Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The 2021-2022 Washington Capitals Rookie Class -- Then and When: Part 4 -- "Coming in Heavy"

In our fourth installment in our look at the Washington Capitals’ rookie class of 2021-2022, we go off the beaten path a bit and look at rookies of a sort that fit the Capitals’ roster-building mode of recent years – players with size.

Aliaksei Protas, forward

Drafted: 2019, third round, 91st overall; amateur team in draft year: Prince Albert Raiders (Western Hockey League/Canadian junior)

Since he was signed to become the sixth general manager in the history of the Washington Capitals, one of the traits Brian MacLellan has expressed has been a preference for size among the skaters the Caps put on the ice.  Of the 99 skaters to dress for the Caps since he took over as GM in May 2014, 26 were at least six feet, three inches tall, and 29 were at least 210 pounds.  Sixteen of the 99 skaters equaled or topped these thresholds.

The 2021-2022 rookie class employed two of the biggest Caps to skate over this period.  Alisksei Protas, at 6’6”/225 pounds, is the second-tallest skater to take the ice under the MacLellan regime (Zdeno Chara is 6’9”) and is the fifth-heaviest player to appear in at least one game for Washington over that period.  And, in addition to fitting the physical profile the Caps have tilted toward in recent years, Protas came to the Caps over a well-traveled development road.  Despite his being born in Vitebsk, Belerus, he played for the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL in the season leading up to his draft by the Caps and played a season with the Raiders after the Caps selected him.  He did play in 58 games with Minsk Dynamo in the KHL in 2020-2021, but he also logged 18 games that season with the Hershey Bears in the AHL.  In addition to the 33 games he had with the Caps last season, he dressed for 42 games with Hershey.

Protas’ 33 games last season ranked fourth in the 11-member rookie class.  His three goals tied Brett Leason for fourth among Caps rookies (more on Leason below).  His six assists and nine points each ranked third among the rookies.  His plus-4 rating ranked second overall among rookies and led all Caps rookie forwards.  And he led all eight forwards in the rookie class in total ice time per game (11:50) and all rookie skaters in power play ice time per game (0:59).  His 32:29 in total power play ice time was more than ten minutes greater than the other ten rookies combined (19:12).

What’s Next?  Protas, who can play any of the forward positions, would seem to be a victim of numbers as the Caps head into the 2022-2023 season.  Absent injury, he’s going to have a rough time getting a roster spot with the parent club, let alone regular duty.  A full season in Hershey (he has two partial seasons with the Bears on his resume) would not be the worst of situations, given he will not turn 22 years of age until January.  It will give him a chance to develop his skating, which was a bit of an issue when he was an amateur.  As Corey Pronman put it, “[Protas is] a 6-foot-5 center who is a high-end passer and finisher…He can run a power play off the flank and make plays. If he fixes his skating, he’s got a chance to be a good player with his instincts and size down the middle.”  He would seem to stand a better chance of sticking with the big club in 2023-2024, there being five Caps forwards who will be unrestricted free agents after the upcoming season, four of them having passed the age of 30.

Brett Leason, forward

Drafted: 2019, second round, 56th overall; amateur team in draft year: Prince Albert Raiders (Western Hockey League/Canadian junior)

Brett Leason was a teammate of Aliaksei Protas at Prince Albert, and they formed a formidable duo.  Leason, who would be taken 35 spots ahead of Protas in the 2019 Entry Draft, posted a scoring line of 51-70-121, plus 49, in two seasons with Prince Albert leading up to the 2019 draft, while Protas was 42-78-120, plus-61, in those same two seasons.

What Leason has not yet expressed as a pro is the same prolific scoring touch he exhibited in his last two seasons in Canadian junior hockey.  In 114 games over three seasons with the Hershey Bears in the AHL, Leason is 18-29-47, plus-13.  He did not leave much of an impression offensively.  In 36 games he was 3-3-6, plus-1, averaging just under nine minutes of ice time per game.  What was odd, and a bit disappointing, was that he had points in three of his first four games with the big club (2-1-3, plus-1) in just 8:22 per game of work.  It was unreasonable to think he could sustain that level of production, especially averaging less than ten minutes per game.  But over his next 32 games he also had three points (1-2-3, even) while averaging just over nine minutes per game. And odd fact of his scoring was that it came primarily on the road (2-3-5, plus-1). He had just one point on home ice, none in his last 17 games at Capital One Arena.  And ice time was not kind to Leason, or rather his ice time was not kind to the Caps.  In 11 games in which he skated at least 9:42, the Caps had a record of just 4-6-1. 

Although his first foray into the NHL was not especially productive, he remains a player of considerable potential.  Consider what Corey Pronman had to say about him:

“He’s 6-foot-4, but also has an intriguing skill set. He’s not a highlight reel player by any means, but he has decent puck skills and can create offense with very good vision. He’s aware of his surroundings and can put pucks into seams. The biggest reason for Leason’s jump as a prospect was his skating. It improved from poor to potentially above-average. He can turn the corner occasionally on defensemen. Leason’s skating tests well, but in-game, his pace is very average. He’s big and strong, showing good puck protection skills. He’s not overly physical but competes well.”  

He was Pronman’s 34th-ranked prospect in the 2019 draft, a considerably higher ranking than he gave Aliaksei Protas (79th) in the same analysis. 

What’s Next?  Leason has the size that the Caps have looked for in recent years (6’5”/218 pounds), but it is hard to see where Brett Leason gets 36 games of NHL action this season. If he doesn’t get much time in Washington, there is a bit more urgency that he put up respectable numbers in Hershey.  Leason will turn 24 years of age next April.  That doesn’t make him over the hill as a prospect by any means, but he does need to show more of his “intriguing skill set” to serve as a stepping stone to a more prominent role with the Caps in 2023-2024.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The 2021-2022 Washington Capitals Rookie Class -- Then and When: Part 3 -- "D-Fense"

In Part 3 of our look back at the 2021-2022 rookie class for the Washington Capitals, we focus on players whose contributions in the defensive end of the ice might be most important to their respective careers and the Caps’ fortunes in years to come.  For this, we look at a trio of players.

Martin Fehervary, defenseman

Drafted: Washington, 2018, second round, 46th overall, amateur team in draft year: IK Oskarshamn (Allsvenskan)

Different draft classes have different strengths.  The 2018 draft class was loaded with defensemen – Rasmus Dahlin (first overall pick), Quinn Hughes (seventh), Noah Dobson (12th), Ty Smith (17th), K’Andre Miller (22nd).  Fourteen of the 31 picks in the first round were defensemen, including Alex Alexeyev, taken by the Caps with the last pick in the first round.  In that context, it might not be all that surprising that Martin Fehervary was the 21st defenseman taken in the 2018 draft with the 46th overall pick.

Post-draft, Fehervary’s development was broad and deep – playing for his native Slovakia in world juniors and world championship tournaments, playing in 45 games for HV71 in the Swedish Hockey League in 2018-2019, playing a total of 80 games for the Hershey Bears in the AHL in 2019-2020 and 2020-2021.  He also was called up for a cup of coffee with the Caps, suiting up for six games in 2019-2020. 

It prepared him in ways not all rookies experience, sufficient to earn him a pairing with John Carlson on the top defensive pairing for much of the season.  And his top-line numbers were impressive overall among defensemen in his rookie class – third in games played (79), first in goals scored (eight), tied for 11th in assists (nine), tied for sixth in points (17), tied for second in plus-minus rating (plus-15), tied for second in game-winning goals (two), fourth in shots on goal (96), fourth in shooting percentage among 32 rookie defensemen with at least 20 shots on goal (8.3 percent), seventh in ice time per game among 50 rookie defensemen with at least 10 games played, first in credited hits (251, 43 more than Anaheim’s Simon Benoit), sixth in blocked shots (117), tied for tenth in takeaways (14), and he was the only rookie defenseman to score a shorthanded goal.

What’s Next?  One would have to assume that Fehervary is going to be a top-four fixture on the blue line, at least, top-pair if he is reunited with John Carlson.  In terms of responsibilities, it is hard to envision how they would expand significantly.  He was third among Caps defensemen in total ice time per game and third in shorthanded ice time.  He seems unlikely now, or in the foreseeable future to get more ice time on power plays.  And, he had little exposure in overtimes of games (0:05 per game), not with Carlson and Dmitry Orlov on the roster.  What one might look for with Fehervary is avoidance of the slump he experienced in his last 30 or so games, where the grind of the season seemed to take its toll, especially in the defensive end of the ice.

Alex Alexeyev, defenseman

Drafted: Washington, 2018, first round, 31st overall, amateur team in draft year: Red Deer Rebels (Western Hockey League)

Alex Alexeyev was a first round draft pick (31st overall) for the Caps in what was a 2018 Entry Draft loaded with defensemen, 14 of them among the 31 first round picks.  Although he was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Alexeyev played for two years with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League in Canadian junior before he was drafted, and would play an additional season there after the Caps selected him.  In his three years with Red Deer, his numbers for goals, assists, points, and plus-minus ratings improved each year.  He then moved on to the Hershey Bears, where he played for three years, with an interruption for the 2020-2021 season, which he split between the Bears and Ufa Salavat Yulayev of the KHL.  Last season, his third with the Bears, he was 1-18-19, plus-6, in 68 games, but he also got a taste of the NHL with the Caps, called up late in December 2021 and given a sweater against the Nashville Predators,  He skated ten minutes and change without registering a point and finishing with an even rating.

It would be his only game with the Caps last season.  He wrapped up the season in Hershey, but his development arc was encouraging.  And then, things were put on hold.  He underwent shoulder surgery in June that would put him out of action for four to five months.  That would appear to put him on a November-December timeframe for returning to action, most likely in Hershey, assuming there are no setbacks. 

What’s Next?  The plan appears to be spending the remainder of the 2022-2023 season in Hershey once Alexeyev’s post-surgery rehabilitation is complete.  One cannot discount entirely the possibility of his getting a game or two in Washington, but then again, at his stage in the development cycle, will the time off push back his ascension to the Capitals?  That would seem to call into question whether he will be ready to take a roster spot out of training camp in 2023-2024.  What seemed a certainty 6-8 months ago is a bit murkier now.  In his favor, the Caps’ prospect pool for left-shooting defensemen is not particularly deep (Lucas Johansen among non-roster defensemen seems best positioned to take advantage here).  Alexeyev, Johansen, and Martin Fehervary are the only left-shooting defensemen in the Caps’ picture at the moment under the age of 30.  For Alex Alexeyev, the future calls and has potential, but it will be a matter of how completely he recovers from his shoulder surgery.

Axel Jonsson-Fjällby, forward

Drafted: Washington, 2016, fifth round, 147th overall, amateur team in draft year: Djurgardens IF Jr. (Swedish junior)

It might seem a bit odd to include a forward among the “defensive” players, but perhaps it is on that side of the puck where Axel Jonsson-Fjallby might be of best value to the Capitals as his career develops.  When he was drafted in the fifth round by the Washington Capitals in 2016, he was fighting long odds.  Up to the point he was selected, the Caps had taken 41 skaters in the fifth round in team history, and only 11 of them appeared in at least one NHL game for any NHL team (Shane Gersich would later appear in three games with the Caps in 2017-2018).  To date, only six of the 41 have appeared in at least 50 NHL games.  It’s a steep hill to climb for mid-to-late round draft picks, as it is for any professional team sport.

AJF’s development was rather typical for a European player.  Two more years in Sweden before splitting the 2018-2019 season between Europe and the Hershey Bears. After playing 61 games with the Bears in 2019-2020, he once more split time between Europe and North America in 2020-2021 before playing full time in North America in 2021-2022, dressing for 44 games with Hershey and another 23 with the Caps. 

Those 23 games ranked fifth among the 11 skaters in his rookie class, his two goals and two assists each ranking sixth, his four points also ranking sixth.  One of the stats that place him in a piece on “defense” is that he averaged 42 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game, third among all rookies in this class and second among forwards (Beck Malenstyn: 44 seconds/game in 12 games).  He was also on ice for only seven even strength goals against in the 23 games in which he played and only one shorthanded goal against.

What’s Next?  AJF could start the season in Washington, but his getting a jersey on a regular basis is not as certain.  He might be the 13th forward after 12 dress ahead of him.  Playing on the left side, it would appear he would be fifth on the depth chart, following Alex Ovechkin, Connor Brown, Conor Sheary, and Connor McMichael, should McMichael be deployed there instead of as a center (do the Caps have an uncommon number of “Connor’s” or what?). Brown missed 18 games last season, spending the last four games of his season with the Ottawa Senators on the shelf with a wrist injury.  Whether there is any carryover on that matter could influence how AJF is used to start the season.  As it is, AJF will be playing for a new contract this season ($750,000 cap hit).  He is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent after this season.


Monday, August 29, 2022

The 2021-2022 Washington Capitals Rookie Class -- Then and When: Part 2 -- "O My Goodness"

We began our look back at the rookie class of 2021-2022 for the Washington Capitals in Part 1 in overall terms. Now, it is time to delve a bit deeper and look at the individual rookies, the variety of contributions they made in a somewhat unusual season for rookies in the recent history of the Caps, and what might lie in store for them as they continue their development.  We start with a look at the pair of rookies who showed that they might be significant offensive contributors in years to come.

Hendrix Lapierre, Forward

Drafted: Washington, 2020, first round, 22nd overall, amateur team in draft year: Chicoutimi Saguenéens (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League)

The 2020 Elite Prospects Draft Guide had this to say about Hendrix Lapierre before the 2020 Entry Draft:

“His pucks skills, and the ability to wield them with the same effectiveness at speed as he does at a standstill, make him a dazzling puck-carrier. Lapierre can effortlessly weave his way through an entire team on a moment's notice…”

It was that talent that allowed him to post 23 goals and 80 points in 88 games with the Chicoutimi Saguenéens over three seasons in Canadian juniors before getting his opportunity with the Caps.  Not that there weren’t bumps in the road along the way.  He missed a month of play when he suffered a concussion in February 2019.  It was thought he sustained two more concussions in short order October and November of 2019, after which he was shelved for the remainder of the 2019-2020 season.  Those “concussions” were judged to be misdiagnosed, the incidences being head/neck injuries.  Serious in their own right, but perhaps without the lingering, cumulative effects concussions can have.  It was his injury history that might have pushed him down the draft board in 2020, the Caps taking him with the 22nd overall pick after being ranked 13th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. 

Lapierre spent most of the 2021-2022 season with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan in the QMJHL, where he went 21-30-51, plus-15, in 40 games with the Titan.  But he did get a cup of coffee with the Caps, dressing for six games in October and November.  He was in the lineup on opening night against the New York Rangers, scoring his first NHL goal on his second NHL shot.

It would be the only point he recorded in six games, but he did display glimpses of his stick-handling skills and speed in limited ice time (9:35 per game).  He also showed a measure of responsibility in his 200-foot game, on ice for only one even strength goal against in 51:48 of even strength ice time and charged with only one giveaway in 57:32 of total ice time.  While he did not record a power play point, he did average 57 seconds of power play ice time over his six games, second highest among all 11 rookie skaters (Aliaksei Protas averaged 59 seconds per game).

If there are concerns, they are not unusual for players at the start of their careers.  Most notably, despite leading all Caps rookie skaters in on-ice offensive zone start percentage (80.0 percent; source:, his personal 41.11 percent on-ice Corsi-for percentage was worst among rookies.  On the other hand, the Caps did earn points in five of the six games in which Lapierre skated, his shortcomings having little consequence with respect to team success.

Lapierre has the offensive skill to make a run at a roster spot in training camp, but given his lack of pro experience and the personnel moves the Caps made among the forward spots in the off-season to date, it would seem more likely that he would benefit from more seasoning without the bright lights of an NHL roster spot.  His being left off the roster of the 2022-23 IIHF World Junior Championship roster for Team Canada suggest he could use some additional seasoning as well.  It would also give him a chance to demonstrate that his injury woes are behind him and give him a chance to develop a more rounded game.

What’s Next?  It is not inconceivable that Lapierre could play his way onto the roster out of training camp, but with the roster as crowded as it is heading to training camp, it would not be the way to bet.  He will be skating under the first year of his three-year entry level contract in 2022-2023.  He could stand to add some weight, and he might need some experience in managing a long schedule, both of which he will have the opportunity to undertake in Hershey with the Bears this season.  However, as a waiver-exempt player, it would seem likely that he would be among the early call-ups from the AHL in the event injuries require filling in from the farm.  Down the road, perhaps in 2023-2024, he will earn a permanent place on the roster as a middle-six center.

Joe Snively, Forward

Drafted: undrafted, signed as free agent March 18, 2019; amateur team in signing year: Yale University

Joe Snively is a feel-good story in a “local boy makes good” sort of way.  Born in Herndon, Virginia; a graduate of the Washington Little Capitals program, undrafted as an amateur but signed as a free agent by the team he grew up with after four years at Yale University.  He played parts of four seasons with the Caps’ AHL affiliate in Hershey before he was called up to the big club in December 2021.  He recorded a point in his first NHL game, an assist on a Connor McMichael goal in a 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings, but it would be more than a month before he dressed for his second NHL game, posting another assist in a 5-0 win over the Dallas Stars in late January. 

The goal scoring did not express itself in Snively’s early exposure to the NHL, posting no goals on five shots in his first five games with the Caps.  That changed.  He potted four goals on 11 shots in his next four games with Washington, a stretch that included his first career multi-point game, going 2-1-3, plus-3, in a 5-2 win over Montreal in February.  He would go without a point in his last three games with the team, but it was not lack of production that cut his season short.  After skating just 8:23 in a 5-3 loss to Toronto on the last day of February, his season ended when he underwent surgery on his left wrist in March, an injury coach Peter Laviolette described at the time as a “lingering” issue, one that perhaps accounted for his drop in production over his last three games.

The injury aside, Snively showed promise as an opportunistic and efficient goal scorer.  Consider the Elite Prospects scouting report on him:

“Prominent offensive presence whenever he is on the ice. Exhibits a hunger for loose pucks and can carry it himself into the slot. Not the biggest body, but doesn't shy away from bigger bodies to create opportunities. Very accurate shot which jumps off his stick. Excellent passer and proficient puck skills. Very determined and works hard for the time and space he finds. Needs to recognize transition chances starting in his own end and the neutral zone quicker, and always be a factor in defensive as well as offensive play.”

Of the eight Caps rookie skaters dressing for more than two games, Snively led the group in goals per 60 minutes (1.35) and led all NHL rookie skaters in goals per 60 among the 140 rookies dressing for at least ten games.  He was fifth among all rookie skaters in the league in shooting percentage (19.1) among the 97 rookies recording at least 20 shots on goal.

It is possible to be a bit ambivalent with respect to Snively.  On the one hand, he did have four goals in 12 games, a 27-goal pace, albeit in a small population of games played.  On the other hand, and this will bear watching when he returns, is whether he is, like many goal scorers, a bit streaky.  Those four goals came in a four-game stretch, before which he was 0-2-2 in five games and 0-0-0 in three games after (although his injury might account for the lack of production).

What’s next?  Snively was an intriguing player in his brief stint with the Caps last season with his four goals in 12 games. But that production was largely limited to a four-game stretch in the middle of his stay.  The injury might have had something to do with his drop-off in production, but he still has to prove he can be a consistent contributor.  And, time is not on his side.  Snively will turn 27 years old on New Year’s Day, and there is a greater sense of urgency with respect to his establishing himself as a regular NHLer.  He faces the same obstacles as Lapierre in terms of the Caps roster being a bit crowded at forward, not to mention uncertain with respect to the timing of the returns of Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom.  He could get his chances this season in a call-up role, but he’s going to have to hit the road running (or the ice skating).