As far as prospect classes go, the Washington Capitals fall somewhere in the middle of the pack by most accounts.
For instance, the Caps were ranked 14th overall by hockeyprospectus.com as far as organizational and prospect rankings were concerned.
Hockeybuzz.com felt much better about the Caps as they have them ranked eighth overall.
Regardless of the source one wants to review, pretty much all of them, as far as the Caps prospects are concerned, share glowing reviews of three notable future starts for the Caps: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Filip Forsberg and Stanislav Galiev.
After those three—with the exceptions of Tom Wilson and Caleb Herbert—most of the experts feel that there is a sharp drop off in talent amongst the Caps prospects.
But which prospect is really the most important to the Caps? Which prospect is the one the Caps must absolutely hold on to?
Last week, fellow Caps featured columnist, Robert Wood, wrote an article putting forth his argument as to why Filip Forsberg was the prospect he felt the Caps could not let slip away. I certainly agree with Wood that Forsberg is a huge talent and is a prospect the Caps absolutely must focus on retaining.
However, this week, I will put forth my own argument as to why I feel Evgeny Kuznetsov is more important for the Caps to retain than even Forsberg.
He Is Ready Right Now
Quite simply, Kuznetsov is NHL ready right now. It is the main reason the Caps need to hold onto him more so than any other prospect.
There is little doubt that both Kuznetsov and Forsberg are tremendous players. There is also little doubt that there are huge concerns amongst the Caps' organization as to whether Kuznetsov will ever actually play for Washington.
It was back in May when Kuznetsov surprised some by deciding to stay in Russia for another two years, as opposed to coming to the Capitals (NHL.com).
In retrospect, it was a wise decision because with the lockout in full swing, Kuznetsov would have been in Russia regardless. Still, there is a definite level of unease amongst the Caps and their fans as to whether Kuznetsov will ever rock the red with Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and the rest of the Caps.
But assume for a moment that Kuznetsov plays out the rest of this year and the next in the KHL and then decides to come to the Caps. If that happens, the Caps will have a Top Six forward immediately—and they might have a great one at that.
From a purely physical standpoint, Kuznetsov has an advantage over Forsberg. Kuznetsov stands 6'3" and weighs 187 pounds; Forsberg, by comparison, stands 6'2" and weighs in at 181 pounds. While neither Kuznetsov or Forsberg will back down from a physical battle, Kuznetsov is, at least for now, going to fare better.
This will be very important due to the much more physical nature of the NHL as compared to the KHL or other European leagues.
What also makes Kuznetsov somewhat more NHL ready than Forsberg, in my opinion, is his tremendous skating ability. Forsberg is an elite skater as well. But Kuznetsov is a notch above him.
Watch the videos provided in this article and you will see what I mean. Kuznetsov makes everything look easy and effortless.
Something else you will notice in the videos is Kuznetsov's exceptional stick handling skills. He can deke as well as any prospect in the Caps' entire organization and he has a great shot. His decision making is at an NHL caliber already.
I also believe Kuznetsov has demonstrated great passing ability and even though he is only 20 years old, he is already showing some very promising traits for being an unselfish player.
In short, the 20-year-old center can do it all. He can skate with the best of them. He can pass. He can score. He can make plays. He has fantastic vision. He has even improved his game on defense and as a penalty killer.
Kuznetsov has already demonstrated that he can be a leader as he was named captain of the Russian Under-20 hockey team. No, I am not suggesting he should be made captain over Ovechkin once Kuznetsov eventually arrives. But leadership abilities are rather underrated in my opinion and, as such, it is an intangible quality a team should try and have as much of as possible.
The Russian Connection
Of course, you have to factor in Alex Ovechkin and one has to figure that Kuznetsov will mesh better with Ovi than Forsberg will. True, that might be wild speculation. After all, Ovi and Swedish player Nicklas Backstrom are good friends and have been thriving together playing for Dynamo Moscow in the KHL. It is not as if Ovi can only get along with Russian players.
But if we are talking about a new player coming into the organization, I think it is reasonable to believe that Ovi would develop chemistry with Kuznetsov more quickly than he will with Forsberg. After all, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, along with fellow Russian and former Caps player Alexander Semin, all played together in the World Hockey Championships earlier this year.
Of course, as noted in this article that appeared at csnwashington.com, the time Kuznetsov spent with Ovechkin and Semin might not have endeared the Caps' organization to the 20 year old future start too much—and that article was written prior to Semin going to the rival Hurricanes.
The point is though that Ovi has never played with Forsberg so it seems more likely than not that he may feel quite a bit more comfortable with Kuznetsov than with Forsberg—at least initially.
And if Kuznetsov is ever to actually play in Washington, I think it is safe to assume that Ovechkin will be the one to convince him to finally come over and play.
Numbers Don't Lie
Who Is The More Important Prospect For The Caps To Hold On To?
As for pure raw data to back up my opinion that Evgeny Kuznetsov is more important to the Caps' future than Filip Forsberg, let's take a look at some numbers.
Through 33 games for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL, Kuznetsov has scored 14 goals and assisted on 16 others. He has a plus-2 rating, has scored two power play goals and has a game-winning goal to boot.
By way of comparison, Alexander Ovechkin has played in 25 games for Dynamo Moscow and has scored 14 goals with 17 assists. So Kuznetsov is pretty much on pace with the Great Eight, which is no small task.
And both Ovechkin and Kuznetsov were voted in as starters, albeit on opposing sides, for the KHL's All-Star game coming up on Jan. 13, 2013 (russianmachineneverbreaks.com).
We have less to compare as far as Forsberg is concerned as he has had a few injury issues to deal with this season. But Forsberg is playing for Leksands IF of the Allsvenskan league in Sweden.
Through 16 games, he has seven goals and five assists. That is still very impressive and ranks fifth on the team—even though Forsberg has played in roughly ten games less than many of his teammates.
Nevertheless, it seems as though Evgeny Kuznetsov is the more NHL ready player at this point in time. Both Kuznetsov and Forsberg are immensely talented with enormous upside potential. But if I had to pick one right now, based on everything I have seen and studied, I believe Evgeny Kuznetsov is the prospect the Caps must hold on to.
With any luck at all, the Caps will hold on to both of them—and if that happens the rest of the NHL should be very afraid of the team the Washington Capitals will be in a couple of years.