At one point a few years ago, the Washington Capitals not only were in the midst of a string of division titles, they also boasted one of the best collections of prospects in the NHL.
The parent club was winning, and Karl Alzner, John Carlson and a trio of young goaltenders -- Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby -- were on the precipice of becoming impact performers in the League. A combination of those players graduating off prospect lists and trades made to try to help the Capitals reach the elusive second half of the Stanley Cup Playoffs left the development assembly line a little thin for Washington.
A couple of shrewd draft picks and breakout season have this list of Capitals prospects back on the upswing. There are more potential impact players on the horizon than there were a year or two ago.
"That's how we feel," Washington general manager George McPhee told NHL.com. "When you're on a run like we are when you're consistently making the playoffs, when you get to the trade deadline it costs you assets to get pieces for your NHL club. You want to try to and help your club, so if there's something there, you go get it. We gave away a lot -- a lot of second-round picks and prospects -- but we've replenished it the last couple of years."
The Capitals have built toward six straight seasons reaching the postseason, including five division titles, with a succession of successful first-round picks. There are a few more of them on this list that could be key players as soon as 2013-14, but the two players in particular who make this group look a lot deeper are a pair of selections from late in the 2012 NHL Draft who surged forward in their development in forward Riley Barber and defenseman Connor Carrick.
“I was talking to one of the assistant coaches for the U.S. team at Lake Placid [for the World Junior Championship evaluation camp], and he said, 'I thought the two best players for our team were your two picks -- Carrick and Barber.' We like them a lot," McPhee said. "When you can get players like that in the rounds that we took them, that will really help the organization."
Here is a look at the top 10 prospects for the Capitals, according to NHL.com:
1. Evgeny Kuznetsov, C: Kuznetsov dropped on draft night in 2010, and the word was some teams were uncertain about when he would come to North America. The Capitals were happy to select him with the No. 26 pick, and he's become one of the top prospects in the sport.
Those concerns about his availability also have proven true. Kuznetsov is set to spend another season playing for his hometown team in the Kontinental Hockey League even though he probably was ready for regular NHL duty two years ago. He turned 21 in May.
"It's been hard to wait this past year, year-and-a-half," McPhee said. "We expected when we drafted him that he'd probably play two more years in Russia. He's 18 and 19 years old, so that's fine, and he had explained that to us when we were drafting him. Having him stay there for another two seasons has been difficult because we think he's an outstanding player and would make a difference here. It is hard to make such a good selection and not be able to watch him play."
There is no question about Kuznetsov's talent. He scored more goals in Russia's top division as an 18-year-old than Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Bure did. He's led his team in scoring the past two seasons. He dazzled for two years at the World Junior Championship with game-breaking skill and an abundance of personality and confidence.
Kuznetsov might have had a spot in Washington's top-six forwards last season. The range of possibilities is wide for Kuznetsov (6-foot, 172 pounds), but All-Star seasons aren't out of the question. This is the final season of his KHL contract, and he could make his NHL debut in 2013-14 once his season in Russia is over.
"He's indicated to us that he's definitely coming over, so we do see a light at the end of the tunnel, and he indicated that as recently as two weeks ago," McPhee said. "We're hoping we see him late this season and that he is as good as advertised."
2. Tom Wilson, RW: Wilson had pedestrian numbers in the Ontario Hockey League before Washington selected him with the No. 16 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. If that class were re-drafted today, Wilson might end up much higher. He had 23 goals and 58 points in 48 regular-season games for Plymouth last season, then had nine goals and 17 points in 12 playoff games.
The 6-4, 210-pound forward made his American Hockey League debut during the Calder Cup Playoffs, then joined the Capitals and made his NHL debut during the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the age of 19. Wilson has a chance to stick in the NHL with a good showing in training camp.
"He's a really competitive kid," McPhee said. "We just thought he'd be a guy who would eventually play in your top six and could play the game any way you want him to. He can score, kill penalties, play on the power play, and be physical.
"After we drafted him and talking to his parents, his mother said something about him that has always stuck with me. She said he's been so determined to be a hockey player that he's a kid who is never, ever going to give up on anything. You see that when he plays. He works as hard as a guy can work."
3. Andre Burakovsky, LW: He was Washington's first-round pick in the 2013 draft (No. 23) after playing his first full season for Malmo in the Swedish second division. The 6-1, 178-pound forward also played for Sweden at the Ivan Hlinka tournament and the 2013 World Under-18 Championship, scoring seven goals in 10 combined games.
Burakovsky, 18, has committed to playing for the Erie Otters in the OHL in 2013-14 and likely will represent Sweden at the WJC.
"[Burakovsky] was outstanding at [the WJC camp in] Lake Placid, I was told," McPhee said. "Not by our scouts, but I asked a guy who was coaching one of the other teams how our guy was doing. He said I don't know the names of the Swedish players but they had a guy, No. 18, who was the best player at the tournament. I went home that day and looked it up on the Internet and it was him. He's a really, really talented player."
4. Riley Barber, RW: Barber is a Pittsburgh native who had the chance to be selected in his hometown at the 2012 draft. He ended up waiting until the 167th pick before the Capitals nabbed him in the sixth round, and at this point it looks like the steal of the draft (though the next player on this list would have something to say about that).
Barber had 15 goals and 39 points at Miami University to lead the nation in scoring among freshmen, and had six points in seven games collecting a gold medal at the 2013 WJC. The 19-year-old is likely going to be a top-line player for the United States at the 2014 tournament.
"It was always in there," McPhee said of Barber (6-0, 194). "Our scouts really liked him. He was under the radar at the draft, and it was a heck of a pick for us. He's really got a chance to play [in the NHL]."
5. Connor Carrick, D: Carrick was drafted 30 picks before Barber (No. 137), and he also had a breakout season in 2012-13. He finished with 12 goals and 44 points for Plymouth in the regular season then had two goals and 18 points in 15 OHL playoff games.
At 5-11, 185, his offensive skills will have to make up for his lack of size. The 19-year-old did not play for the United States in the WJC last season but he's a near-lock for the 2014 tournament.
"Carrick is a real mature player, a smart player, physically strong player," McPhee said. "He reminds me a lot of Brian Rafalski. If things keep going in the right direction for him, he's got a chance to play and play for a long time."
6. Philipp Grubauer, G: The Capitals have had success developing goaltenders lately (Varlamov, Neuvirth, Holtby), and Grubauer could be next in line. A fourth-round pick (No. 112) in 2010, the 21-year-old started the 2012-13 season in the ECHL because Holtby was playing with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League during the lockout.
Grubauer (6-1, 184) played 28 games with the Bears and had a 2.25 goals-against average and .919 save percentage, and made two appearances for Washington. The Capitals have had some luck with goaltenders who have represented Germany in international play. Olie Kolzig, the organization's associate goaltender coach, holds about every franchise record for the position and backstopped the team to its only Stanley Cup Final appearance.
"[Grubauer is] our No. 1 guy in Hershey and has tremendous upside," McPhee said. "He will be an NHL goalie. He'll probably get some games this year if one of the other guys gets banged up."
7. Madison Bowey, D: Washington's first of two second-round picks in June, Bowey, the 53rd selection, had 12 goals and 34 points in 80 games in the regular season and playoffs for Kelowna in the Western Hockey League in 2012-13. The 6-1, 195-pound defenseman represented Canada at the Ivan Hlinka tournament and had a nice showing at the World U-18 tournament (two goals and four points in seven games). The 18-year-old likely will spend another season in the WHL.
8. Michael Latta, C: The Capitals lost a player who likely would be No. 2 on this list when they traded 2012 first-round pick Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators for Martin Erat and Latta, the 72nd pick in the 2009 draft. Though acquiring Erat was the primary reason for the deal, Latta, 22, could end up having a nice NHL career as a bottom-six forward.
Latta (6-foot, 209) had 10 goals, 38 points and 198 penalty minutes in 76 AHL games last season. He had at least 33 goals, 73 points and 157 penalty minutes in each of his final two seasons in the OHL.
"He's one of those players you like because he's reliable and plays the game hard," McPhee said. "He's got some bite to him. You have to have the right mix, and that's why you like to have players like him. He's another guy who will get a long look in training camp."
9. Nate Schmidt, D: The defenseman is another example of how the Capitals have been active in the undrafted NCAA free agent market, as well as signing players who have participated in their summer development camp. Jay Beagle was a summer camper, and Cameron Schilling made his NHL debut last season after being a college free-agent signing in 2012.
Schmidt, listed at 6-foot, 194 pounds, had 73 points in his final two seasons at the University of Minnesota, and had six points in 13 games at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs with Hershey.
"We had him at our summer camp and he had great wheels and processed the game well," McPhee said of the 22-year-old. "Then we watched him at Minnesota this year, and not unlike a guy like Jack Hillen, he's got a chance to play for us. He thinks the game well. He's really quick, and as we all know the game's gotten so fast the last five years and speed is critical."
10. Stanislav Galiev, RW: Galiev had 16 goals and 34 points in 17 playoff games for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2011-12, but the 2010 third-round pick (No. 83) scuffled in his first taste of AHL hockey last season. The 6-2, 187-pound forward had one point in 17 games and was demoted to Reading of the ECHL.
Galiev had 27 goals and 58 points in 56 regular-season and playoff games for the Royals. The 21-year-old is a skilled player but will have to prove he can handle the AHL in his second try this season.
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer
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