The Next Generation
“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
-- Alexander Graham Bell
Replace the word “door” with the word “window,” and you might be describing where Capitals Nation stands as training camp moves along. The two-year window to win a Stanley Cup as it was described by Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan has come and gone, slammed shut in each year by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
With the window closing on that Capitals team for good, changes came. Players departed in free agency, adding to the sense of loss fans might have felt. But pro sports never stands still, and turnover is a fact of life, more so it seems in the NHL than in other sports. And the departures from the Caps over the off-season open a new window, that being one of opportunity. Six of the 18 skaters taking the ice in the Caps’ last game of the 2017 postseason did not return for the 2017-2018 season.
The departures make for a rare opportunity for prospects to stake a claim on a roster spot. Consider that last season the Caps had six rookies dress for the club, but only two – Jakub Vrana and Zach Sanford – dressed for more than 20 games, and Sanford was traded before year end. This season it is possible, if not likely, that the Caps could have five or more rookies appear in more than 20 games. We have already taken a look at Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos on defense, and Jakub Vrana among the forwards.
Bowey, Djoos, and Vrana (still a “rookie” having played in only 21 games last season) will be given every opportunity to claim a jersey on a regular basis in the starting lineup. To this trio, one might see forwards Riley Barber, and/or Nathan Walker dressing for at least 20 games this season. And there is the further possibility that rookies further down the developmental ladder will get at least a cup o’ coffee with the club. Forward Travis Boyd, and defensemen Jonas Siegenthaler and Lucas Johansen might fall into this group.
Only once in the post-2004-2005 lockout period have the Caps had more than four rookie skaters appear in 20 or more games in a season, and that was in the 2005-2006 season when the team employed five rookie skaters as it was coming out of the lockout and at the depths of their rebuild. (Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Nolan Yonkman, Jakub Klepis, and Mike Green). Only once in the last six seasons have the Caps had as many as four rookies skate in 20 or more games (2013-2014: Tom Wilson, Nate Schmidt, Connor Carrick, and Alexander Urbom).
Odd Rookie Fact…
You might think that the recipe for a Stanley Cup does not include a large portion of rookies, and you would be right, but only to a point. Since the 2004-2005 lockout, four of the 12 Stanley Cup champions employed four or more rookie skaters appearing in at least 20 games in that season: 2006 Carolina Hurricanes (4), 2011 Boston Bruins (5), 2012 Los Angeles Kings (4), and the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins (5).
Jakub Vrana has the skill set to be an impact rookie. He certainly has displayed those skills over his last three seasons (one in Europe, two with Hershey). Overall, he had 47 goals in 132 games in Sweden and the AHL over the last three seasons. He had a decent, if uneven, performance in his short, 21-game tour with the Caps last season (3-3-6, three power play goals, two game-winning goals). Bowey has made steady progress through the developmental channel and displayed a talent for leadership as alternate captain and captain of the Kelowna Rockets in Canadian juniors. Barber spent three years with a good Miami (Ohio) University program in the NCAA (note: the Penguins had 16 players from last spring’s playoff winning roster spend at least some time in the NCAA ) and was captain of the 2014 national team for the world junior championship. If one cannot see the future, one can see the past, and in their past this looks like a crop of prospects that has prepared well for their chances.
It just doesn’t pass the sniff test, Fearless. The Caps lose Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Daniel Winnik, and they are going to be as good, let alone better, with Vrana, Bowey, Djoos, and Barber or Walker replacing them? Maybe down the road (maybe never), but this season?
The Big Question… Just what is the upside of the rookie crop in 2017-2018?
Vrana has 21 games of experience coming into this season, but Barber has just three games in the NHL, and the others mentioned are true rookies, none with any NHL experience. This kind of turnover can make for a rocky transition from being on a short list of serious contenders one season to being one of many contenders the following season, and if these prospects are not ready for prime time on a regular basis, the Caps could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in March and April.
There is every reason to think that the upside for these players is high. Vrana is a top-six, if not a top line offensive forward. We compared Vrana to Peter Bondra in our Vrana preview. Bowey can be a solid, if not elite top-four defenseman. If there is a comparison to be made there it might be Calle Johansson. Barber can be a productive bottom-six forward. Jeff Halpern might the comparable here. Djoos has potential in the offensive end, and in a league that emphasizes speed more than brawn these days might not be at all that much a disadvantage with his slight build. But one cannot help but wonder if his comparable is a player like Sami Lepisto. Nathan Walker is an intriguing player, but harder to predict (or find a comparable) with respect to his upside.
But anything approaching any "upside" for any rookie in this class seems a heavy lift, especially since there could be a substantial number of them that would be integrated into this roster.
In the end…
At this point, it is all speculation. But that is what fans do. And it is always tempting to see the best and be optimistic about the contributions of the incoming rookie class. But what we feel confident about is that if the Caps are to contend for a championship, it will depend more on the improvement of young veterans like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, and Tom Wilson than it does on the 2017-2018 rookie class. And in no way should that be considered surprising.