Ranking the Top 5 Under-the-Radar Prospects for Washington Capitals
One of the keys to long-term success in the NHL is successfully identifying and acquiring prospects that the majority of the league's other 29 clubs have overlooked.
It was evident with the Detroit Red Wings, who won four Stanley Cups between 1997 and 2008 with late-round gems such as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen and many more leading the way.
And most recently, the Los Angeles Kings captured their second Stanley Cup in three years with a roster that included key cogs Jonathan Quick, Alec Martinez, Slava Voynov, Tyler Toffoli and Jake Muzzin, who all fell outside of Round 1 in their respective draft classes.
For a team like the Washington Capitals, who have a core of expensive veterans, getting good value on first-rounders is important, but the roster will be in much better shape if some of the organization's less-heralded youngsters develop into NHL regulars.
Heading into 2013-14, the Caps have a pair of blue-chippers in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky up front, but beyond them, there are a number of promising prospects to keep an eye on going forward.
With that in mind, here's a look at Washington's five most underrated prospects.
5. Riley Barber
The only reason Riley Barber finds himself so low on this list is because it's difficult to label a player that's accomplished so much over the last two years as underrated.
Nonetheless, as a sixth-rounder in 2012, Barber arrived at Miami without the burden of NHL expectations, but his first two seasons of NCAA hockey have been nothing short of sensational. As a freshman, Barber racked up 39 points in 40 games, in addition to playing a key role on the United States' World Junior Championship squad.
After returning for his sophomore year, Barber bettered his totals slightly to 44 points, including a team-high 19 goals, and captained the U.S. at the World Juniors, so there's some wonder whether he's outgrown the collegiate level.
But with the Capitals deep up front, particularly among the top nine, Barber's development should be aided by another year with the RedHawks, especially if both Kuznetsov and Burakovsky make the cut in 2014-15.
4. Nate Schmidt
After signing with the Caps in 2013, Nate Schmidt endured an up-and-down rookie campaign that saw him bounce between Washington and Hershey for much of the season.
Despite racking up a combined 73 points in 83 games during his sophomore and junior years at perennial college hockey powerhouse Minnesota, not much was expected of Schmidt heading into 2013-14.
But at least during the earlier stages of the season, Schmidt was a staple on the Capitals blue line, and as CSN Washington's Chuck Gormley pointed out, the team was 16-9-3 when he was in the lineup, which would suggest that Adam Oates' club was more successful with Schmidt than without him.
Obviously, Schmidt's ice time dwindled during the latter part of his stint with the Caps, but with his offensive abilities and mobility, the St. Cloud, Minnesota, native should receive at least a call-up in 2014-15.
3. Christian Djoos
With Burakovsky and former Washington first-rounder Filip Forsberg leading the way offensively, don't feel bad if you didn't take note of defenseman Christian Djoos on Sweden's 2014 World Junior squad.
But if you did, you'd have seen a poised and intelligent rearguard that has the hockey sense and skill to play at the next level. 2013-14 was a breakout season for the former seventh-rounder, with Djoos becoming a fixture with storied Swedish power Brynas (which is also Nicklas Backstrom's former club), and the 20-year-old finished the year by notching a goal and three points in five postseason games.
At the WJC, Djoos was second among all Swedish defensemen in points and played a prominent role on the power play, which is something the Caps will hope to see him do more of with Brynas in 2014-15.
Given his diminutive frame, Djoos will require time to transition to the more physical North American style of play, but at least two years since his draft, the one-time No. 195 overall pick looks like a potential steal for the Caps.
2. Chris Brown
Back when NHL.com announced the deal that sent disgruntled winger Marty Erat to the Coyotes in March, there was little to no excitement surrounding the arrival of winger Chris Brown, who came to D.C. with no NHL points in 11 games.
But after seeing Brown bring energy and aggression to the lineup during his six-game cameo with the Caps, the team may have a long-term gem in the former University of Michigan standout.
With far more ice time than he ever received under Dave Tippett, Brown managed a goal and an assist as a Capital, and developed decent chemistry with Dustin Penner and Tom Wilson during the team's three-game trip to California in March.
And after consecutive 40-point campaigns in the AHL, the former second-rounder should be among the first Brian MacLellan calls up from Hershey when injuries arise on the wing.
Dobber Sports has Brown rated as the team's No. 6 prospect in terms of long-term fantasy value, because after leading all rookies in goals at the AHL level in 2012-13, it may only be a matter of time before the power forward finds his groove with the Caps.
1. Michael Latta
This may seem like an odd choice for Washington's most underrated prospect, but Michael Latta appears to have all the tools to be a valuable contributor for Barry Trotz and the Caps in the near future.
Drafted in Round 3 while Trotz was running the bench in Nashville back in 2009, Latta has climbed the hockey ladder, going from a 34-goal, 89-point performance with Guelph of the OHL in 2010-11, to back-to-back seasons of at least 34 points at the AHL level.
That may not sound like much (though Latta's 34 points in 52 games ranked him third among all Hershey Bears regulars in points per game), but as a 5'11" center that projects to be a bottom-six forward, his grit, snarl and physicality would be welcome additions to Washington's lineup.
And, per HockeyAnalysis.com, advanced statistics indicate that Latta's offensive impact is greater than his four points in 17 appearances with the Caps in 2013-14 would suggest at first glance. In points per 60 minutes of play, Latta ranked first among all Washington skaters last season, and while it's a small sample size, it's enough to wonder what he'd be capable of if given an extended look.
For the time being, Jay Beagle is a virtual lock to occupy the role of center on Washington's fourth line, but Latta's advantage in skill and reputation as an agitator should help him force his way into the mix by the end of 2014-15.
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