Welcome to Today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2013 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2013 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2013-14 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances (especially due to the fact that the latest NHL season was only 48 games).
After a the first six weeks of the short 48 game season, the Washington Capitals were in trouble. They were sitting in last place and their star player Alex Ovechkin was taking criticism on all sides for no longer being the threat he was earlier in his career. New head coach Adam Oates was on the hot seat, and the Capitals seemed poised to miss out on the playoff dance. Then an amazing turnaround happened. The Capitals started clicking, Oates’ free flowing offensive system started working, Ovechkin found his mojo, and the Capitals went on a nice second half run. The Capitals would win the Southeast Division in the final year of its existence, Alex Ovechkin would take home the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and Adam Oates would earn the respect of fans, media, and colleagues for his coaching work. Unfortunately the story doesn’t have a happy ending, as the Capitals would lose in 7 games to the New York Rangers. It was the second year in a row that the Caps saw their season fall at the hands of the Rangers, and now entering the Metropolitan Division, they most find a way to overcome this nemesis, as well as moving back into a division with old Patrick Division foes they haven’t seen in recent division play including the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, and New Jersey Devils. Fellow Southeast rival the Carolina Hurricane, and former Western Conference opponent the Columbus Blue Jackets also join the new division.
Top Prospect, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Centre/Wing
Born May 19 1992 — Chelyabinsk, RUS
Height 6.03 — Weight 187 — Shoots Left
Selected by the Washington Capitals in round 1, #26 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Evgeny Kuznetsov is an absolute stud prospect. At the 2012 World Junior Championships, his 13 points in 7 games led the tournament in scoring, and his hat-trick against Team Canada in the semi final helped propel Russia to the Gold Medal game. It would be the second straight Gold Medal game for Kuznetsov who was also on the 2011 World Junior Champions. This past season Kuzentsov scored 44 points in 51 games in the KHL, good enough for 6th in KHL scoring. His 19 goals had him in a tie for 15th place among KHL players. He led Traktor Chelyabinsk in scoring, and he did this all as a 20 year old. He’d go on to play in the IIHF Men’s World Championship for the 2nd time.
Kuznetsov has all the talent in the world. At 6’3, he has the ideal size that teams crave down the middle in the modern NHL. He could stand to bulk up a little, but there will be time for that. He’s an outstanding skater, with great top end speed, excellent acceleration and changes of pace, super edgework and agility, and is strong and balanced on his skates. Combine that skating ability with his silky smooth hands, wide variety of creative moves, a fearlessness to try anything, and the ability to do all this with the puck while skating at top speed, and you have a player who is an absolute nightmare to defend off the rush. Add a lethal wrist shot and release, and its almost not fair to defenders and goalies alike. Kuznetsov has spent the season working on his playmaking ability. He has great passing skills and can make crisp hard passes through the tiniest of openings when he wants to; however setting up teammates is something he just didn’t do often enough in the past. He’s already a sniper, and as he hads more of a willingness to be the playmaker too, something he showed this season, he will keep defenders guessing and this dual threat could help to make him into an NHL superstar.
Kuznetsov’s defensive game is a bit of a work in progress. He understands defensive zone hockey and positioning and attempts to keep his man to the outside when defending down low on the cycle, but he needs more strength to make it happen consistently. He is willing to engage in battles for pucks on the boards, but again, just needs more physical strength to do so effectively. Kuznetsov has good instincts and anticipation which helps him to cause turnovers and transition from defence to forward.
Kuznetsov will be entering the final year of his two-year deal with Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL, and as such will again leave the Capitals wishing that he was at their training camp. He has said that he will come to North America after the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but its almost assured that he will have to finish the season with Traktor first. The Caps will love to add him as soon as possible, whether that means late in the year, or for 2014 training camp. He’s NHL ready now, and would be a Calder Trophy candidate should he be joining the Caps roster. Kuznetsov has all the talent to be a superstar forward, and might be the best non-NHL player in the world right now. If he arrives for 2014 training camp he will be just 22-years-old, plenty of time for him to be Washington’s next Russian superstar and help lead the Capitals offence with Ovechkin and Backstrom.
Top Prospect #2, Tom Wilson, Right Wing
Born Mar 29 1994 — Toronto, ONT
Height 6.04 — Weight 210 — Shoots Right
Drafted 16th Overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
There were some questions about Wilson’s offensive potential in his draft year, as he scored just 9 goals in 49 OHL games, before exploding in the playoffs. He started to answer some of those questions with 58 points in 48 games for Plymouth, and 17 points in 12 playoff games. However he was also the 4th highest scorer on his junior team in both the Regular Season and Playoff, and so the question should be asked if he benefited from playing big ice time with offensively talented players, and taking advantage of the huge size advantage he has in junior, or if he has true offensive potential at the pro level. He answered some of the questions this year, and made great progress, however there are still many remain about his ultimate upside.
Wilson has the size that NHL teams drool over. His skating stride is unconventional, but it works for him and he generates very good speed for a big man. He also has decent agility, especially for a guy his size. He does however need to be stronger on his skates, and to work on his edgework going forward.
Wilson is a punishing body checker who loves to dish it out and absolutely hammers defencemen on the forecheck. He can be scary in the neutral zone as well, as Wilson absolutely loves catching an opposing player with their head down and laying him out. He is no doubt one of the most feared hitters in the OHL and someone that all players need to be aware of when he is on the ice. He also hasn’t been afraid to drop the gloves and defend a teammate, or stick up for himself.
There are however questions about Wilson’s game, especially in the offensive end of the rink. His wrist shot is fairly hard, and has good accuracy. He improved his release this year, however it still needs to be quicker to beat professional goalies consistently. His stickhandling, is a work in progress as are his hands in tight to the goal. At the OHL level Wilson is able to manhandle defencemen infornt of the net. However he will need to rely on more than just size and strength at the AHL and NHL levels as he won’t have the same pure strength mismatches playing against bigger and stronger pro players, instead of teenagers. Wilson must learn to properly utilize positioning and leverage going forward in order to continue to be successful infront of the net. His offensive ceiling is the biggest question mark. Could he become a top 6 player in the NHL? Is he destined for a bottom 6 role? Exactly how much he can improve these aspects of his game will determine this.
Wilson is a hard worker, and this certainly helps in the defensive end of the rink. He’s a conscientious backchecker and continues his very physical game in his own end of the rink. He is strong on board battles and willing to throw a big check. His one issue is that this sometimes leads to a lack of discipline, either through getting himself out of position trying to make the big hit, or in taking an ill-timed trip to the penalty box.
Wilson is a safe bet to make the NHL one day, his size, skating ability, robust physical game, and toughness, will make him a good bet to develop into a third line contributor at minimum. The big question is if Wilson has the offensive game to be more than a third liner, and potentially take a spot in the Capitals top 6. In 2013-14 he is likely not ready for full-time NHL duty, so expect to see him back in junior hockey.
Super Sleeper Prospect, Philipp Grubauer, Goalie
Born Nov 25 1991 — Rosenheim, Germany
Height 6.01 — Weight 185 – Shoots Left — Catches Left
Drafted by Washington Capitals in round 4 #112 overall, at 2010 NHL Entry Draft
The Capitals have had incredible success developing young goaltenders in recent years. Semyon Varlamov, Michael Neuvirth, and Braden Holtby have all come out of the capitals system in recent years, which is an incredible success rate for goaltending development by any time. Next up is 2010 draftee Philipp Grubauer, and after two solid professional seasons, the goalie (who will not turn 22 until November) seems to be next in line to graduate from the Capitals goalie factory.
Grubauer started the year in the ECHL, as the NHL lockout forced Holtby into the AHL, and the Caps wanted to ensure he got on the ice. After putting up a stellar record and a .912 save percentage, the lockout ended and Holtby went to the NHL and so Grubauer came up to the AHL. At a higher level he was even better putting up a .919 save percentage. He even got in two NHL games this year when injuries hit in Washington.
At 6’1″ tall, Grubauer has decent NHL size. His ability to play his angles, and his tendency to come out and challenge shooters makes him appear even bigger in the net, and gives opponents little to shoot at. Grubauer has extremely quick legs which take away the bottom of the net effectively. He also has a good glove hand and it is tough to beat him upstairs to that side of the net. Having a cool and calm demeanor is another of Grubauer’s strengths as he recovers well from goals against (Even the odd bad one, which every goalie has) and does not allow things to spiral out of control once he is beaten for one goal.
There are some elements of Grubauer’s game that need to be improved though. Like many young goalies he does need a little work on his rebound control, though this has been something we’ve seen Washington be able to develop in their youngsters. He also needs to get better on the blocker side, as he can get beaten upstairs there. He also needs to improve his backwards skating to avoid dekes when he is out so far from his crease.
With Holtby and Neuvirth manning the Capitals crease, and with Grubauer still needing more development, expect him to spend most of the year in the AHL. He should be available if injuries hit, but in a year or two he should be pushing the Capitals duo and forcing management into a decision, as he will add a third NHL-ready goaltender to the mix in the coming years.
In Kuznetsov the Capitals have an outstanding top end talent. However the depth of the system is lacking. There is little at Centre beyond Kuznetsov. On the wings we see Wilson, 2013 draftees Burakovsky and Sanford, and Riley Barber, a project playing NCAA hockey, and Stanislav Galiev who really struggled in his first pro season and couldn’t adjust to the AHL, so he is in the ECHL. There are some decent prospects here, but no forward can really provide immediate help to the Capitals. They are all more long term prospects. On the defence Tom Kundratek will push for a full-time NHL spot this season and Madison Bowey was a good pick, but again there is a lack of depth. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, the reason for the Capitals lack of depth is the number of young players who have surpassed my 50 game limit and are no longer considered prospects. The Caps have a number of good young players like Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom, Dmitri Orlov, Marcus Johansson, Braden Holtby and others making impacts at the NHL level. When that happens, and so many young players make the big squad early, its not a bad thing for the NHL team, but it makes the prospect pool lack depth as a result. Caps fans shouldn’t be too concerned about the future of the team, even if they land a lower spot in the final team rankings.
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