NHL

Washington Capitals: 2008-09 Top 12 prospects

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Shane Malloy, Prospect Insider
12/7/2008 3:20:51 PM
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After purging out veteran players a few years ago for prospects and draft picks, the Washington Capitals are beginning to see their young prospects develop. And the NHL pundits are always looking for the next team that builds an organization the right way - through the draft. If any team over the next couple years has the chance to build a contender this way, it's the Capitals who are flush with talent on the farm. In a decade, people will look back at their 2004 to 2008 drafts as the catalyst for a potential multiple Stanley Cup winning team.

The blueline is where their talent and depth lie with Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Josh Godfrey, Joe Finley, Eric Mestery, Patrick McNeill and long shot Keith Seabrook. There's some concern that 2005 first-round pick Sasha Pokulok may never live up to his expectations as he's having difficulty staying in the AHL and has been demoted to the ECHL. One defenceman who's graduated off this list but deserves to be mentioned is 24-year-old Sami Lepisto. who played 220 games in the Finnish Elite League and a combined 83 games in the AHL and NHL. Over his 75 games in the AHL, he posted an impressive 59 points and is on the verge of being an NHL regular.

The Caps have promising talent with offensive potential, with the likes of Anton Gustafsson, Andrew Gordon, Francois Bouchard, Oskar Osala and Chris Bourque up front. Each of them have the potential to play in the NHL and could take a regular shift anywhere on the top four lines in two or three years. It also looks as though Eric Fehr has finally made the jump to the NHL, after fighting through injuries the last couple sof easons that limited him to only 95 total games in the AHL.

The Capitals drafted a top-flight goaltender in the first two rounds of 2006 draft - the best young goaltenders out of Russia and the Czech Republic that year. With Semen Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth in the mix, they have two potential No. 1 goaltenders so it will be interesting to see who comes out on top in the end. There is not need to rush them through the system as they have time to develop them slowly (especially since both of them are only 20 years old). They also have Braden Holtby, who the Capitals drafted in the fourth round last year.

Overall, this group of prospects will need another couple of years before they become NHL ready and can contribute on a nightly basis. This franchise is on the right path to re-establishing a winning tradition and becoming a threat to win the Stanley Cup. They could use another skilled centreman in the system, since Gustafsson is the only pivot with potential. And the Caps will need to focus on skilled forwards over the next couple of drafts to shore up the farm system.

Karl Alzner - Defence, 20 (1st Round 5th overall 2007)
Currently with Hershey/Washington (AHL/NHL)

He was one of the safest picks in the 2007 draft, since he does everything good (and in some cases great) without any major weaknesses. At 6-2 and 210 pounds, he already has the frame and strength to compete at the NHL level and will only get stronger with time and maturation. His hockey sense and poise with or without the puck allows him to effective in all situations and he can play 30 minutes a night if needed. His positioning defensively is solid and he maintains good gap control while using his body and stick to plug lanes and seams. Alzner tends to be more of a finesse defenceman but he won't be pushed around and keeps his head on a swivel. His skating ability stands out, as he can recover for teammates that jump into the rush quickly and not look out of place. He has nice puck skills, makes a good first pass out of the zone and recognizes the transition game quickly. He has offensive potential, but he tends to play more conservative in that area of his game and has yet to blossom. He's a good leader who one could have a letter on his chest in the NHL. His experience at the World Juniors for Team Canada accelerated his development and helped his confidence in taking his game to another level.

Anton Gustafsson - Centre, 18 (1st Round 21st 2008)
Currently with Bofors (SWE)

The son of former Washington Capital Bengt Gustafsson must embark on his own career and path. The 6-2, 195-pound pivot has the skill set and hockey sense to play at a NHL tempo and speed while showing the ability to process information quickly. He makes some smart plays with the puck and uses his linemates and options well. His stickhandling is good in traffic, as he shows patience and poise. However, moving to higher pressure and less space in North America will be an adjustment. He's a solid skater overall who could use a little more explosiveness in his first two strides, which should come with additional power and core strength. Gustafsson can be dangerous around the net since he has soft hands with a quick release on his wrist shot that has some zip. Away from the puck, Gustafsson seems to understand the nuances of the defensive game more than his peers. His body position, the angles he takes to the puck carrier, keeping his head on a swivel along with an active stick could help him make the jump to the NHL much quicker. He has not quite filled out his frame but does not shy away from the physical battles. Overall, he is a promising prospect but it remains to be seen how much of his skills will improve or translate to the NHL. He could project into a fine two-way second line centre if the Capitals are patient with his development.

Semen Varlamov - Goalie, 20 (1st Round 23rd pick 2006)
Currently with Hershey (AHL)

He's the best netminder to come out of Russia in some time, with the potential to become a number one NHL goalie. He has good size at 6-1, but he could use a little more strength to his 183-pound frame to help with his endurance and stamina. Varlamov does not have any glaring weaknesses and it is a matter of garnering experience and honing his craft. He spent some time in Finland training and learning to become a well rounded netminder and it shows his level of commitment. He covers down low very well and can shut the five-hole like a trap. He displays great mobility and recovery skills in the crease and plays the angles well. Unlike most Russian trained netminders, Varlamov has a good glove hand along with a hybrid butterfly style. He is a real competitor that does not give up and maintains focus and rarely gets rattled under duress. Varlamov will need some time to adjust to the different speed and tempo in the North America game, but so far he looks solid. His play in the AHL has been good so far as a rookie and if the Caps are patient, they may have their goaltender of the future in three or four years.

John Carlson - Defence, 18 (1st Round 27th overall 2008)
Currently with London (OHL)

He's a strapping defenceman that has caught the eye of many people across the hockey world, and looks to have all the intangibles to play at the NHL level. The only concern last year was his level of competition in the USHL and how his game will translate against a tougher opponent. In terms of hockey sense and puck skills, he sees the ice very well, makes quick smart outlet passes and does not panic under the duress of a heavy forecheck. Once he turns up ice, he can decipher which passing option to use and dissect intersecting traffic in the neutral zone. He has pretty steady hands and does not fumble pucks thrown his way often. His stickhandling is good enough to create a little time and space for himself. When it comes to his skating ability, Carlson will need to improve his quickness and agility to handle speedier forwards on the rush and on the forecheck. He is strong on his skates and is hard to get around once he gets a couple of strides going. The part of his game that does not need any work is his slap shot, which looks like it got shot out of cannon. What makes his shot truly dangerous is that he gets it away quickly. He could develop into a valuable weapon on a power play unit and his time on the first unit will make a difference on how quickly he adjusts down the road. With his heavy work load on the blueline this season, his play away from the puck improved quickly. He was exposed to every situation and faced the top offensive lines. He understands where he must break to as the play develops and does a good job of maintaining that position with a willingness to step up and make big hits. If he consistently gets his stick in the lanes while keeping his head on a swivel, things will be easier for him. Since he's not the fastest defenceman, one thing he will make sure he has is good gap control - taking the right angles since the skill level he will play against jumps dramatically next year. He is a tough competitor who will lay himself on the line for his team and works hard on the ice. He does not take losing very well and has the intangibles as a leader on and off the ice. He has the potential to be a hard hitting top four defenceman who will contribute on the power play.

Michal Neuvirth - Goalie, 20 (2nd Round 34th pick 2006)
Currently with South Carolina (ECHL)

He's a quick moving mobile netminder with excellent agility who has shown he can handle high pressure situations. The right handed netminder has the size needed at 6-1 and 193 pounds. He made a huge commitment when he left his homeland and come to North America to play in the Ontario Hockey League. This adjustment to the North American style and game will make his development into the NHL a little quicker. He has shown big game ability by guiding the Plymouth Whalers to the Memorial Cup two seasons ago. Neuvirth showed mental and emotional resiliency after being traded twice in a season from Plymouth to Windsor and then to Oshawa. His strong statistics over the past 2 seasons with a record of 43-14-12 with a 2.69 GAA and an impressive.922 save percentage displayed he can carry a team. In his limited games in the ECHL he has dominated and the Caps may need to find a better place for him to play.

Joe Finley - Defence, 21 (1st Round 27th 2006)
Currently with North Dakota (NCAA)
Finley's a big towering blueliner at 6-7 and 240 pounds and loves to play physical. He could be an intimidating presence on the blueline. He's surprisingly mobile at times for his size, but he can get caught by speedy forwards on occasion. Do not expect any offensive production from him at all at the pro level - he will need to keep his game simple when the puck is on his stick. He has solid gap control and uses his wing span to angle players away from the slot. He's a menace in front of the net and can be an intimidating presence and with some heavy hits along the boards. He is in his final season at North Dakota and should spend some time in the AHL honing his craft. He must prove he can handle the speed and tempo at the pro level or he could be left behind. Over the past three seasons he has picked up 25 points in 126 games along with non surprising 245 penalty minutes and an impressive +52 plus/minus. If Finley can develop into a reliable defensive defenceman that can log minutes on the penalty killing unit and against the oppositions top lines he will be worth the wait.

Josh Godfrey - Defence, 20 (2nd Round 34th overall 2007)
Currently with Hershey (AHL)

The 6-1 and 210 pound blueliner has taken his offensive game to another level over the past two seasons, with 108 points in 128 games. He has decent hockey sense and puck skills to make a good pass out of his zone to start the rush. The real weapon in his offensive game is his deadly right handed slap shot that consistently hovers over 100mph which he unleashes on the power play. He has improved his skating, is a little quicker off the mark and can get back to cover his partner more effectively. He has become more physical and is more willing to get his nose dirty which is indicative of his 141 penalty minutes over the past two years. He has improved his defensive play (especially this season), hustles hard, makes better decisions with the puck and handles the rush better when it comes to gap control and angles. He has the potential after a couple of seasons to refine his game in the AHL before he might become a regular NHL defenceman. He started the season in the ECHL but was called up to Hershey and has been steady and like all young defenceman he will need time to work on his game and learn the consistency that it takes to be a pro.

Chris Bourque - Right Wing, 22 (2nd Round 33rd 2004)
Currently with Hershey/Washington (AHL/NHL)
At 22, he has surprisingly played 250 games as a pro already in the AHL and NHL. He seemed overwhelmed physically (undersized at 5-8 and 180 pounds) at times in the past, but has improved in this area over the last year. He has the offensive potential and speed to compete, but he will need another year to work on his overall game without the puck and get stronger. His hockey sense and puck skills are good and he finds a way to be effective in the offensive zone and uses his linemates more effectively. He has a nifty quick wrist shot, can dart into areas and jump on loose pucks. He competes most nights and has learned to be more consistent on every shift, which should earn him a shot at the Capitals' roster next season. The son of former NHL great Ray Bourque adjusted well in his third tour of duty in the AHL and it showed in his overall game. He has combined for 159 points in 207 games along with a plus-21 and 147 penalty minutes in the last three AHL seasons. He busted out of the gate this year with 22 points in 18 games before getting called up.

Francois Bouchard - Right Wing, 20 (2nd Round 35th overall 2006)
Currently with Hershey (AHL)

The slick offensive winger lit up the QMJHL in his three seasons, scoring 114 goals and 319 points over 205 games. He has very good puck skills along with the vision and hockey sense to produce points at the pro level. His passing ability is uncanny for a winger and he has a knack for finding teammates in tight places even at full speed. He has an array of good shots (wrist, snap for slap shots) and all of them have good accuracy, especially in close. He has not filled out his 6-1 and 188 pound frame yet, especially if he wishes to compete at the NHL level over an 82-game season. He needs to work on his skating and two-step quickness, along with his defensive game. He may take two years to adjust to a more demanding physical and tougher game with greater defensive responsibilities. He should not have any difficulties producing points at the AHL, so it's a matter of how quickly he develops a well rounded game.

Oskar Osala - Left Wing, 20 (4th Round 97th overall 2006)
Currently with Hershey (AHL)

After playing the season in Finland last season, the 6-4, 217-pound winger has taken the next step in his development as a rookie in the AHL. The fact he won the rookie of the year in the Finnish Elite League did not go unnoticed by the Washington brass. Osala recently showed all the tools when he played in the OHL but did not put up the offensive numbers some expected, with 87 points in 122 games. However, he is showing a prowess in the AHL for goal scoring and is near a point a game so far. The most important factor on whether a prospect can play at the NHL is his hockey sense and ability to process information. It seems Osala seems to have enough hockey sense to play at the NHL level, but how effective he will be offensively remains to be seen. Unfortunately, he is not the greatest skater in terms of two step quickness and agility, but once he gets those big legs pumping he can get up and down the ice. His size and wing span is his biggest asset and as long as he plays below the circles and in front of the net, he can be effective. His soft hands and ability to score in bunches could make him a valuable player on the power play, 0causing screens and traffic. Defensively, Osala is improving and his long stick and big body certainly help along the wall where he can win one on one battles. Considering the way the game is called now, he's a promising project and the Caps will try to turn him into a version of Tomas Holmstrom or Johan Franzen.

Andrew Gordon - Right Wing, 22 (7th Round 197th overall 2004)
Currently with Hershey (AHL)

Gordon's a surprise prospect for the Caps who has exceeded expectations with his play last year in the AHL as a rookie. The 5-11, 180-pound forward spent the previous three seasons in the NCAA with St. Cloud. Over his three years in college, he posted 102 points in 120 games and showed poise and discipline with 44 penalty minutes. He's a quick forward with good puck skills who uses his linemates well and shows vision and hockey sense under duress. He has a quick, accurate wrist shot that can be shot from anywhere. He must continue to go to the dirty areas to score and must not turn into a perimeter player. He's smart and (for the most part) consistent in his defensive game and works hard and hustles, which is why he had a plus-22 in the AHL. He will need to add strength and power to his frame to avoid injury and take his game to another level. After spending a little time in the ECHL last season, he went on to produce 51 points in 58 games in the AHL in 2007-2008 and looks to be on a similar pace this season.

Eric Mestery - Defence, 18 (2nd Round 57th overall 2008)
Currently with Lethbridge (WHL)

He's a lanky 6-5, 200-pound blueliner that has yet to fill out his frame and he could be tough to maneuver around once he gains some additional strength. He's a prototypical defensive defenceman who tries to keep his game simple, especially when he has the puck and shows little desire or the talent to produce much in the way of offense. He skates pretty well and can retreat quick enough not to get caught. He shows enough initial quickness and agility to not look awkward at the WHL level. His overall puck skills are average as he tries to make short passes or throw the puck up the boards to avoid trouble. He can get his slap shot through to the net with some velocity, but tends to pass it off more often than not. On the defensive side, he maintains good gap control and uses his wing span and long stick to limit options and keep forwards to the perimeter. For a player of his size, he does not punish players and instead leans on them so he will need to be more aggressive. To his credit, he does compete hard and hustles and shows pretty decent hockey sense with his decision making with or without the puck. He has some tools and will need time to learn all the nuances of his position, but could develop into a reliable third pairing defensive defenceman. He's a long term project that will need a few years of development in the minors after his junior career is over.

Washington Capitals - NHL Entry Draft Record (1997 - 2003)

When looking at the drafting and developing record of a NHL organization, it becomes an interesting blend of statistics and circumstances with perhaps some luck thrown in for good measure. Most of the time it's the general manager who receives kudos for a team's fortunes at the draft table. But it's usually never the case in today's NHL. For the most part, there are three aspects that make the whole process work. First it's the amateur scouting department's ability to evaluate and project talent - the most challenging aspect of all. Next is the organization's player development department, which must attempt to mold the prospects by giving the players tools to enhance their talents. Perhaps the most important aspect is the prospect's responsibility to pay the price and sacrifice - which generally requires a tremendous work ethic. If one of these aspects fails, then the likelihood of a prospect turning into an asset to his organization and having a NHL career becomes remote.

The reason for the analyzing the years from 1997 to 2003 is to first give each NHL organization five years to develop their prospects. After all, players from different leagues evolve differently. Secondly, the years 1997-2003 involve the players that should be the building blocks for the core of your team - as they will be in the 23-29 year old age range. What makes each organization unique is what they do with the picks they have, as management will often trade draft choices for immediate help on their NHL and AHL teams. Now some players may be real late bloomers and eventually make the criteria set in this analysis down the road, but at this stage it is fascinating to see the results.

The Capitals will have to make some hay through the 2004 to 2008 NHL drafts to make up for the average development from 1997 to 2003. What was really apparent when looking at their record within 1997-2003 was the lack of success past the third round. In that time frame, the Capitals had 40 draft choices and only produced one NHL caliber player. Now Krys Barch is still pending, but that has hurt them as an organization. If the Capitals wish to be a consistent contender, they must do better in this area and it looks as though they have done a very good job in the last five years.

Criteria of NHL games played that deem a player has been drafted and developed successfully

  Forwards - Defenceman Goaltenders
1997-2001 125-200 NHL Games required 51-100 NHL Games Played
2002-2003 100 NHL Games required 25-50 NHL Games Played
Pending Player - Represents a player who has a legitimate chance to make criteria

Washington Capitals Prospects 1997-2003

Year Draft Picks NHL Players Produced (Round/Pick)
1997 7 (1) (D) Nick Boynton (1/9)
1998 10 (0) (RW) Krys Barch (4/106) Pending
1999 10 (1) (C) Kris Beech (1/7)
2000 6 (2) (C) Brian Sutherby (1/26), (LW) Matt Pettinger (2/43)
2001 10 (2) (D) Nathan Paetsch (2/50), (D) Johnny Oduya (7/221)
2002 13 (3) (D) Steve Eminger (1/12), (LW) Alex Semin (1/13), (RW) Boyd Gordon (1/17)
2003 6 (0) (RW) Eric Fehr (1/18) Pending

Total: 7yrs - 62 draft picks - 9 NHL Players = 14.5% success rate

Success in the first three rounds (1997-2003)

1st rnd Draft Choices:
7yrs - 7 draft picks - 6 NHL Players = 85.7% success rate

2nd rnd Draft Choices: 10 total picks
Undeveloped Prospects - JF Fortin, Jomar Cruz, Michal Sivek, Jakub Cutta, Maxime Daigneault, Charlie Stephens, Ross Lupaschuk, Nolan Yonkman
7yrs - 6 draft picks - 1 NHL Players = 16.6% success rate

3rd rnd Choices: 5 total picks
Undeveloped Prospects - Todd Hornung, Owen Fussey, Patrick Weller, Derek Krestanovich, Stephan Werner
7yrs - 5 draft picks - 0 NHL Players = 0% success rate

Total: 7yrs - 22 draft picks - 8 NHL Players = 36.3% success rate in first 3 rounds

First Three Rounds - Developed vs. Prospects/NA vs. Euro
Developed players: (8) North American, (1) European Undeveloped Prospects: (11) North American, (2) European

Success in the last six rounds (1997-2003)

4th rnd to 9th rnd Choices: 40 total picks
7yrs - 40 draft picks - 1 NHL Players = 2.5% success rate

Shane Malloy provides hockey prospect insight and analysis on his Prospect Insider feature on TSN.ca, Canada's leading sports website. Many sports networks, hockey magazines and major newspapers have drawn upon his expertise and knowledge. His passion for the game and involvement in grass roots hockey from the junior hockey to the National Hockey League is evident. He is currently a host and hockey event reporter on XM Sirius Satellite Radio (Home Ice 204) where he co-hosts a hockey radio show on Hockey Prospects and the Business of Hockey.

Prior to joining TSN, Malloy was the columnist-covering prospects for NHL.com for two years and a NHL and prospect columnist Fox Sports.com for six years.

This document is the intellectual property of Shane Malloy and cannot be used or duplicated in anyway without expressed written consent. Any use of this document without the expressed written consent of Shane Malloy will result in public exposure and legal prosecution.

Karl Alzner (Photo: Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)
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