This summer, the Capitals watched Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Justin Williams, Nate Schmidt, Marcus Johansson, and Daniel Winnik walk out the door. They were all valuable pieces to Washington’s success for the past two seasons and they were all fan favorites. Did those players’ departure completely hamstring the Caps?
The answer is probably not.
The Capitals have a solid nucleus with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, Lars Eller, John Carlson, Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle, and Andre Burakovsky locked up. Many of them are in their prime but, while some of them are getting older, they are still key contributors to Washington’s lineup.
The Capitals also have a lot of promising prospects like defensemen Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey and forwards Riley Barber, Jakub Vrana, and Nathan Walker. Hershey Bears head coach Troy Mann said at last summer’s Development Camp that Barber, Walker, and Bowey are the most ready for the NHL.
The Caps have some big skates to fill on defense this year and Djoos and Bowey are sure to compete for spots with the big club.
Djoos had 13 goals and 58 points with a +9 rating in 66 games played for Hershey where he has been the past two-plus seasons. Djoos could fill the slot vacated by Kevin Shattenkirk as an offensive defenseman alongside John Carlson. He was the AHL’s star of the month for March when he recorded 16 points in 13 games, including a four-point game.
Bowey, selected by the Capitals in the second-round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, is one of the best defensive prospects for the Caps. “I think he’s a better defenseman for it,” Mann said of Bowey’s experience with an injury last season. “I think his numbers are outstanding, considering very, very limited power play time.” He had three goals and 11 assists with a plus-6 rating in 34 games played with the Bears last season. “But if he’s doing some things offensively and I see him not getting the breakout executed or turning pucks over, then I know he’s struggling,” Mann said. Bowey led all defensemen in the Memorial Cup Playoffs in 2014-15 in points and assists.
On offense, it will be Barber, Vrana, and Walker who will be among those working to make the Caps’ Opening Night roster.
Riley Barber was drafted by the Caps in 2012 in the sixth-round and has been in Hershey for two years. In 2015-16, he scored 26 goals and 55 points in 74 games played. Last year he missed time due to injury, but he still put up 13 goals and 27 points in the 39 games that he played in.
Vrana had a promising start to the season in Hershey last year scoring nine goals in 18 games played. That was enough to get him called up to the Caps, but he struggled after returning to the Bears, scoring four goals in 15 games and getting scratched for a few games. He was back in D.C. after Andre Burakovsky suffered a wrist injury and logged three goals and three assists in 21 played games for the Caps. Vrana ended the year in Hershey on a down note, contributing just three assists in seven playoff games with the Bears. Hershey coach Troy Mann was critical of Vrana, saying “I thought he was okay. I thought he was average. He has some spurts there, you could see the speed there. But, you know, it was a tough year for him at this level for whatever reason.” Mann was unclear on Vrana’s future, saying “With Vrana it’s all mental right now from his perspective. He’s got the physical tools to be an NHL player … if he comes in and has a great summer and is motivated, he can turn some heads and force the Caps to keep him on the team.” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan echoed those comments, saying “He definitely has NHL speed, NHL shot, NHL goal-scoring ability. We still project him as a Top-six guy, but he’s going to have to learn to play the complete game.” Asked if Vrana would have a spot on the Caps’ Opening Night roster, MacLellan said, “He’s going to have to earn it. We’re not going to give it to him. He has the potential to do it, but his performance will dictate that.”
Nathan Walker was the first Australian-born player drafted into the NHL as a third-round pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. He had 11 goals and 23 points in 58 games played last season for the Bears. He recently signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Capitals on June 1. Back in Development Camp last month, Troy Mann said that Walker is the closest player to making to NHL from the Bears’ roster from last season. “I think when you look at our guys, Walker comes to mind,” said Mann, who ran the Capitals’ Development Camp. “He plays the game the right way. He’s a 200-foot player. He gets in on the forecheck. He has good stick detail,” Mann said. He added, “I’d love to see him slide into Winnik’s spot, from my standpoint, because he’s really grown here the last couple of years.”
Teams have shown they can be successful with a mix of star veterans and energetic rookies. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup with Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, and Matt Murray stepping up in the playoffs after seeing significant time in Wilkes-Barry Scranton.
Chicago has also been successful bringing high-energy young players in to play alongside their experienced superstars. Even though some of them may not be there anymore, Brandon Saad, Teuvo Teravainen, and Trevor Van Riemsdyk all played key roles for the Blackhawks during their championship run in 2014-15 after being in the AHL for a period of time.
The Capitals are going to have a different, certainly younger, look next season, but that could be a good thing. Let’s hope that adding some young talent will get them to the promise land like Chicago and Pittsburgh have had over the past few years.
By Harrison Brown