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.