As one hockey season is coming to a close, preparation for the next one is beginning. The NHL Draft in June and free agency are the first steps to get ready for the 2019-20 season. The Washington Capitals may have a few holes that need to be filled and there are prospects who will be fighting for those spots. Below are three prospects who could see some time in Washington next season.
The 2016 first-round pick and 28th pick overall, Lucas Johansen played the 2018-19 season for the Hershey Bears. The younger brother of Nashville Predators forward Ryan, Johansen was drafted as a two-way defenseman with offensive upside. The 21-year-old had 3 goals and 14 points for Hershey in only 45 games as he missed significant time with an upper-body injury.
Johansen underperformed in 2018-19 and has struggled to put things all together. In addition to injuries, Hershey’s inexperienced defense resulted in him often being paired against opponents’ best lines. Because of this, he had minimal room for error. At times there were lapses, and he was dominated physically by opponents. He is not afraid to jump into the offense, but it did not paid off on the scoreboard. He saw some time on the power play, but was not the offensive quarterback needed. Johansen can look brilliant at times, but his play needs to better and more consistent.
It is too early to give up or panic on Johansen. It is common for a defenseman to develop slower (‘Now bigger, next year quicker: Caps prospect Lucas Johansen tries to strike a balance’ Washington Post – 6/26/18) and he is still very young. However, 2019-20 is a very important season in his development. It is also time for him to get a taste of NHL play to fully evaluate his readiness and potential. Washington or Hershey; wherever Johansen plays, this needs to be a breakout season.
Ilya Samsonov made his North American professional debut in 2018-19 with the Bears. The 22-year-old goalie had his struggles during the first half of his season. The young Russian had to do more than just adjust to playing hockey on a new continent, also having to adjust to a new culture and language. In Jan. 2019, Samsonov changed numbers, and coincidentally, his play changed.
While Samsonov’s 2.70 goals-against average and .898 save percentage numbers in the AHL are not overly impressive, his second-half numbers are. He had a goals-against average under 2.00 and a save percentage of .930. Samsonov’s play was a key factor in turning the Bears from the last place team in the AHL to a playoff team.
Samsonov split time in goal with Vitek Vanecek, and while Vanecek’s numbers were a bit better for the season, Samsonov has the higher ceiling and is one of the top goalie prospects in hockey. As such, if Braden Holtby was to miss any extended time, Samsonov would be the likely call-up. For his development, if he is in Washington, he would need to play. Any serious injury to Holtby could very well see Samsonov thrown into the starting spot for the Capitals. His experience this season, as well as a Russian stacked Capitals’ lineup, should allow his transition to the NHL to be seamless.
Unlike Johansen and Samsonov, Beck Malenstyn is a lesser-known prospect for the Capitals. He was drafted in 2015 by the Capitals in the fifth round. He is a high-energy forward who spent 2018-19 in the AHL. In Hershey, he had 7 goals and 16 points in 74 games, but his numbers do not best illustrate his play.
Malenstyn’s role in Hershey was as a bottom-six grinder who played a physical game as well as received time on the penalty kill. The left wing would play late in a game and had a knack to turn the momentum around with his style of play. While he did not produce much offensively, he was rarely put in that sort of role. He has a quick shot, but was most productive with his board play in the offensive zone.
While Malenstyn may not seem like a 2019-20 Capital, he actually may fit the role needed better than most prospects competing for a spot. He can bring a physical element to the fourth line and could contribute to the penalty kill. Also, as Tom Wilson becomes more offensively prominent, Malenstyn can help keep Wilson on the ice and out of the penalty box by taking some of his “enforcement” duties.
The Capitals have some decisions to make on potential free agents Brett Connolly, Carl Hagelin, and Brooks Orpik. These decisions along with any free agent signings could directly impact the likelihood that Johansen and Malenstyn see time in Washington. Samsonov’s status is much more dependent on the health of Holtby and perhaps Pheonix Copley. The Capitals need to save some money and using a prospect could save the Capitals some needed salary cap space.