Sunday, September 04, 2022

The 2021-2022 Washington Capitals Rookie Class -- Then and When: Part 5 -- "Longshots"

In Part 5 of our look back and look forward for the Washington Capitals rookie class of 2021-2012, we look at three players, all of whom are members of the 2016 draft class of the Capitals, who might be considered longshots to reach regular NHL status, despite all of them getting a taste of NHL competition last season.

Beck Malenstyn, forward

Drafted: Washington, 2016 Entry Draft, fifth round, 145th overall; amateur team when drafted: Calgary Hitmen (Western Hockey League)

The 2016 NHL Entry Draft had its stars – Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, Alex Debrincat, Adam Fox among the more well-known names – but it was not an especially deep draft.  Only 20 players have logged as many as 200 regular season games to date from that class.  One might be forgiven for thinking that as the 22nd left wing selected in that draft, the odds would be long for Beck Malenstyn to make an NHL roster.  Set aside for the moment the fact that the Caps selected fellow left-winger Axel Jonsson-Fjallby two picks later.  Malenstyn has a total of 15 NHL games played (all with the Caps) over two seasons (Jonsson-Fjallby has dressed for 23 games, all of them last season). 

He has not separated himself as a productive offensive player to date, although he did show improvement as an amateur.  Over his first three seasons in Canadian junior, he was 16-24-40, plus-5, in 126 games.  After he was taken by the Caps in the 2016 draft, he went 49-39-88, minus-1, in 112 games over two seasons.  Upon graduating to professional hockey, he was 14-17-31, plus-5, in 120 games over his first two seasons with Hershey.  However, he then lost the 2020-2021 season to an Achilles tendon injury.  In addition to the 12 games he spent with the Caps in 2021-2022, he dressed for 65 games in Hershey, going 10-6-16, minus-8.

With the Caps, Malenstyn got a short look-see in 2019-2020, before the injury that cost him the following season.  But he did get 12 games with the big club in 2021-2022, recording one point – his first NHL goal – and posting a plus-2 rating.  His presence in the lineup did not quite rise to the level of good-luck charm, but the Caps were 7-3-2 when he was in the lineup.  That success did, however, break down along ice time lines.  The Caps were 5-1-0 when he skated 9:02 or less, but they were just 2-2-2 in games in which Malenstyn logged more minutes.

What’s Next?  Malenstyn’s “career potential” at is short and…well, not especially sweet: “Organizational depth forward.” But the Caps saw enough in his performance to date to sign him to a two-year/$1.525 million contract last June.  What the Caps might be envisioning down the road is an energy forward who can contribute in ways that do not show up in the box score.  He did lead all Caps rookie forwards in shorthanded ice time in limited play (0:44 per game).  He led all Caps rookie skaters in credited hits per 60 minutes by a whopping margin (18.79 to Martin Fehervary’s 9.69).  He led all rookie forwards in blocked shots per 60 (3.86). He was charged with only one giveaway in 12 games.  His future seems to be one of being the player who does the dirty work that often escapes notice but needs to be done.  Whether he will get that chance on a regular basis in the NHL, especially in the upcoming season, is less certain.

Garrett Pilon, forward

Drafted: Washington, 2016 Entry Draft, third round, 87th overall; amateur team when drafted: Kamloops Blazers (Western Hockey League)

When Garrett Pilon was drafted by the Caps in 2016, he was coming off a season with the Kamloops Blazers in which he posted 15 goals (tied for sixth on the team) and 47 points (also sixth on the team).  Not bad for a 17 year old in his first year in Canadian junior hockey.  In three more years in juniors (with Kamloops and the Everett Silvertips), Pilon demonstrated himself to be a reliable, if unspectacular scorer, going 54-91-145, plus-48, in 136 games.  He brought that consistency to Hershey n 2018-2019, with whom he has a scoring line of 49-78-127, plus-13, in 206 games over four seasons.

While he was developing his game in Hershey, Pilon got two brief stints with the Caps. He dressed for one game in 2020-2021, going without a point in ten minutes and change against Philadelphia, and he was called upon for two games last season with the Caps, notching his first NHL goal (his only point of the season) in a 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks.  If was on his only shot on goal over the two games.

What’s Next?  Pilon is not waiver-exempt, meaning that if he is assigned to Hershey to start the season, seems likely to spend the entire season there.  It is a difficult situation for him and the club with this being the final year of a two-year contract ($750,000 per year).  He will be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent at the end of the upcoming season, but with the likelihood that he will not see much, if any action with the Caps this season (he would be exposed the possibility of a waiver claim), he would have to impress in Hershey to bolster his chances of a higher payday in Washington.

Lucas Johansen, defenseman

Drafted: Washington, 2016 Entry Draft, first round, 28th overall; amateur team when drafted: Kelowna Rockets (Western Hockey League)

If it seems that Lucas Johansen has been a Capital forever, it’s not an unreasonable point of view.  He was the ninth and last defenseman taken in the first round of the 2016 Entry Draft and was the first of three players taken in that draft (the other two, Beck Malenstyn and Garrett Pilon, covered above) from the Western Hockey League in Canadian junior.  Johansen might have been more well-known when drafted as the younger brother of NHL forward Ryan Johansen (currently with the Nashville Predators).  His path to the NHL has been longer and steeper than that of his older brother.  After an impressive season with the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL in the season leading up to his draft (10-39-49, plus-11, in 69 games), he spent another year in junior, going 6-35-41, plus-23, in 68 games with Kelowna. 

From juniors it was on to the Hershey Bears where his career stalled.  He stared well with the Bears, going 6-21-27, minus-13, in 74 games with Hershey in 2017-2018, but there was a log jam of left handed shooting defensemen ahead of him on the depth chart.  An injury limited him to 45 games the following season (3-11-14, minus-14), but he was a persistent victim of a crowded field of suitors for those left-defense slots, and he played in only 14 games for the Bears over the next two seasons (0-4-4, plus-5 overall).  Last season, his persistence in the face of frustration appeared to be paying off.  In 62 games with Hershey, he was 8-20-28, plus-20, his goals, assists, and points each ranking second among Hershey defensemen, and his plus-20 rating ranking first among blueliners and second among all skaters (Joe Snively: plus-22).  It was encouraging enough to earn him a chance to make his NHL debut. Skating 12 minutes and change and posting an assist for his first NHL point in a 3-1 win over Detroit on New Year’s Eve.  It would be the only game he played for the Caps last season.

What’s Next?  The Caps still have some measure of faith that Johansen can be at least a depth defenseman for the parent team.  He was signed to a two-year/$1.525 million contract last July.  He would be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent when this deal expires.  Then again, with one NHL game on his resume (fewest number of games played among first round picks in his draft class) as he is about to turn 25 years of age (November 16th), one might wonder what the chances are that he gets a sweater on a regular basis with the Caps.  That the Caps would sign another left-shooting defenseman – Erik Gustafsson – makes his task to make the club harder.  With the first year of this deal of the two-way variety (his salary would be $125,000 with Hershey), he would be waiver exempt for the upcoming season, so there is some flexibility for call-up purposes.  If he does not make the squad out of training camp, then if any Capital might wear a path up and down Route 15 to Hershey and back over the course of the season, it might be Lucas Johansen.