November 21, 2017

Washington Capitals free agency and post draft notes

CAPS SAY GOODBYE TO UFAS GREEN, FEHR AND MOST LIKELY WARD AS WELL

The NHL free agent signing period starts July 1, and the Washington Capitals find themselves in a potentially franchise-altering position. They have several unrestricted free agents that will leave sizable holes in the roster, several more restricted free agents that potentially move as well, and after last week’s draft, still need to find a right winger to play on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom.

First, the Caps free agents: Mike Green and Eric Fehr are both gone. The team has expressed that they will not make an offer to keep them in D.C and allow them to make their best deal on the open market. Green’s departure means that the only “Young Guns” left are 8 and 19, and that era is officially over, without so much as a Conference Finals to boast on.

Fehr’s utility as a center and winger, depth scoring, and defensive responsibility will be a tough combo to replace, though his injury history makes it easier to swallow to let him go.

As for the other significant UFA, the Caps have expressed interest in retaining Joel Ward, and they may very well make him an offer if they can work out the money. Ward has said he’d like to stay in D.C., but this is probably his “last best” contract and won’t settle for a hometown discount.

The Caps have several RFAs as well, most notably Braden Holtby. The goalie’s breakout year should garner him a multi-year deal worth $5 million annually, and the Caps first priority is to lock him up. Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov are RFAs as well. The team has acknowledged they have approached Kuznetsov’s representatives, but have not started negotiations with Johansson’s.

One development has already occurred. The team re-signed center Jay Beagle to a three-year, $5.25 million deal. It’s hard to imagine the offensively-challenged beagle commanding a $1.75M annual price tag, but the organization praises his hard work, defensive ability and face off prowess.

As for acquiring a running mate on the right side of the top line, the Caps will probably have to look on the trading market as opposed to a free agent. They will once again be tight against the cap despite allowing Green, Ward and Fehr walk, and the market for scoring right wingers isn’t particularly impressive.

At the recently concluded NHL Draft, the Caps surprisingly selected Russian goaltender Ilya Samsonov at the No. 22 overall pick, then traded up in the second round to pick add Swiss defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler at No. 57, before taking Regina Pats defensive teammates Connor Hobbs and Colby Williams in the fifth and sixth rounds.

The four picks are the fewest the Caps have ever made in a single draft.

All in all, the 2015-16 Caps could look significantly different than the team that got booted in the second round this season. GM Brian MacLellan will have his hands full the next few weeks bringing everything into shape.

Washington Capitals draft strategy underwhelming

The Washington Capitals entered the 2014 offseason with glaring deficiencies on their roster at center and defense. One big opportunity to address those deficiencies — for the long-term — is the NHL Draft, concluded over the weekend.

Unfortunately, and somewhat head-scratchingly, the Caps failed to address either position in the draft, opting once again to draft smallish wingers and trade away picks to move up five spots to draft an unheralded European goalie, who — not coincidentally — played with their first round pick on the Czech national team.

Considering new GM Brian MacLellan’s recent comments about “drafting your centers” and free agent Mikhail Grabovski’s contract demands being “prohibitive,” it’s puzzling that the new boss didn’t select a single true center in the draft.

Granted, players drafted over the weekend won’t contribute to NHL rosters for several seasons — if at all — it’s still hard to imagine the team not picking any true centermen or defensemen.

The Capitals new boss has made several public statements that have segments of the Caps fan base edgy. At his introductory press conference, he said he felt the organization needed a “refresh”, not a rebuild, comments echoed by the owner, Ted Leonsis.

He intimated that the current roster underperformed last season and that new coach Barry Trotz would most certainly be able to get more out of the players on hand than former coach Adam Oates.

Leading up to the draft, he revealed the team has no plans to buyout either Brooks Laich ($4.5 million) or Mike Green ($6.083 million) for the upcoming season. Then just prior to the draft, he made his remarks concerning Grabovski.

MacLellan then followed all that up with drafting six wingers (none bigger than 6’1″ or weighing more than 190 lbs.) and trading away a pick to move up five spots to select the eighth-ranked European goalie available (not eighth overall available) in the middle of the second round.

Later in the draft, they traded up again to select Nathan Walker, a winger that played in Hershey last season with middling statistics (5 g, 6 a) in 43 games. Granted, Walker’s story is great, as he tries to become the first Australian to play in the NHL, but his story is better than his prospect status.

But really, what says status quo more than drafting a player that played in your organization last season?

For a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years last season, so far there doesn’t seem to be much change in the air.

MacLellan certainly has plenty of time, and over $12 million in cap space, this offseason to address needs of the big league club. With the start of free agency opening July 1, we may get a better handle on how he’s leaning.

But from everything he’s said and what’s transpired thus far, Caps fans might want to prepare themselves for being underwhelmed.

Capitals draft Australian Nathan Walker in third round of NHL Draft

Nathan Walker, the Washington Capitals’ third round selection in the 2014 NHL Draft, is a familiar face to those who follow the team. Walker has been a part of the Capitals organization since signing with the Hershey Bears of the AHL in 2013 after attending Washington’s development camp.

The Capitals traded their 104th and 118th overall picks to the Rangers and moved up to 89th overall and selected Walker, who is the first Australian ever to be drafted into the NHL. Walker was born in Wales, but raised in Sydney, Australia. He moved to the Czech Republic at age 13 and became the youngest player in the Czech Extraliga league. He was listed as the top European skater in the 2012 NHL Draft, but was not selected that year.

In 43 games with the Bears, Walker scored 5 goals and had 6 assists and logged 40 penalty minutes.

Walker did not make the trip to Philadelphia, so he was not available to reporters for comment.

 

Washington Capitals trade up in second round, select goalie Vitek Vanecek

NHL Central Scouting has Czech goaltender Vitek Vanecek ranked as the eighth best European goalie in this year’s draft. The Capitals traded their 44th and 74th picks to Buffalo and moved up to 39th, where they selected Vanecek, a goaltender from the Czech Republic. The Capitals drafted Vanecek’s teammate, Jakub Vrana, 13th overall. Vrana and Vanecek were named two of the top 3 players on each team as selected by coaches of the Czech team at the U18 World Championship this year. Here’s what we know about Vanecek  (Hockeysfuture.com scouting report):

Vaněček is an athletic, 6-foot-1 and 181-pound goaltender who uses his reflexes, a quick glove and blocker to stone the opponents. He’s been able to make big saves all season long, relying on his reflexes and athleticism. On the other hand, he’s been suffering from inconsistency as he sometimes just has a bad day. Not only has Vaněček been an efficient netminder in junior hockey, but he’s also made the first couple of steps towards the professional leagues.

 

Capitals first round pick Vrana: “I want to be the best”

Jakub Vrana left the Czech Republic at age 15 to play in Sweden’s U18 league, and 3 years later, his parents made their first trip to the United States to see their son drafted into the NHL.

It was his mother’s first time in an airplane, and she was uneasy. “She was really nervous, but I tired to help her a little bit,” said Vrana.

Leaving home at such a young age was understandably difficult for him, but he understood it would pave the way for his career.

“I was there alone, in an apartment. I needed to learn a lot of stuff there, let’s say cooking, so I think that helped me a lot with life, too,” said Vrana. “Of course I miss my family, but the choice of why I go there is hockey, and I love hockey. I was really happy every day, with the practices and everything. “

Vrana says he doesn’t know many NHL players, but his playing style has been compared to Los Angeles Kings winger Marian Gaborik. He is confident he can put in the necessary work to make it to the NHL. “I just want to try to do everything to make the team,” he said.

“I think you can make better everything as a player, so I will work on everything. I want to be better at everything. I want to be the best.”

He’s not sure what it will take to make it in the NHL yet, though, since he hasn’t been tested.“I haven’t been in any camps yet, I haven’t tried it, so we will see. I will fight about my spot and do my best.”

The Capitals took Vrana 13th overall after trying to move up a couple picks to take defenseman Haydn Fleury, according to general manager Brian MacClellan. It obviously didn’t pan out, so Vrana was their choice.

There is a connection between the Capitals and Vrana, as well. While in the Czech Republic, Vrana played most of his young life at former Capitals defenseman Frantisek Kucera, who played 56 games with the franchise before being traded to Pittsburgh as part of the maligned Jaromir Jagr trade. Kucera’s brother, Vojtek is a Capitals scout.

“I know their one scout [Vojtek], his brother owned the rink where I played when I played in Czech, so I know him really well. It was nice to see him there, not only in the rink but every day I was in Czech.”

Regarded as a fast skater with a hard shot, Vrana considers himself a “finisher,” that is, he excels at scoring goals rather than setting them up. Though he’s struggled to find ice time with Linkoping this season (2 goals in 24 games), he said working on defense after practices has helped him improve in a weak area as well.

When asked about his emotional approach to the game, he quipped, “You never know when is going to be your last goal. You have to celebrate it.”

 

 

Washington Capitals select RW Jakub Vrana with 13th overall pick

With the 13th overall pick in Friday’s NHL Draft, the Washington Capitals selected forward Jakub Vrana. Vrana, 18 (5’11”, 180), has played for Linkoping in the Swedish Hockey League. Last season, he split between the senior team (2-1-3 in 24 games) and the junior club (14-11-25 in 24 games).

Vrana has represented his home Czech Republic in the past Under-18 World Championships and twice played for Czech at the World Junioors.

His NHL.com bio lists Marian Gaborik as his favorite NHL player.

Draftsite.com had this to say about the newest Caps’ forward.

Has been on the radar for several seasons as his skill level has always been evident. He was selected to the roster for the World Junior Under-18 Tournament in April. A dynamic player who despite his smaller size, is an impact player capable of getting dirty and competing against all comers. Displays great vision, IQ and feel for the attack. A flyer with first step quickness, who plays strong on the puck, and excellent puck-handling skills and lateral mobility. Will need to get even stronger but he has deceptive array of shots, and excellent set-up skills, and goes to the battle areas with reluctance at his present size and strength.

How much does Hershey’s success impact Capitals player development?

I realize the can of worms I’m opening here. The Hershey Bears are one of the most successful minor league hockey franchises in North America with a fan base whose passion has no rival. Year-in and year-out they reside at the top of the American Hockey League and have won 11 Calder Cups in the franchise’s 76 years of existence. In the nine years that they have been associated with the Washington Capitals, they’ve won three Cups alone.

This isn’t to knock or “blame” Hershey for the current woes of the Caps.

But are the long-term goals of both franchises aligned? Does Hershey’s ultimate pursuit of winning Calder Cups have a negative impact on player development in the Caps system?

I don’t know the answer, which is why I’m asking the question and exploring the idea.

As the Capitals continue to languish in some sort of NHL purgatory — perennial playoff qualifiers but tragically flawed enough to not challenge past the first or second round — and now in real jeopardy of wasting another Hart Trophy caliber season in the prime of Alex Ovechkin’s eventual Hall of Fame career (along with another fine campaign of his running mate, Nick Backstrom), we have to examine any possible contributing factor to the Caps lack of depth on the big league roster.

Certainly, long-term contracts doled out to players that aren’t earning them — notably Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Mike Green — is the major and overriding factor. But the fact that the Capitals are having trouble calling up players from the affiliates able contribute meaningfully at the NHL level is worth noting and exploring.

The harsh reality is that the Capitals haven’t had a player — other than Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green — drafted and developed by the organization since Ovechkin (2004), record a 20-goal season or be named an All-Star. That covers 15 first round and 12 second round picks in 11 years.

[Maybe it should be noted: of the 15 first round picks, only five were Canadian, and just five of the 12 second rounders were Canadian. Does that matter? I don’t know?]

That’s not to say the Caps aren’t drafting and developing NHL players. Since 2004, 21 of their 80 draft picks have played in the NHL, with the bulk of those becoming regular players in the league. But players like Marcus Johansson, Dmitry Orlov and even to an extent, John Carlson, haven’t become the players the Caps thought they were drafting.

Is that amateur scouting? Is it player development?

Every team has draft busts (see: Pokulok, Sasha; Finley, Joe; Gustafson, Anton), but the Caps seem particularly stricken with an inability to manage high-profile draft picks to an elite level in the NHL.

Meanwhile, the Caps continue to sign veteran AHLers as free agents during the off-seasons instead of fixing the NHL roster, which is filled with bloated contracts and perennial injury cases.

Look at last year’s free agent crop. Sure, Mikhail Grabovski has been a revelation, but the Caps and Grabovski were almost forced together by the hockey gods after Grabo was largely ignored on the open market. The other signings were two-way contracts, meant to stock Hershey’s roster with older, more experienced players.

Defensemen Tyson Strachan (28) and David Kolomatis (24), forward Matt Watkins (26) and goalie David Leggio (28) were all signed as free agents over the summer. I’m sure that none were considered moves to help out the big club, and except for Strachan, that’s been the case. We’ve seen a wave of minor leaguers make guest appearances for the Caps this season, and defenseman Julien Brouillette (27) is just the latest.

The previous summer, the Caps’ “big” free agent signings were Wojtek Wolski and Joey Crabb, with the rest slated for Hershey, including ECHL journeyman Steve Oleksy.

All of this ties together. A draft record spotted with big home runs (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green) and lots of strikeouts. A minor league affiliate with a rich tradition of competing for the Calder Cup. Bloated big league roster reducing free agent activity to reinforcing the affiliate with long-time minor league experienced players.

All of it contributes to what we see today: a Caps team unable to call up players to contribute at the NHL level when injuries thin a veteran, injury-prone roster.

How much of the Caps’ free agent and player development “strategy” is aimed at helping the Caps roster, how much is dictated by necessity and finances, and how much is dedicated to stocking Hershey with veteran AHLers for another Calder Cup run?

Washington Capitals select winger Andre Burakovsky with 23rd overall pick in NHL Draft

The Washington Capitals love their Swedes.

With the No. 23 pick in Sunday’s NHL Draft, the Caps selected left wing Andre Burakovsky, a 6’1″ 176 18-year-old from Malmo, Sweden. His father, Robert, was the 217th overall selection in 1985 and played 23 games for the Ottawa Senators in ’93-’94.

In 43 games for Malmo’s second division team last season, Burakovsky scored four goals and seven assists with eight PIMs. Playing for Sweden’s U-18 team, he had six goals and four assists in three games.

He’s known as a flashy and gifted offensive player, equipped with great hands and puck-handling ability and strong skating skills, as with many of the Swedish national players.

We’ll have more about the pick after Caps GM George McPhee meets with the media.

Washington Capitals add blue line prospects in later rounds of NHL Draft

Connor Carrick

Selected by the Washington Capitals in the fifth round (137th overall), Connor Carrick is the second Chicagoan to be added to the Caps organization in the 2012 draft. He also became the third US National Development Team player to head to Washington. In fact, he shared a billet family home with Austin Wuthrich during their time as teammates. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals go for grit in rounds 3 and 4 of NHL Draft

Chandler Stephenson

After trading their second round pick to the Dallas Stars as part of the Mike Ribeiro trade Friday, the Washington Capitals’ first draft pick Saturday was in the third round at No. 77. With it, the Capitals selected Chandler Stephenson, a forward from the Regina Pats. A former teammate of now-Hershey Bear Garrett Mitchell, who captained the WHL team in 2010-2011, Stephenson is the Capitals’ second consecutive 2012 pick who lists Boston Bruins bruiser Milan Lucic as his favorite player. [Read more…]

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