Once perceived a robust component of the Capitals overall organizational depth, the defensive prospect pool has somewhat shallowed over the last 12-18 months, with regards near-term readiness and future potential. Other than Martin Fehervary, who will likely join the Capitals as soon as play resumes, no other defensive prospects are ready to contend for a roster spot this summer/fall. While forward prospects still remain the Capitals top priority, the defensive prospect pool will also need to be fortified, with additions ideally ready for NHL action by the 2022-2023 season, or sooner.
It’s very likely that Capitals’ GM Brian MacLellan pencilled-in prospects for the replacement of defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in his previous three and five-year development plans. Players selected several drafts ago should have been close to, if not ready to battle for a roster spot. However, the development of several defensive prospects simply hasn’t materialize. As a result, the Capitals were forced to sign short-term solution Radko Gudas and trade for Brenden Dillon, who will likely replace one of the two shortcomings in defensive prospect development.
The following outlines the current state of readiness and projected potential for each of the Capitals current defensive prospects.
TOP TIER (CERTAIN NHL CALIBER)
Martin Fehervary is about to be declassified as a “prospect”. He’s ready, spent time with the Capitals this past season, and will likely join the team when play resumes. The second round pick from the 2018 draft has been ahead of typical development trajectories since his selection.
Alex Alexeyev, the Capitals first round draft pick from the 2018 draft, is at least a year away from challenging for a roster spot in DC. Alexeyey, 20, was fun to watch this year in Hershey, and it’s clear he will eventually be a good-to-really good defenseman at the NHL level. However, he’s still very young, struggled defensively this season, made mistakes in coverage and is still adapting to the faster and heavier game played at the AHL level. This is all to be expected for an AHL rookie. On the plus side, concerns regarding Alexeyev’s durability subsided a bit this season, as he played the most games (58 games) in a season in his career. His development is on track.
TIER TWO (READY – SHORT TERM/EMERGENCY CALL-UP)
Tyler Lewington has been “Mr. Reliability” in Hershey for several seasons, and has also more recently become someone the Capitals can count on. He may draw too many penalties, and has other minor shortcomings in his game, but he is dependable. Don’t underestimate that value. Unfortunately, Lewington will be a UFA (G6) this summer, so there is a decent chance the Capitals lose him. It will be up to Lewington.
TIER THREE (ON TRACK FOR DEVELOPMENT – MODERATE CHANCE)
Bobby Nardella has been a pleasant surprise ever since he was signed by Capitals’ scout Danny Brooks in the spring of 2019. His offensive skills have been pretty impressive at the AHL level, and has been very sound defensively. He has also been the primary spark plug for the Bears power play this season. His size, 5’-9”, will always be a concern, but don’t count him out. At 24, this coming season will be huge for Nardella, if he has sights on future games in the NHL.
Tobias Geisser was loaned to EV Zug early in the 2019-2020 season due to the fact he wasn’t seeing any playing time in Hershey. It’s likely he will report to the Bears 2020-2021 training camp, where he will fight for a playing spot and a chance to remain in Hershey for the season. With the likely promotion of Martin Fehervary to DC, and the potential departure of Tyler Lewington, his chances for more playing time should be much better than last season.
Martin Hugo Has began the 2019-2020 season with the Tappara U20 team, scoring a goal in two games, but was quickly called-up to Liiga with Tappara for five games. Has had a goal and an assist before being loaned to Koovee in the Finnish Mestis League, where he played in 13 games, registered a goal, and was +4. Has then left Koovee for the World Junior tournament where he played on the Czech Republic’s top defensive pairing, registering a goal and three points in five games. Following the World Junior Championship, has was loaned to the North Bay Battalion, where he played one game before being traded to the Guelph Storm. His crazy year is overall a good sign, as the Capitals continuously looked for a good development situation for him. He will likely return to the OHL next season, but don’t rule out an outside shot at time in Hershey. He’s a wild card and one to watch this coming season, and could be an answer to the near-term development deficiencies in the Capitals organization.
TIER FOUR (OUTSIDE SHOT)
Alex Kannok-Leipert had another relatively quiet season for the Vancouver Giants. Kannok-Leipert, 19, was elected captain of the Giants at the beginning of the 2019-2020 season, but was overshadowed somewhat by Bowen Byrem. AKL will return to Vancouver for one final season, where he will look to have a standout season, one that will force the Capitals to offer him a contract.
Connor Hobbs has been a victim of injuries for the past two seasons. As a result, his development trajectory has flattened-out significantly. Hobbs, 23, has played in just 119 games in three full seasons with the Bears. He needs a healthy season. He will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season. Look for a 1-2 year deal from the Capitals.
Benton Mass will be a senior for New Hampshire this coming season, and will need to prove to the Capitals he is worthy of a contract. Maass will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, if the Capitals do not sign him in the next 12 months.
Lucas Johansen has played in a total of 128 games, with nine goals at 34 assists. It’s true that injuries have seriously plagued Johansen’s AHL career, however, the main issues can be found in the 128 games he DID play. The Capitals are at a decision-point for Johansen, who is in the third and final year of his three-year, $925,000 AAV deal, and will be a restricted free agent at the end of the 2019-2020 season. The Capitals could sign him to a one-year extension, but it’s probably best suited for both Johansen and the Capitals if he is moved.
TIER FIVE (DISTANT HORIZON – LONGSHOT)
Kris Bindulis, 24, played in 50 games for the Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL this season. He will be restricted free agent at the end of the 2019-2020 season.
Colby Williams, 25, played in 31 games for the Bears this season, including several games as a 4th line forward. He will be an Unrestricted Free Agent (G6) at the end of this season.
THREE-YEAR DEVELOPMENT PLAN
Here’s the current three-year plan for the Capitals blueline prospects:
Brenden Dillon and/or Radko Gudas will likely not be re-signed this offseason. With the ever-shrinking salary cap and the rise of Martin Fehervary, either Dillon or Gudas will go. The Capitals will aim for re-signing Dillon.
Alex Alexeyev will possibly be ready for a shot, and replace one of the aging and/or expensive defenseman.
With Fehervary and Alexeyev both in the NHL potentially by the 2022-2023 season, the Capitals could be looking at a fairly bare defensive prospect cupboard at this point. Martin Hugo Has could be the one defensive prospect that might be ready for a shot at this point. The upcoming 2020 NHL Entry Draft will need to find mid-round defensemen that can make an early impact.
Capitals’ GM Brian MacLellan has always stated that the Capitals draft philosophy is to select the best player available (according to their master listing) regardless of position. This will likely continue, however, a first round forward selection would be ideal for the upcoming draft.
With the loss of Christian Djoos and Chase Priskie, and the potential loss of Tyler Lewington, coupled with the lack of development of several defensive prospects, the Capitals defensive depth is not what it was 12-18 months ago. Players like Nardella and Has could help the situation if they are able to step-up this coming season.
By Jon Sorensen