20 Burning Questions: Which top prospect has the best chance of helping this season?

J.J. Regan
NBC Sports Washington

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won't be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.

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With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we look at the team's prospects.

Which top prospect has the best chance of helping the Caps this season?

Years of competing for the Stanley Cup and focusing on the present over the future means that Washington's pipeline isn't teeming with top-end talent. There are no candidates lightning up the AHL or their junior leagues who are going to step into a major role right away and take the NHL by storm. But there are some candidates who could potentially step in this season.

Offensively, the cupboard is pretty bare. Connor McMichael became the first forward drafted by the Caps in the first round since Jakub Vrana back in 2014. Players like Shane Gersich and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby probably have an NHL future ahead of them, but general manager Brian MacLellan made it pretty clear he does not think the forward prospects will be ready to step in anytime soon by inking players like Garnet Hathaway, Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik to four-year deals.

"We don't have young forwards ready to step in and play third line," MacLellan said on a conference call in July. "There's a bit of a gap in our organization in that area."

Basically the team is telling you none of these forwards will have an impact right away. The same is not true of the defense as players like Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary were praised for their performance at the team's development camp.

Alexeyev and Fehervary will both be headed to Hershey this season for their first season in the AHL. In addition, there is also 2016 first-round pick Lucas Johansen who is still looking for his first taste of NHL hockey and Tyler Lewington who impressed in his two games with the Caps last season.

Of these four, the player who will have the biggest impact will be largely situational. Lewington is an easy call-up because he is cheap and because he has NHL experience from last season. His ceiling is as a No. 7 NHL defenseman so if he gets called up, it is likely his role will be limited.

Should the Caps need an early-season call-up to get into a game, Johansen may be the best bet. He has played two seasons in the AHL and it would be good for the organization to get him some playing time to see what they have in him before he gets passed on the organizational depth chart by Alexeyev and Fehervary, if he has not been already.

If the team needs a long-term player to plug in and play significant minutes, however, then we are looking at the high-end talents of Alexeyev and Fehervary.

The thing to note about the defensive prospects, however, is that they will not have an impact unless something goes wrong. The NHL roster is likely set with John Carlson, Michal Kempny, Nick Jensen, Dmitry Orlov, Radko Gudas, Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos. Getting back to the original question, while there are players who could step in should the Caps need them, if all goes well the team will not.

The real answer to this question is in the crease.

While hopefully the team will not need to call up any defensive prospects, there is no way to avoid calling up prospect goalie Ilya Samsonov at some point this season.

This very subject was touched on in a previous burning question, but to summarize, with this likely being Braden Holtby's last season in Washington, the Caps must, must get Samsonov some playing time this season just to see what they have. Will it be enough to definitively declare Samsonov ready to be a full-time NHL starter? Probably not, but something is better than nothing. Letting a Cup and Vezina-winning goalie walk in free agency is already a risk. Doing it for a prospect goalie who has not played a single minute of NHL hockey is a massive gamble.

Also, do not sleep on Vitek Vanecek. Given the team's salary cap constraints, if Vanecek shows he is ready to step in as an NHL backup, we could see him start the season with Washington because of his low cap hit of just under $717,000.

The Caps still see their championship window as open and MacLellan is going with a veteran-laden roster as a result. There is not much room for prospects to step in and have an impact, but we will definitely see young netminders get some NHL reps this season. There is no way Washington can avoid it for very long. can or should avoid it. 

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20 Burning Questions: Which top prospect has the best chance of helping this season? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

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