Breaking Down the Washington Capitals' Prospects at Forward

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIISeptember 6, 2013

Breaking Down the Washington Capitals' Prospects at Forward

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    If there is one area where the Washington Capitals appear to be loaded, it would be with respect to forwards.

    The Caps' top six consists of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, Mikhail Grabovski, Brooks Laich and Martin Erat.

    Marcus Johansson remains unsigned, but according to The Washington Post, the Caps are hoping to have MoJo signed before the start of training camp.

    If Johansson signs, then you can add him to the mix of other talented forwards such as Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr.

    Where things get even more intriguing is with respect to the prospects the Caps have at forward. The Caps have several excellent prospects who are scattered throughout the OHL, AHL, playing in college or playing overseas.

    Some of these prospects appear to be NHL-ready right now. Others are not quite there, but they are getting close.

    There are prospects who, once they arrive in D.C., could be real difference-makers.

    Then again, there is the best of the lot, and no one is really sure whether he will ever step on the ice for the Caps.

    In this article, we will take a look at the five best prospects the Caps have at forward and break down what they bring to the franchise.

Andre Burakovsky

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    Andre Burakovsky was the first-round draft pick of the Washington Capitals in the 2013 NHL draft, selected No. 23 overall.

    Burakovsky is a natural goal scorer. 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", 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 looked pretty good.

    Burakovsky is probably a year or two from being ready for the NHL. For a while, there was a lot of uncertainty over where Burakovsky was going to play this coming season.

    He 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.

    Initially, Burakovsky was less than thrilled with the idea of playing for Erie. However, he warmed to the idea, committed to play for Erie and then signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Caps

    Caps fans—along with the organization—should feel really good about Burakovsky playing in North America, where his progress can be more easily monitored. Getting him acclimated to the North American style of game will make his transition to the NHL go much more smoothly.

    As general manager George McPhee said to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post:

    We’re really delighted that he’s playing in Erie... What we wanted to do was get him playing with kids his own age because he’s been playing in a men’s league over in Europe and get him playing a lot so he’ll learn about the NHL game. We thought it was a great spot for him. He’s playing with this Connor McDavid kid, who is a terrific player, and it looks like they’ve got some really good chemistry already. He needs to learn to speak the language a little bit better. He speaks fairly well but he has a lot more to learn. And why not do it now?

    Burakovsky already has a great deal of natural talent and all the potential to be a real sniper for the Caps once he is ready to play.

    Now, he is going to get invaluable experience playing in North America with other young men his own age. This should help him to polish and improve his game and get him ready for the NHL that much sooner.

    The future for Burakovsky looks quite bright, and the Caps should benefit greatly from that.

Riley Barber

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    Of all the Capitals' prospects at forward, the one who has surprised many experts the most might just be Riley Barber.

    Barber was taken by the Caps in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL draft. At 6'0", 185 pounds, Barber has decent size even though he really has not added much in the way of muscle mass since he was drafted by the Caps.

    Still, Barber is willing to use that size to his advantage, and he truly seems to enjoy a more physical style of play. He is very tough to knock off the puck, and this will serve him well as he continues to climb up the depth chart as far as Caps future forwards are concerned.

    Barber also has good speed, even better hands, makes very smart decisions and is evolving into a top-rate passer.

    When he was drafted, not a whole lot was expected of Barber. Instead, he turned in a fantastic season playing for Miami University, was named CCHA Freshman of the Year and played on the top line for Team USA's gold medal-winning team at the World Junior Championships.

    The stunning rise of Barber was documented by Russianmachineneverbreaks.com. When you read the article, if you are anything like me, then you can't help but pull for this young man to make it to the NHL.

    Barber is smart enough to know he has improved but also that he still has a ways to go. As he told Russian Machine Never Breaks:

    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.

    It is hard to complain with logic like that.

    It's also refreshing to hear a 19-year-old be so level-headed about his game and his future. This was not lost on general manager George McPhee, who said of Barber:

    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.

    Barber's impressive play has not been lost on those who watch these sorts of matters. Barber is now ranked No. 5 in the Russian Machine Never Breaks prospects rankings.

    This is a young man to absolutely watch, and he could ultimately be a top-six forward if he continues to progress as he has been doing thus far.

    I expect to see him on the Caps' second or third line within the next two years.

Michael Latta

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    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 an article on Latta and why he was more than just some "other guy" thrown in to make the deal work.

    Latta can score, but that is not really where his strength—or potential value to the Caps—lies. Latta is a physical presence. He loves to lay the big hit, is good at the faceoff circle and will not hesitate to drop the gloves. 

    Latta seems tailor-made to be a third- or fourth-line center, and his chance might come sooner rather than later.

    Even though the Caps replaced Mike Ribeiro with Mikhail Grabovski, there is still a hole to try and fill due to the departure of Matt Hendricks. This should give Latta a great opportunity to become a full-time center for the Caps.

    Latta told Katie Carrera of The Washington Post as much in an interview he gave recently:

    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. He seems to be a bit more NHL ready than some of the other Caps prospects at forward.

    Latta played for the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL for the past few years and was 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.

    Russian Machine Never Breaks has Latta ranked as the seventh-best prospect in the organization, and they might be ranking him a bit low. He needs to balance out his game some and become a better scorer.

    But he has all the potential to be good checking center and to add a needed level of physicality to the Caps for seasons to come.

Tom Wilson

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    Of all the Capitals' prospects in this slideshow, Tom Wilson is the one who very well might be on the starting roster opening night 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 last season and was rather impressive.

    He now wants to earn a permanent role in D.C.

    Wilson's rise to prominence was recently recapped on NHL.com. As the article noted, 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.

    I have said this probably 100 times this offseason, but 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", 215 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, but they do exist, so Wilson needs to be ready for it.

    From a pure skill set, though, Wilson has so many things going for him, which as to be exciting for the Caps.

    He has size, and he knows how to use it. He plays a punishing and physical game. He also knows how to get under the skin of the opposition and can be a bit of an agitator. Sometimes, this results in him taking a bad penalty.

    Like Michael Latta, Wilson is not shy at all about dropping the gloves and duking it out. He plays with an intensity level that the Caps have lacked for several years now.

    And he is not too bad at all as far as skating, shooting, passing and scoring. All of this has him ranked No. 2 by Russian Machine Never Breaks as far as Capitals prospects are concerned.

    The brief experience Wilson got from playing in the playoffs last spring had to make him even more eager to earn a roster spot. He has all the tools necessary to do just that.

    I think he will make the Caps' final roster and will come out firing against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 1.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

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    The situation involving Evgeny Kuznetsov continues to evolve in ways that are equal parts exciting and infuriating.

    One can look at comments and recent developments and become convinced that Kuznetsov is on his way to D.C. sometime next year.

    Or it is very easy to surmise that he will never play in the NHL.

    A case in point occurred just a a few days ago. Several outlets reported that Kuznetsov would actually stay in the KHL—and never come to play for the Caps—if the right contract was offered to him.

    "If I am offered a contract here for five to seven years, then I would seriously think about it," Kuznetsov said in an interview with Sovietsky Sport (via SI.com). "A long-term contract guarantees stability, and I want to feel confident about the future."

    But in the same interview, Kuznetsov also said that he was serious about leaving the KHL and playing for the Caps after this season.

    And now, in very breaking news, Russian Machine Never Breaks is reporting that Kuznetsov has injured his shoulder, yet again, in just the second game of the KHL season.

    Feel like screaming yet? Me too.

    All this drama and the 26th overall pick of the 2010 NHL draft has still not set foot on the ice in North America. There is a growing concern he might never actually do so, and his recent comments have done nothing to quell that unease.

    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, understandably, got nervous they might not ever see the talented Russian center.

    Earlier this year, though, the hope of Caps fans was 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 this season or, quite possibly, not until the 2014-15 season.

    While there is 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? What is to say the league won't offer him that five- to seven-year deal laden with incentives, which would make it quite foolish for him to come to North America?

    Nothing, actually.

    Kuznetsov has all the potential and talent to be the Caps' second-line center. His stats last 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.

    If he showed up on the Caps' doorstep when training camp opened, he would likely immediately be the  third-line center.

    Kuznetsov is very fast, very skilled and plays with a high level of energy and enthusiasm. He has emerged as one of the best offensive threats in the KHL.

    The injuries are a concern, and he needs to work on his two-way game some. But there is no denying what an asset Kuznetsov would be—if he actually suits up for the Caps, of course. He would immediately add depth and explosiveness to a team that will probably need it.

    It is no surprise he is the No. 1-ranked prospect in the organization, according to Russian Machine Never Breaks.

    As it stands right now, though, whether or not Kuznetsov ever plays for the Caps remains a complete and utter mystery.