The Capitals have always been a team that’s drafted well, whether it be selecting a franchise player in the first-round, finding an elite goaltender in the fourth, or a role player late in the draft. With the majority of their core heading to free agency (both restricted and unrestricted) on July 1, the Caps will be looking to their current prospects to see which could be NHL-ready and ready to step up next season. Here are some who could compete for a roster spot in the fall.
Position: Left Wing
Draft: First-round in 2014 (13th overall)
HER (AHL): 49 GP, 19 G, 17 A, 36 P
WSH (NHL): 21 GP, 3 G, 3 A, 6 P
Analysis: The Capitals’ undisputed top prospect has been chomping at the bit in his short time in North America to make an impact at the NHL level. Throughout the past three seasons in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears, Vrana has recorded 75 points (35 goals, 40 assists) in 88 games played.
While his 21 games in the NHL this past season weren’t very productive in terms of points, Vrana’s superstar-like offensive skills were put on full display. He showed that he has the speed and offensive prowess to contend with the fast-paced tempo of the NHL and is still only 21-years old, meaning he hasn’t reached his full potential. Vrana is one of many young players in the Capitals’ system that could earn a spot in the opening night lineup in October. If the Caps lose Top Six forwards Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie in free agency, Vrana could have a huge opportunity to join the Capitals in a more established and bigger role.
Position: Right Wing
Draft: Sixth-round in 2012 (167th overall)
HER (AHL): 39 GP, 13 G, 14 A, 27 P
WSH (NHL): 3 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 0 P
Analysis: While he has yet to see fully extended NHL time, Barber appears to have been another “hidden gem” drafted by the Capitals in the later rounds of the NHL Entry Draft. In his first professional season with the Hershey Bears in 2015-16, Barber had an outstanding year, recording 55 points (26 goals, 27 assists) in 74 games played.
With the Bears fresh off a trip to the Calder Cup playoffs, Barber and the Chocolate and White hope to improve on last season. However, the season was not nearly as successful as the year before, as Barber was sidelined for much of the year with an injury to his right hand and the Bears regressed and ultimately fell short in the AHL’s Eastern Conference Semifinal to the Providence Bruins in seven games. Despite this, Barber continued to play on a relatively consistent basis during the short time he saw this season.
While he may not ever be a first-line or even a second-line forward, Barber can fit nicely into a bottom six role for a Caps team that is inevitably going to change over the next few months. Barber has capable offensive skills and could see a big opportunity in training camp with the possible departures of both Williams and Oshie.
Draft: Third-round in 2012 (77th overall)
HER (AHL): 72 GP, 10 G, 28 A, 38 P
WSH (NHL): 4 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 0 P
Analysis: Stephenson’s chances of securing a roster spot next season are a bit more unclear, as the Capitals are pretty well set at the center position, with a Top 4 of Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, and Jay Beagle down the middle. If Stephenson is to make the opening night roster, he would likely have to be willing to play another forward position. The former third-round pick had a breakout year with the Bears, recording a career-high 38 points in 72 games played with Hersey.
Stephenson’s offensive skills are still developing at 23-years old, but he is also an excellent defensive forward as well, as he posted a Corsi rating of 59.3 in four games played with the Caps this season and a career rating of 56.2 in 13 career NHL games. Of all the possible NHL-ready prospects in the organization, Stephenson is one of the most experienced with 13 games played in the NHL.
Age: 22 (23 in August)
Draft: Seventh-round in 2012 (195th overall)
HER (AHL): 66 GP, 13 G, 45 A, 58 P
Analysis: Another prospect that should be considered a “hidden gem”, Christian Djoos is arguably, the best defensive prospect in the Capitals organization. In his third professional season, Djoos was nearly a point per game player, with 58 points in 66 games played. He was also one of the team’s most productive players in the the playoffs, with eight points (two goals, six assists) in 12 games played.
Djoos led Bears defensemen in scoring and received the Dan Sernoffsky Award for being the Bears’ Most Improved Player during the season; an award that was presented to him by NoVa Caps’ very own Julie Beidler. With the possible (but likely) departure of veteran defenseman Karl Alzner – a fellow left-hander – in unrestricted free agency, Djoos has a prime opportunity to establish himself as a full-time NHL player.
Draft: Second-round in 2013 (53rd overall)
2016-17 Stats: 34 GP, 3 G, 11 A, 14 P
Analysis: One of the Capitals’ hugest-touted defensive prospects, Madison Bowey is still finding his game at 22-years old having just completed his second professional season. After a promising 29-point season in his rookie year, Bowey managed only 14 points in an injury-shortened 34-game season.
Bowey’s readiness isn’t fully clear, as he is only two seasons into his pro career and his injury (a lacerated tendon) prevented the Caps from getting a full season’s worth of performance from the former second-round pick. While it’s possible Bowey can contend for an NHL spot, he will most likely be sent to Hershey to continue his progress.
Age: 23 (24 in September)
Draft: Sixth-round in 2011 (177th overall)
HER (AHL): 76 GP, 16 G, 47 A, 63 P
Analysis: Boyd is another center whose chances of making the Capitals roster next fall could hinder on whether he is willing to play other forward positions. The former sixth-round pick had his best professional season to date, scoring 16 goals and recording 63 points in all 76 games played (an AHL season is 76 games) with the Bears, being selected to his first career AHL All-Star Game, one of two representatives (Chris Bourque being the other) for the Bears.
Boyd’s 63-point season was slightly better than his former career-high of 53 points set last season. In his three seasons with the Bears, he has scored 38 goals and recorded 118 points in 154 games played. While he likely won’t be as productive in the NHL, he could be a serviceable bottom-six forward for the Caps, adding a scoring touch like Brett Connolly did this past season for the Capitals. Boyd is a pending restricted free agent (RFA), and after two very productive seasons in the AHL, it would be surprising if the Captals did not re-sign him.
HER (AHL): 16 GP, 11 wins, 5 losses, 0 shutouts, 2.13 GAA, .933 save percentage
CHI (AHL): 25 GP, 15 wins, 6 losses, 1 shutout, 2.31 GAA, .920 save percentage
STL (NHL): 1 GP, 0-1-0, 0 shutouts, 5.08 GAA, .828 save percentage
Analysis: After being traded out of the organization as part of the T.J. Oshie trade two summers ago, goalie Pheonix Copley was re-acquired by the Capitals in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade at the trade deadline. The 25-year old undrafted netminder was the Bears’ best goaltender down the stretch and was a key reason the Chocolate and White made it to the Calder Cup Playoffs. Despite being an unrestricted free agent after the season, the Capitals simply cannot afford to lose him, as young goalie Vitek Vanacek doesn’t seem fully ready to handle the full-time starting gig in Hershey. With Philipp Grubauer a restricted free agent and a possible draft pick by the Vegas Golden Knights in the upcoming Expansion Draft, re-signing Copley is all the more important. The Alaska native has played three games in the NHL, all with St. Louis. In those three games, he has a record of 0-1-0, with a save percentage of .829 and goals-against average of 4.34. While not impressive, two of the games he played in were starts. As a backup to Braden Holtby, Copley would not be required to see game action every night. If the Caps do re-sign him, expect him to get a long look in training camp.
Age: 22 (23 in December)
Draft: Seventh-round in 2013 (204th overall)
HER (AHL): 72 GP, 4 G, 13 A, 17 P
Analysis: One of the more underrated defensive prospects in the Capitals’ prospect pool, Lewington is one of the young defensemen that could get an extended look in the fall if veteran Karl Alzner does depart in free agency. Known more for his physical, shutdown style, Lewington would provide the Caps with another tough customer on the blueline in the same mold as Brooks Orpik. In 72 games played with the Bears this season, Lewington had only 17 points, but 142 penalty minutes.
Lewington is also a right-handed shot, which could give Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz some more balance in his defensive-pairings, as the Caps currently have just two right-handed blueliners on the NHL roster, Matt Niskanen and John Carlson.
Position: Left Wing
Draft: Third-round in 2014 (89th overall)
HER (AHL): 58 GP, 11 G, 12 A, 23 P
Analysis: Another notable prospect that could get an extra long look in training camp is left wing Nathan Walker, the first Australian ever drafted into the NHL. Caps head coach Barry Trotz seems to be quite high on the diminutive Aussie, and if the Capitals lose Daniel Winnik in free agency, Walker would be a potential fit on the Capitals’ fourth-line. In 58 games played this season, Walker recorded 23 points, just 18 points lower than his 41-point season a year ago. While he is unlikely to put up 41 points while playing on the Caps’ fourth-line, Walker’s speed and grittiness would serve him well in front of the net.
By Michael Fleetwood