Welcome to the 2014 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2014 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) and 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 2014 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 2014-15 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.
It was a tough year for the Capitals who missed the playoffs finishing just one spot out of the final wild card in the East. The failure meant that long-time general manager George McPhee, and head coach Adam Oates were both turfed at the end of the year, replaced by former assistant GM Brian MacLellan and Predators head coach Barry Trotz respectively.
There will also be a number of changes on the ice as trade deadline acquisition Jaroslav Halak was dealt to the Islanders, and free agent centre Mikhail Grabovski followed him there. Another deadline acquisition, Dustin Penner, remains a UFA. While Halak and Grabovski strengthen a division rival, the Capitals raided another Metropolitan Division club, signing two free agents from the Pittsburgh defence corps in Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. Meanwhile Justin Peters was brought in from Carolina to add goaltending depth.
2014 NHL Draft Picks Reviewed: Jakub Vrana
Graduates: Tom Wilson,
Top Washington Capitals Prospects
Top Prospect, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Centre/Wing
Born May 19 1992 — Chelyabinsk, RUS
Height 6.01 — Weight 198 — 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. It was quite the wait for the Capitals, who drafted Kuznetsov in 2010, and finally added him to their team after the KHL season this spring. He immediately proved why he was worth the wait with 9 points in 17 games to finish the year, as he adjusted to the North American sized ice surface. It was a good introduction for a player who promises so much more going forward.
Kuznetsov has all the talent in the world. He has the ideal size that teams crave down the middle in the modern NHL. 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 really improved his playmaking ability since he was drafted. 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 has more of a willingness to be the playmaker too, something he showed in his time with the Caps, 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.
Playing 17 games last year, Kuznetsov remains eligible for the Calder Trophy this year, and with it looking like he will step into the second line centre spot in Washington, will be one of the pre-season favorites to contend for the award.
Prospect #2: Andre Burakovsky, LW
Born February 9 1995 — Klagenfurt Austria
Height 6.02 — Weight 187 — Shoots Left
Drafted by the Washington Capitals in the 1st round, 23rd overall at the 2013 NHL Draft
Born in Austria, the son of a Swedish pro who was playing in the Austrian league at the time, Burakovsky plays his international hockey for Sweden and was part of the team that won Silver at the latest World Junior Championships. He came over to North America this year playing on a high octane team with the Erie Otters and quickly adjusted to the smaller ice putting up 41 goals in 57 games and 10 goals in 14 playoff games with the OHL club.
Burakovsky is an outstanding skater. He has the top end speed and acceleration to separate himself from opponents. When he hits top speed he can really fly. His edgework and agility are also well developed and combined with excellent stickhandling, this can make him a real dangerous player off the rush. He has the ability to go wide on defenders and cut to the net. He can also pull up and create space to shoot or make a pass to a teammate. In this way he’s highly skilled and highly unpredictable.
Burakovsky is also highly skilled in the offensive zone. I’ve already mentioned his excellent stickhandling, and he couples that with good passing skills and vision to be a real offensive threat. He is poised and patient working the puck on the side boards on the powerplay and looking for opportunities. He also is very good at finding open space and getting himself into good scoring areas when he doesn’t have the puck. Burakovsky’s greatest strength is as a goal scorer. He has a very good one timer, and an outstanding wrist shot and quick release. He also has the ability to drive the net, and the skilled, soft hands to score in tight. In short, he’s what teams look for in a skilled sniper.
Burakovsky could stand to improve his work along the boards, and will do so by bulking up and adding more upper body muscle. His defensive game could also use some work, especially in his positioning. These are things that can be coached and taught though, his ability to snipe is not.
Coming over to the CHL after his draft, the Capitals have options with Burakovsky, and while its doubtful he’s ready for the NHL yet, he could go back to Erie, or he could be sent to the Capitals AHL affiliate in Hershey this season as he is not subject to the normal CHL-NHL restrictions on 19 year olds.
Prospect #3 Madison Bowey, D
Born Apr 22 1995 — Winnipeg, MAN
Height 6.01 — Weight 194 — Shoots Right
Drafted by the Washington Capitals in the 2nd Round, 53rd overall at the 2013 NHL Draft
It was a huge breakout year for Madison Bowey who doubled his offensive output from the previous season and became one of the top offensive blueliners in the WHL. Coming from the defence factory of the Kelowna Rockets, Bowey looks to be the next in a long line of NHL defencemen that the junior program has produced.
Bowey’s game is defined by his great skating ability. His mobility is top notch, as he has very good top end speed, and acceleration; both in his forward and backwards skating. He has great pivots, excellent agility and very good edgework which allows him to cover a ton of ground out there. This skating ability allows Bowey to keep the play in front of him, as well to recover when he makes a mistake.
Bowey is an excellent puck mover with the ability to rush the puck or to make a strong first pass. He has a cannon of a slap shot from the point, and this can be seen in the 21 goals he scored this season. He needs to learn to keep it low and on net at times though. His passing and vision are decent and he can be a threat as a powerplay quarterback. One thing that really took his game to the next level was increased patience and poise with the puck this year. He seemed to rush plays a lot less, taking the time to find the smart play and move the puck more efficiently with his passing.
While the offence has broken out this season, its the combination of that along with Bowey’s defensive abilities that have him as a real top quality prospect. He has high hockey IQ, reads the play very well, and understands how to cut down passing and shooting lanes. Bowey has been willing to play a gritty game as he wins battles along the boards, and is a willing shot blocker, sacrificing himself for the good of the team. He’s raw though, and at times he can be a little bit over-aggressive and get himself out of position, either gambling to create a turnover, or looking for the big hit. These are areas he will need to curb going forward.
Bowey should be back in the WHL with Kelowna this year. He’s got some developping to do, but the Caps may have found a real good one here.
Super Sleeper: Riley Barber, RW
Born Feb 7 1994 — Livonia, MI
Height 5.11 — Weight 185 — Shoots Right
Drafted by Washington Capitals in the 6th round 6, 167th overall at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Riley Barber has had an outstanding year with 19 goals and 44 points in 38 games for the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks. This sixth round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2012 is looking like an NHL draft steal. He also played for Team USA at the World Juniors, captaining the team and scoring 4 goals and 6 points in 5 games.
Barber is an outstanding two way player with great instincts and hockey sense at both ends of the ice. He is very good on the cycle game, protecting the puck extremely well with strong balance, and being very hard to knock of the puck. He wins board battles despite his size and can really work the puck down low. He also is willing to get to the front of the net and battle for position for tip ins, rebounds and converting a pass from a teammate. Barber has good vision and can find open teammates in front of the net when he is cycling. Barber is a good skater, who has very good top end speed and acceleration, and also the strength and balance to fight through checks and get to the front of the net.
Barber’s defensive game is well developed. He works hard in his own end and provides good back pressure. He shows his grit on the backcheck and his smarts in cutting down lanes and causing turnovers. He is quick to transition the puck and can create odd-man counter attacks when he does create a turnover. Barber has become an important penalty killer for the Redhawks. He will likely spend at least one more season in the NCAA but could join the Hershey Bears after the college season is done in the spring.
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 do see some depth in Vrana, Burakovsky, Zach Sanford, and Barber. There are some decent prospects here, but outside of Kuznetsov no forward can really provide immediate help to the Capitals. On the defence Madison Bowey was a good pick, and Connor Carrick is looking like a steal, but again there is a lack of depth. Overall though the big club is still relatively young, so this shouldn’t be too much of a concern at this point. There is enough high-end talent to fill the spots necessary over the next few years while depth is built.
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