It's reality check time. Every fan base in the NHL, every single one of them, overvalues their team's prospects. The fact is that when you look at the NHL draft, few of those players actually make it to the NHL, let alone become top-tier players. The odds that all of a team's prospects are somehow going to pan out is laughable and this is especially true for the Capitals.
Years of competing for the Stanley Cup and trading away draft picks have taken their toll on the team's prospect pool as Corey Pronman of The Athletic ranks the Caps' farm system as 31st in the league, dead last, in his latest rankings.
This does not mean there aren't NHL players in the system, but this should tell Caps fans two things. First, you should temper your expectations for how many of the team's prospects are going to make it to the NHL and how quickly they are going to get there and second, there is not going to be a seamless transition from the Alex Ovechkin contender era to the next era without a rebuild.
Not surprisingly, Pronman considers Connor McMichael to be the team's top prospect, but again, Caps fans need to temper their expectations. Pronman labels McMichael as on the bubble between a high-end and very good NHL player. This is not a superstar we are talking about and there probably is not going to be a time we label as the "McMichael era" of the Capitals.
"McMichael isn't that big or quick, which gives some scouts questions on how his game will translate especially given his lack of speed," Pronman writes.
Seeing McMichael in training camp, it was clear that bulking up needed to be a priority. I don't look at him like a Christian Djoos type of player who's size will be a weakness throughout his career, just that he has not yet physically bulked up to be a professional yet.
Pronman rounds out the team's top-four with Martin Fehervary, Alexei Protas and Alex Alexeyev, all three of whom Pronman labels to be legit NHL players. Other players he lists as having NHL potential are Brett Leason, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Damien Riat and Mitchell Gibson.
That's it. That's the list.
Scouts and prospect experts are not infallible so perhaps the ceiling is higher on some of these players than they may project...but they could also be lower. The point is, for all those saying the Caps' problems next season are easily solvable by loading the roster up with all those sure-fire NHL prospects who are all going to turn into top-six forward and top-four defensemen, that's just not realistic.
In terms of the near future of next season, most likely the only players in serious contention to graduate to the NHL full-time are Fehervary and possibly Daniel Sprong. Fehervary had some call-ups in 2019-20 and my biggest note on him is he looked lost at times, but that's it. Both physically and in terms of talent, I thought he was a good fit at the NHL level. Give him a training camp and he could be a third-pair defenseman and possibly get some spot duty on the second pair as a rookie.
But every one of these prospects has noticeable flaws that make them far from sure-fire star players.
Protas had a phenomenal season in the WHL, but his skating is a concern. Pronman wrote, "The stride is fine technically, but he does lack explosiveness and as he advances levels he may struggle with the quicker paces." I am not a scout, but seeing him in the preseason, his skating looked slow and even awkward at times. He got from point A to point B faster than I would have anticipated, but no one is going to call him fast.
Pronman also wrote footspeed was a concern for Alexeyev, but I think the elephant in the room is durability. Alexeyev's WHL career ended with a knee on knee hit and a concussion kept him out of the entire 2019 training camp in Washington. That really seemed to set him back as he was concerned the team's top defensive prospect going into the 2019-20 season and was supplanted by Fehervary by the end of camp.
Leason had a really tough transition to the AHL in his first season and I consider 2020-21 to be a critical year. Don't forget, he was 20 when the team drafted him in 2019 and is now 21. If he progresses in his second professional season, I think there is potential there to be a depth NHL winger. If not, I think his NHL prospects will be in serious jeopardy. Jonsson-Fjallby's skillset is a carbon copy of Carl Hagelin in that he is an incredibly fast, bottom-six forward without much offensive finish. His play seems to wildly fluctuate at times so consistency is a concern. I see Riat as a Travis Boyd type who is offensively skilled, but not good enough to be in the top-six. The issue there is that it is often hard for bottom-six players who do not play on the penalty kill to justify their spot in the lineup. Finally, there's Gibson, a goalie prospect who, at only 6-foot-1, better continually prove his skill so as not to be passed over by bigger netminders, as is the trend in today's NHL.
After two consecutive first-round exits, there is going to be a lot of discussion of changes the Caps can make to once again make them contenders for the final years of the Ovechkin era. If you are expecting a mass fusion of young talent in 2020, however, you are going to be disappointed. If you re expecting the team to seamlessly transition to the next era of dominance, you are going to be disappointed. There are NHL players within the system, but people should not let their optimism for all Caps prospects lead to undue expectations for the team's young players.
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