Progress Report on Washington Capitals' Top 5 Prospects
Based on comments recently made by Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee, it seems that the Caps' hopes for the 2013-14 season will hinge to a great extent on the youth within the organization.
As is often the case, this could be both a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, the Capitals have some very good prospects within the organization. Many of these players, given a reasonable opportunity, might prove to be the missing pieces of the Stanley Cup puzzle that has frustrated and eluded the Caps for so many years.
On the other hand, these prospects are just that—prospects. None have proven themselves yet at the NHL level. They might be great. Then again, they could be busts.
With the season opener just a bit over two months away (Oct. 1 at the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks), the Caps must shift into a different sort of mode as they prepare for the 2013-14 season.
In reality, there has been a lot going on around the NHL the past few weeks. There was the 2013 NHL draft, the beginning of free agency and the frenzy associated with both of those events.
On top of that came the recent announcement that NHL players would again participate in the Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, the league's re-aligned divisions received new names.
As for the Caps and their youthful core of prospects, the team's annual development camp recently wrapped up with several prospects making a lasting impression on the Caps' coaching staff.
With so much going on, it is time to get caught up with what is going on with the Caps' top five prospects.
5. Andre Burakovsky
Andre Burakovsky was the first-round draft pick of the Washington Capitals in the 2013 NHL draft, selected No. 23 overall.
The Caps selected a player who looks to be a natural goal scorer in Burakovsky. He is the type of player who commands the puck and wants the puck on his stick. He is a very strong skater and is rather intelligent as far as his on-ice game is concerned.
He can be very creative with the puck, but at just 6'1" and 177 pounds, Burakovsky is obviously going to have to add some size and muscle if he plans on making an impact in D.C.
Like many of the Caps' prospects, Burakovsky attended the Caps' development camp and based on the team's video highlights coming out of camp, Burakovsky looked pretty good.
According to Russianmachineneverbreaks.com, Burakovsky made friends with another of the Caps' top prospects in fellow first-round selection, Tom Wilson. It is great that Wilson showed Burakovsky the ropes and began the process of Americanizing him to a certain extent.
Burakovsky is probably a year or two from being ready for the NHL. The bigger issue with him right now is exactly where he will be playing this season.
Burakovsky was unable to reach an agreement on a deal with the Malmo Redhawks of the Swedish league Allsvenskan, and was then selected fifth overall in a CHL import draft by the OHL’s Erie Otters.
While many Caps' fans—along with many in the organization—might feel good about the idea of Burakovsky playing in North America where his progress could be more easily monitored, it does not sound like Burakovsky is not too thrilled with that idea, according to Russian Machine Never Breaks.
Burakovsky has options. He can go back to Sweden and play for a different team or possibly for Malmo again. He could also play for any other European team or he could end up playing for the Otters after all.
While a return to Sweden seems likely, it is important that Burakovsky makes a decision relatively quickly. His continued commitment and improvement to getting ready for the NHL as soon as possible is something of utmost importance to both the Caps and to Burakovsky.
4. Riley Barber
Of all the Capitals' prospects, the one who has surprised many experts the most might just be Riley Barber.
This is a great organization and George McPhee and Adam Oates and Steve Richmond are gonna tell me when I can and when I can’t come up. I really respect their decision, and I love hearing from them, and I try not to look too far into [the future] because you still have got to show it on the ice. I need faster acceleration and more speed. You can always work on your speed. That’s what gets you the opportunities to score. If you don’t have good feet, you don’t get to the space to score so I’m just gonna keep working on my skating, keep working on my quickness, and definitely try and make my shot harder.
He seems to be better than last year and last year was better than before we drafted him. He’s heavier and he’s a real opportunist. He’s real smart away from the puck, and then smart when he gets the puck and can score goals. We like to have guys like that. He’s got a chance to be a national leaguer.
3. Michael Latta
It is somewhat easy to refer to Michael Latta as "the other guy" who came over to Washington when the Caps traded Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Martin Erat.
It is true that Erat was the high-profile name, but Latta was not just some guy thrown in there to make the Caps feel better about the deal.
Latta is a fine player who could very well contribute to the Caps earlier than expected.
When the Forsberg-for-Erat trade went down, Russianmachineneverbreaks.com ran a nice article on Latta and why he was more than just some "other guy" thrown in to make the deal work.
Latta can score and play a very physical style of game. He can also play center, and with Mike Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks both gone, Latta will get a glorious opportunity to become a full-time center for the Caps.
Latta told Katie Carrera of The Washington Post that the young center showed that he recognizes the unique opportunity he has:
As a young, right-handed centerman that kind of plays a role similar to Hendricks, I see him leave and I’m sure Caps fans are upset and I heard nothing but good things about him, but he leaves and maybe that opens up a spot for me. You never know. It’s nice for myself, personally and selfishly that he’s gone, so we’ll see. Hopefully I can do what he did and earn a spot here.
While Latta making the opening-day roster might be a long shot, we might very well see him at some point this season.
Latta is known more for his physical reputation, but he can score too. Latta has played for the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL for the past few years and he has been solid. In 112 games with the Admirals, Latta scored 23 goals, added 39 assists and had 284 penalty minutes.
Looking at what Latta did after he was traded to the Caps, it has to give you hope. He played in 14 games for Hershey, was the third-line center and scored three goals. The general consensus was that he was a hard worker, very determined and eager to make a name for himself.
Latta also participated in the Caps' development camp and it seems he is getting closer to being NHL ready.
I suspect that even though a decision on Latta won't be made until after training camp in September, George McPhee has to be watching him closely and, if the opportunity presents itself, look for a possible call-up for Latta sometime this season.
2. Tom Wilson
Of all the Capitals' prospects in this slideshow, Tom Wilson is the one who Caps' fans should be most excited about.
The reasons for this are simple. Wilson is the only one listed with any actual NHL experience and is the only one who might very well be in Washington's starting lineup on Oct. 1 in Chicago.
Wilson, the No. 16 overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft, played in three games against the New York Rangers in the playoffs and was rather impressive.
He now wants to earn a permanent role in D.C.
Wilson recently recapped his rise on NHL.com to perhaps becoming a full-time member of the Caps. This little snippet from that article demonstrates that, perhaps, Wilson has simply outgrown the OHL—where he dominated a year ago—and is ready to take a major next step:
A case can be made that the 6-foot-4, 217-pound power forward has outgrown the OHL, where in 60 games last season (regular season and playoffs), Wilson had 32 goals, 75 points and 145 penalty minutes. He was voted the best body checker in the OHL Western Conference for the second straight season in a coaches' poll.
There is nothing more Wilson can gain from playing in the OHL and he is too young to play in the AHL. It's D.C. or bust for him in many ways.
This reality was not lost on Wilson, head coach Adam Oates or the Caps. Wilson's recent participation at development camp demonstrated this.
Katie Carrera of The Washington Post recapped the tactics that Oates employed at the development camp to try and accelerate Wilson's readiness for a possible NHL gig.
This included matching Wilson up against bigger defensemen to make sure he was being worked hard enough so that Wilson was not just going to rely on his size and strength as a shortcut of sorts.
This was a great move by Oates. At 6'4" and 217 pounds, Wilson is a beast and there are very few players in the OHL who can match his size. It would be easy for Wilson to get a bit lazy by just out-muscling the opposition—something he did a lot of in the OHL last season.
NHL players who can match up too well with Wilson don't exactly grow on trees.
Whatever happens with Wilson between now and Oct. 1, Oates is going to make him work for it.
That alone might make Wilson a very effective—and very dangerous player—if he makes the Caps' final roster.
I think he will make the Caps' final roster and he will come out firing against the defending champions on Oct. 1.
1. Evgeny Kuznetsov
The situation involving Evgeny Kuznetsov has turned into a seemingly annual experiment in frustration for the Capitals.
The 26th overall pick of the 2010 NHL draft has still not stepped foot on the ice in North America and there is a growing concern he might never actually do so—at least not while wearing a Capitals' jersey.
Those who have been following the Kuznetsov saga since he was drafted in 2010 are familiar with the chronology and the frustration.
In the early part of 2012, Kuznetsov announced he would be staying in Russia for two more seasons. This meant his arrival in D.C. would not happen until 2014 and many Caps' fans and faithful got understandably nervous they might not ever see the talented Russian center.
Earlier this year though, the hope of Caps' fans were buoyed when Kuznetsov stated that he would come and play for the Caps after the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
Before any of us could really feel too good about things though, the saga took a turn for the worse again.
As reported by NBC Sports Pro Hockey Talk, general manager George McPhee indicated that he does not expect Kuznetsov to come to the Caps until late next season and, quite possibly, not until the 2014-15 season.
While there a chance we see Kuznetsov after the Olympics, if he is really getting millions of dollars to play at home—tax free, no less—we might not ever see the Capitals' projected center of the future.
McPhee told Russianmachineneverbreaks.com that he believes the contract Kuznetsov was given was worth $10 million, with much of that being paid to him under the table.
So what's to say the KHL won't offer Kuznetsov something even more lucrative and equally tax-free when this current deal expires?
Kuznetsov has all the potential and talent to be the Caps' second-line center. His stats this past season for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL demonstrate this. He had 19 goals and 25 assists in 51 games during the regular season.
In 25 playoff games, Kuznetsov had five goals and six assists, including one in the KHL Championship where Traktor fell in six games to Dynamo Moscow.
At worst, he would be the Caps' third-line center were he to arrive in Washington when training camp starts.
There is no question that this young man could help the Caps tremendously if he actually plays for them. He immediately adds depth and explosiveness to a team that will probably need it.
As it stands right now though, don't expect much news on the Kuznetsov front until after the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
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