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Caps Prospects Eye NHL

A year after returning all seven defensemen from the previous season, the Capitals will have a few fresh faces sprinkled along the blue line in 2017-18

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

Now a veteran entering his 11th NHL season, defenseman Matt Niskanen still has fond memories from his days as a prospect with the Dallas Stars.

"I remember it very well," recalls Niskanen, the Stars first-round pick in 2005. "Mattias Norstrom was my partner in camp and he was outstanding to me. That was something I really appreciated- how vocal and helpful he was in my first camp. Those are things you don't forget. So I try to remember that feeling of what that meant as a young player, now that I'm an older guy."

A year after returning all seven defensemen from the previous season, the Capitals will have a few fresh faces sprinkled along the blue line in 2017-18. Niskanen is happy to help usher them in.

The offseason losses of Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency and Nate Schmidt to the Vegas Golden Knights' expansion draft necessitated the changes. That's why Niskanen, 30, made a point during training camp to ease the transition for prospects like Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey and Lucas Johansen- a trio of young defensemen who could all see time in the NHL by season's end.

"The biggest thing is finding that consistency of being at a high level every day," Niskanen says of the challenge that awaits the Capitals top prospects.

"A lot of the guys that are pushing to make the club now are the better players down in Hershey and while the American League is a good league, you can coast through a portion of the season or certain days. But when you come up here with the big club, you can't coast. You've got to bring it every day."

Whether it's a rookie or two on the blue line, or some youngsters up front, a number of Capitals prospects will get their shot this year to see if their minor-league success can translate to the NHL.

Jakub Vrana headlines the group of forwards eyeing a long-term stay in Washington. Vrana, 21, had three goals and six points in 21 games with the Capitals last season, while shuffling between Washington and AHL Hershey.

Although Vrana's defensive game is a work in progress, Hershey Bears head coach Troy Mann says that Washington's first-round pick from 2014 can overcome those challenges by taking advantage of his offensive skillset.

"As a coach, you can take an offensively-gifted player and if they have some defensive deficiencies, you can handle that," Mann explains. "You can live with that as long as they're playing to their strengths. For Jakub, that means by taking the puck to the net, getting inside the dots and going to the hard areas to score goals and not staying along the perimeter. When he does that, his skillset takes over and he can be a dominant player."

The offseason departures of Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson (48 goals combined) created openings among the Capitals top-six forwards and on the power play. All three of Vrana's goals last season came with the man-advantage where he primarily played the diamond position in the low slot.

Further down the depth chart, prospects Nathan Walker (208 career minor league games) and Travis Boyd (154 career minor league games) could also find their way into the Capitals lineup this season.

"I like being the so-called pest," says Walker, who could see time on the fourth line. "Making sure I'm getting pucks in deep and getting in on the forecheck. Just trying to get behind their D and disrupt them a bit. That's probably the best way to describe it. I'll try to do everything I can to play that role."

Walker had 11 goals and 23 points in 58 games with Hershey last season and was penciled in for a late-January NHL promotion before a hand injury forced him to sit for a few weeks. The first Australian to be selected in the NHL Draft, Walker could also help fill the void on Washington's penalty kill left by the offseason departure of veteran Daniel Winnik.

"He's developed into a good penalty killer," says general manager Brian MacLellan. "We've always liked his speed and his compete level- those were the two things that we really liked about him. He just continues to become a better player; better positionally, he reads the game better, more intelligent on his reads, instead of being a pure energy player."

Becoming the first Australian to play in the NHL is also a source of pride for Walker, who moved to the Czech Republic as a teenager to further pursue a career in hockey, but returns home every summer.

"It would be huge for the ice hockey community back home," says Walker, who has represented Australia in international competition. "It's not a big one, but they're certainly very proud. It would mean a lot not only for myself but also to the whole community back home."

Compared to Walker, Djoos had a more traditional hockey upbringing with his father Par Djoos enjoying a 17-year pro career, including an 82-game stint in the NHL.

The Capitals seventh-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Djoos has worked his way up the organizational depth chart and enjoyed a breakthrough season last year in Hershey. Despite missing nine games early in the season with a lower-body injury, Djoos finished third among AHL defensemen in scoring with 13 goals and 58 points in 66 games.

With the Bears dealing with a banged-up blueline during the second half of the season, Djoos took advantage of increased ice time and responsibility. The 23-year-old was named the AHL's Player of the Month last March after recording 16 points in 13 games.

"The situation was good in Hershey, it gave me confidence," says Djoos, who adds that he is more comfortable with the system and expectations as he begins his third pro season in North America.

"He's a real smooth puck mover, real cerebral, doesn't get hit for a small guy," Mann says of the 6'0", 169-pound defenseman. "He's a smart hockey player, so when he goes back for pucks he's able to get out of the way and make those simple plays. Offensively, he's so good with the puck. I can't say enough about what he brought to the table last year in terms of his ability to make plays and hopefully that translates to the NHL." 

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