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.