The National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) hosted their 11th annual Rookie Showcase at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Virginia on Sunday, Aug. 25. The practice arena for the Washington Capitals opened its doors to the media and 27 of the league’s best young talent. The event provided both groups with the opportunity to gain familiarity and collect promotional material. Upperdeck, the official trading card partner of the NHL and NHLPA, captured photos and videos of hockey’s top prospects and rookies dressed in their official NHL team uniforms. EA Sports scanned players to incorporate into NHL 20, which has a release date of Sept. 13. The showcase also featured media interviews, hockey card signings and on-ice shots. For the future stars of the game, the NHLPA Rookie Showcase was a good introduction to life in the NHL.
Jack Hughes is Red Hot
Headlining this year’s event was New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes. While the 5-foot-10, 170-pound center does not Rock the (right) Red, he does rock another red sweater and we feel the need to warn Caps fans of his rising stardom.
Right now, Hughes is best known for his work while donning red, white and blue. In 2017-18, the Florida-born forward was named USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year. In 2018-19, the Devils draftee led the National Development Team (USNTDP) with 112 points (34 goals, 78 assists) in 50 regular-season games. Combined, the two seasons set the record for most points in NTDP history with a whopping 190 (60 goals, 130 assists). But he was not done yet. He surpassed the record of most career points at the IIHF Men’s World Under-18 Championships, a mark originally set by Alexander Ovechkin. During the senior world championship, Hughes became the youngest player to appear in Team USA’s lineup. The 18-year-old possesses two silver medals and one bronze medal for his efforts.
Hughes was joined at the NHLPA Rookie Showcase by his brother, Quinn, a Vancouver Canucks prospect.
Past Success Stories Could Indicate Future Feats
If the Caps want to compete within a crowded field of young talent, they need elite performances from their prospects and rookies. The Capitals have been well represented at the NHLPA Rookie Showcase in the past. Former participants include Ilya Samsonov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Tom Wilson.
Samsonov is the Capitals’ 2015 first-round pick, currently guarding net for the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League (AHL). The Russian is the top contender to relieve some of Braden Holtby’s goaltending duties. With one year left on the starting goalie’s contract, if Samsonov plays his cards right, that relief might be forever. Another statistical success story is Kuznetsov, who ranked 16th on NHL Network’s top 20 centers this summer. He followed up a career-high 83 points (27 goals, 56 assists) in 2017-18 with 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) last season. He’s also got some other stuff going on right now.
Someone who has had less troubles off the ice than on the ice is Burakovsky, who signed a one-year, $3.25-million contract with the Colorado Avalanche in June. While he scored 12 goals in three consecutive seasons, his career-high of 17 goals and 38 points came during the 2015-16 season. However, NHL Network’s Mike Johnson predicts big upcoming numbers from Burakovsky: “I would expect for him to get a minimum of 20 goals, 40+ points and really be a solid depth contributor” (7/16/19).
Lastly, there is Wilson, who needs no further introduction. The name stands alone.
“Alex Alex” Scores for Capitals
Hoping to join the list of standouts is Capitals’ 2018 first-round pick Alexander Alexeyev. The defenseman was the lone representative for the hometown team during this year’s showcase. If the non-competitive scrimmage during the event indicates anything, it shows a bright future for the Russian. While the goals will not be recorded on any official stat sheet, Alexeyev scored twice on two shots in his newly christened red jersey.
Alexeyev continues the dream of suiting up for the big ice, graduating from the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Red Deer Rebels to the Bears this fall. As one of the top defensive prospects, it is lucky that the Capitals drafted the blueliner 31st overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. The 6-foot-4 defender possesses good size and good skating abilities. But to be an elite player requires a well-rounded game. The 19-year-old displays offensive capabilities too, shown by his WHL’s Player of the Week accolade last season. Furthermore, he finished fifth in team scoring and tied for second among defensemen despite a 19-game absence due to injury. If the bronze medalist at the World Junior Championship progresses his game, the Capitals will happily welcome him into the fold.
Other Contenders for the Capitals
Another contender who is expected to quickly rise within the ranks of the Capitals is second-round pick Martin Fehervary. The Slovakian-born defenseman, known for fast skating, represented his country at the World Junior Championship where he captained his home team. Although the 19-year-old currently plays for HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League, the defender is thought to be the closest prospect to making his NHL debut. When that day arrives, Fehervary could assemble the best defensive corps in recent memory for the Capitals.
2018-19 AHL All-Star Vitek Vanecek looks to make an impact as well. The Czech goaltender continues to stand out in the minor leagues, recording a 2.62 goals-against average and .907 save percentage for the 2018-19 season. He was also a vital part in the franchise-record point streak of 17 games last season with the Bears. The 23-year-old owns a three-year contract with the Caps, which leaves the possibility of filling netminding vacancies above him. Both Fehervary and Vanecek must outperform previous performances in order to land an enduring roster spot on a team built for the long haul.
The Stakes Are Higher This Season
The stakes are higher for the Capitals this season because an influx of top free agents and draft picks toughen the competition within the Metropolitan Division. The New York Rangers boast the 2019 NHL Entry Draft second-overall pick, Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko, and one of the league’s leading defensemen, Jacob Trouba. The lineup for the Devils is also formidable: featuring Hughes, P.K. Subban and Wayne Simmonds. Alternate captain Taylor Hall has fully recovered from knee surgery. Need we say more?
And, of course, the New York Islanders have head coach Barry Trotz.
The Capitals have responded by beefing up their lines – literally. Defenseman Radko Gudas was 10th on the league’s hitting leaders list with 255 total in 2018-19. Of the top 10 players to make the list, he came in second with 133 blocked shots. Right winger Richard Panik equaled Wilson, aka human wrecking ball, with 200 hits. Panik recorded 137 hits, which would have come in fourth on the Capitals lineup. This team is certainly bigger, feistier and hungrier. From the heavy hitters in back to the talent up front, the Capitals can make another Stanley Cup run with enough oil in the machine. If Washington wants to win the Metropolitan Division five times in a row, every player needs to put their best foot – or skate – forward.
Here is the complete list of NHL prospects and rookies who attended the 2019 NHLPA Rookie Showcase:
Alexander Alexeyev (WSH), Mikey Anderson (LAK), Kasper Bjorkqvist (PIT), Adam Boqvist (CHI), Jesper Boqvist (NJD), Shane Bowers (COL), Bowen Byram (COL), Kale Clague (LAK), Dylan Cozens (BUF), Kirby Dach (CHI), Noah Dobson (NYI), Dante Fabbro (NSH), Joel Farabee (PHI), Adam Fox (NYR), Barrett Hayton (ARI), Taro Hirose (DET), Jack Hughes (NJD), Quinn Hughes (VAN), Pierre-Olivier Joseph (PIT), Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (BUF), Jake Oettinger (DAL), Ryan Poehling (MTL), Jason Robertson (DAL), Igor Shesterkin (NYR), Ty Smith (NJD), Nico Sturm (MIN) and Oliver Wahlstrom (NYI).