The Washington Capitals’ rise to consistent contender status in recent seasons was fueled by the organization’s success in the NHL Draft, particularly in the first round.
Few teams in the League deployed as many homegrown, first-round picks as the Capitals did shooting to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. A few of those players have moved on, and being a contender has led general manager George McPhee to trade some high picks (including his first-rounder in 2011 for Troy Brouwer).
The backbone of the 2012-13 Capitals still will be the team’s recent No. 1 selections -- Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Green and Marcus Johansson. Washington’s top two prospects also were first-round choices, but neither will play on this side of the Atlantic Ocean this season.
A problem for the Capitals for many years was too few later picks panning out, but that trend is starting to turn. Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth, Dmitry Orlov and Mathieu Perreault all were drafted after the first round and could have significant roles for the Capitals this season, and there are a few later-round picks among the team’s top prospects who could help soon as well.
Here’s a look at Washington’s top 10 prospects:
(Photo: Noah Graham/Getty Images)
1. Evgeny Kuznetsov, C: The good news -- Kuznetsov might be the best player in the world not in the NHL. The bad news -- his arrival in the League has been delayed, possibly for another two years.
Kuznetsov was one of the top talents in the 2010 NHL Draft but fell to the Capitals at No. 26 because teams were -- wait for it -- uncertain when he might show up in North America. For two seasons since the draft, he has produced in the top league in Russia at levels comparable to Ovechkin and Pavel Bure at the same age. He has lit up the World Junior Championship, drawing raves for his incredible skill ... and ire for his antics.
Now 20 years old, Kuznetsov likely would be the Capitals’ replacement for Alexander Semin in the top six in 2012-13, but he reportedly signed a two-year contract to remain in Russia. He could be a superstar, but he’s going to have to show up in D.C. for more than a summer camp first.
2. Filip Forsberg, C: Forsberg is another player who fell on draft day, but not as far as Kuznetsov, and not for as specific a reason. The Capitals ended up with the No. 11 pick in the 2012 draft after trading Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche, and Washington’s scouting staff was ecstatic to see Forsberg left on the board.
He is slated to return to Leksands in the Swedish Elite League for another season, and expect to see him in a prominent role at the WJC. He could be counted on in Washington in 2013-14.
3. Stanislav Galiev, RW: Though there seems to be concern about every Russian draft prospect, Galiev already played in North America for two seasons when the Capitals landed him in the third round of the 2010 draft. He, Kuznetsov and Orlov became fast friends at the team’s 2010 summer camp, and they could be together again in Washington someday.
Galiev missed a large chunk of the 2011-12 regular season with a wrist injury but helped a loaded Saint John squad to the Memorial Cup with 34 points in 17 playoff games.
Will he need some time in the American Hockey League? Probably, but there aren’t a lot of certainties on the wing in Washington’s top six beyond Ovechkin and Brouwer. The Capitals have the salary-cap space to add someone as the trade deadline approaches, but if Galiev can produce as a professional, he might get an audition.
4. Tom Wilson, RW: Because the Capitals had their first disappointing regular season since ascending to the NHL’s high-rent district, they had another pick that wasn’t in the 20s for the first time since 2007. The Capitals haven’t been short on skill up front in recent seasons (though ’12-13 is surprisingly TBD), but at times there weren’t enough players who combine skill with some snarl.
The Capitals are hopeful Wilson, chosen No. 16 in the 2012 draft, will be that type of player. He had nine goals in 49 regular-season games, but 141 penalty minutes, for Plymouth in the Ontario Hockey League. What drew McPhee’s staff to Wilson were his seven goals and 13 points in 13 playoff games. Washington has had players who didn’t meet expectations in the postseason and wouldn’t mind adding some who excel at that time of year.
5. Philipp Grubauer, G: When the Capitals chose Grubauer in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, they already were flush with prospects in net. It is a volatile position, and teams often can’t have enough depth -- Holtby spent most of last season in the AHL before starting every game for the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With Varlamov and veteran Tomas Vokoun gone, Grubauer has inched up the depth chart. He spent last season in the ECHL and put up solid numbers (.918 save percentage, 2.22 goals against average).
He’ll move up to the AHL with the Hershey Bears this season, and likely will split time with veteran Dany Sabourin. The Capitals could call on Sabourin if Holtby or Neuvirth is injured early in the season, but if Grubauer plays well, he could move to No. 3.
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6. Patrick Wey, D: Wey was a fourth-round pick in 2009, and at the time McPhee acknowledged the defenseman would need time to develop in college. He will be a senior and an assistant captain for Boston College in the fall, and the Eagles could win a third national title in his four years (though Wey missed the end of his freshman season with mononucleosis).
He isn’t flashy, but Wey is sturdy at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds and has played on big stages (the Frozen Four, the WJC). Wey probably will spend a season with Hershey after he graduates, but could slot in as a defensive defenseman behind Alzner by 2014.
7. Caleb Herbert, C: Herbert has impressed at Washington’s development camp, and he had a fantastic freshman season for Minnesota-Duluth with 14 goals and 33 points in 41 games. He was a finalist for Mr. Hockey in Minnesota his senior year of high school, and put up 23 goals and 50 points in a season with Sioux City of the United States Hockey League.
It's possible the Capitals unearthed a late bloomer with this fifth-round pick in the 2010 draft, but Herbert was not a typical college freshman. He will turn 21 in October (he’s a few months older than Kuznetsov), but he also missed almost an entire season of development in high school because of a broken leg. If Herbert improves on those numbers at UMD in his sophomore campaign, he may be ready to sign a pro contract in the spring.
8. Cameron Schilling, D: Speaking of late bloomers, Schilling went undrafted before a strong, four-year career at Miami (Ohio) University helped make him a sought-after free agent last spring. McPhee said several teams were interested in Schilling.
He logged a lot of minutes at the end of last season for Hershey after signing, and acclimated pretty well. The Capitals have signed undrafted college players in the past -- Jay Beagle has been the most successful of late -- but they haven’t given them an entry-level deal worth up to $1.775 million, like they did Schilling (more than Forsberg's and Wilson’s deals, according to Capgeek.com).
The Capitals once had loads of defensive depth beyond the NHL roster, but that isn’t the case anymore. There are seven defensemen signed to one-way contracts (plus Orlov, who is certain to be in Washington), so it is unlikely any of the final three names on this list start the season with the Capitals. But they will be competing to be the first to hop in a car and make the drive from central Pennsylvania to northern Virginia.
9. Tomas Kundratek, D: The Capitals traded for Kundratek in November, and he ended up in the lineup for Washington two months later. He was a third-round pick by the New York Rangers in 2008, and was beginning his second season with Connecticut in the AHL when Washington acquired him.
He impressed the organization enough to earn five games with the Capitals, and posted strong offensive numbers for Hershey -- 12 goals and 23 points in 55 games, plus four points in four playoff games. Those 12 goals were more than he scored in his two seasons in the Western Hockey League and his year with the Whale in the AHL combined.
10. Brett Flemming, D: A fifth-round pick in 2009, Flemming is slight of size (listed at 5-foot-11, 189 pounds) but not of courage. He is not afraid to throw his body around, and he’s collected at least 79 penalty minutes in each of his past four seasons.
Flemming spent his first season as a professional between Hershey and South Carolina of the ECHL, including nine playoff games with the Stingrays. He should be a full-timer in the AHL this season. Kundratek and Schilling are probably ahead of him in the pecking order right now, but a strong training camp and start to the campaign with the Bears could change that.
Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter at: @cmasisak22