talent is there for the Capitals to develop.
William Wallinder, D
I’ve covered Wallinder in two previous articles for the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers, but for different reasons. The Panthers select a little too early in the first round (No. 14) for him, but they need defender prospects. The Avalanche are picking somewhere in the 27-31 range so Wallinder fits their needs like he fits Washington’s.
Frankly, there isn’t much not to like about Wallinder. He is only 17 years old and made the move this season to the top adult league in Sweden (Allsvenskan) with the famed MODO hockey club. I think the comparison to Alex Edler is spot on — a strong, long-reaching defenseman with size and skating ability. He’ll make his bones in his own zone but in his prime will contribute 40-50 points per season in the NHL, and has a good enough shot from the point to man the second power-play unit. He’s rising up draft boards recently so he may be unavailable to the Caps.
Justin Barron, D
Barron is a polarizing player. Several scouting reports marked him as a top-15 prospect to start the 2019-20 season but dropped him to the back-end of the first round as time went on. He missed three months with a blood clot but returned on-time to the ice. Like Mercer, Barron may get drafted below his talent level.
His skating ability is his best asset. His offense is capped, but it’s there as he’s a good two-way player. His outlet pass on transition is quality, and he has a big right-handed shot that he can deploy when trailing plays. His fluid skating makes him move easily around the ice, which allows him to set up good body positioning at both ends. He delivers the physicality the Capitals seem to covet too.
Jeremie Poirier, D
This draft class is stocked with quality, puck-moving defensemen and Poirier could have the best NHL career out of all of the ones not named Jake Sanderson. I think he makes a lot of sense for teams drafting at the end of the first round. As one can see in his highlight reel below, he has the stick work and skating ability to dance around goalies on penalty shots.
He has an effortless second gear in the neutral zone, but the touch to compose himself once in the offensive third to set up plays or get shots on net. Like with many offensive defensemen, he needs to develop his defensive skills more. He’s not a small player, but he doesn’t use his size as well as he could. A good comparison to him is Tyson Barrie.
Joni Jurmo, D
If Jurmo receives better coaching that reinforces good decision-making, he could become a dangerous NHLer. Players his size are usually stay-at-home defenders with limited offensive skills. Jurmo has a similar mindset to a point guard in basketball because he wants the puck on his stick, and he is very comfortable skating through the neutral zone with it, but he is built like a power forward. He may be the top Finnish defender in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
In April 2020, Jokke Nevalainen at Dobber Prospects asked Jurmo how he felt about his reduced role on the U-18 Finnish National Team:
That is something I’ve been wondering myself throughout the season. I’ve gone through it with Anssi Laine (head coach of Finland U18), and my defensive game needs to improve… When I got to play my kind of a role on the under-20 team (in a tournament in Germany), got to play on the power play and play big minutes, I managed to produce points and play really well.
Jurmo embraces the challenge of playing against more experienced talent, which should suit him well in his transition to playing the more aggressive North American style. He and Wallinder played in the same U-20 league this season, and despite Wallinder’s higher ranking by two of the three draft pundits above, it was Jurmo who led the 18-year-old defenders in scoring.
Capitals Moving Forward
The Capitals will challenge for the Stanley Cup for the next decade if their prospects fulfill their potential. They have Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, and John Carlson all locked up until at least 2025. Alex Ovechkin will receive an extension after his current deal ends in 2021, and they will have several minor leaguers debuting over the next few seasons.
Related: The TJ Oshie Trade Analyzed
They have a real chance to draft a top-20 talent in the 2020 Draft despite picking at the end of the first round. They can exercise caution by allowing their pick’s game to develop in the minors until his game is ready for the NHL. The Capitals aren’t going anywhere as Cup contenders.