With Washington's untimely demise at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, a chance to have an entire franchise's affiliations win championships went out the window. However, the AHL's Hershey Bears and the ECHL's South Carolina Stingrays held up their end of the deal by winning their leagues' respective championships. There were some notable contributors that made a difference for the Capitals this season, and there appears to be a very healthy farm system looking to reinforce the troops in DC. Today, we look at the farmhands of the Washington Capitals, and why I consider this group to be the best minor-league system of all the NHL teams. And there are a number of reasons why.
Simeon Varlamov: Varlamov showed entirely why he was selected by the Capitals in the first round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in this season's NHL Playoffs. While his record of 7-6 wasn't all that indicative of how well he played, Varlamov was the reason why the Capitals advanced past the New York Rangers after trailing in the series 3-1. He sported a 2.53 GAA and a .918 save percentage in 13 NHL Playoff Games - great stats for a rookie with only six regular season NHL games under his belt. His international experience combined with his time playing for Yaroslavl in the Russian Super League has Varlamov set for what looks to be a long NHL career.
Michal Neuvirth: Neuvirth was selected in the second round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, shortly after the Capitals took Varlamov. Neuvirth was a standout with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL, leading them to the Memorial Cup Championships as the OHL Champions in 2007. This season, after Varlamov was called up to Washington with Brent Johnson being injured, Neuvirth went 9-5-2. However, in the Calder Cup Playoffs, Neuvirth took his game to another level. He went 16-6 with four shutouts to help the Hershey Bears win the Calder Cup over the Manitoba Moose. Neuvirth also played for the South Carolina Stingrays this season where he was 6-7 with a 2.28 GAA and a .918 save percentage. Clearly, Neuvirth has the ability to elevate his game, and may have an opportunity to tandem with Varlamov in Washington in the future.
Daren Machesney: Machesney seems to have slipped slightly with the emergence of Varlamov and Neuvirth, but the fifth-round pick in 2005 is still highly regarded in the Capitals' system. In 36 games with the Hershey Bears this season, Machesney went 19-12-1, but had an inflated GAA of 3.24 along with an .876 save percentage. Machesney's stats aren't NHL-calibre yet, but the young goalie is producing at the AHL level for the Bears. Machesney does need some work on positioning, but he will play for Hershey next season as he has produced good results over the last two seasons with the Bears.
Karl Alzner: Alzner was a first-round pick for the Capitals in 2007, and he is developing into a steady, reliable, hard-hitting defenceman. He played in pressure situations in 2007 and 2008 for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, helping them to gold medals in both years. He captained the 2008 team, showing that he is a leader on the ice and respected by his peers. While he's only logged 30 games in the NHL with Washington, scoring one goal and adding four assists, his 48 games in Hershey showed that he is advancing at a solid pace. His four goals and 16 assists, combined with his excellent defensive play, could make Alzner the next captain of the Capitals.
John Carlson: Carlson was taken in the first-round in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, and is showing signs of being cut from the same mold as Mike Green. He moved from the USHL to the OHL's London Knights this past season, and scored at an incredible pace. In 59 games, Carlson notched 16 goals and 60 assists. He added another seven goals and 15 assists in 14 OHL Playoff games this year. While there is some concern that Carlson's defensive zone coverage is a bit of a liability, having a second Mike Green-type player on the blueline will only help the Capitals' forwards in time. And if he continues to play under the Hunters in London, his defensive game should improve.
Josh Godfrey: Godfrey was drafted in the second round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, and his calling card is his booming slapshot. In 37 games with the Stingrays this season, Godfrey potted five goals and added 20 assists in 37 games. He spent time with the Bears as well, recording six assists in 13 games with the AHL club. Godfrey looks like a bonafide blue-chipper, but still needs some work in improving his defensive zone coverage. However, his instincts appear to be sound, and he looks NHL-bound sooner rather than later.
Sasha Pokulok: Pokulok was taken in the first round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft at 14th overall. Pokulok looks like an NHL defenceman already in terms of his size, measuring in at 6'5" and 230 lbs. He spent 44 games with the Hershey Bears last season, recording one goal and six assists. However, his season this year was derailed by injuries, and he only appeared in eight games with the Bears and 23 games with the Stingrays. He still recorded two goals and nine assists in the ECHL, but Pokulok will need to work hard to regain his pre-injury form. If he does, however, he's a big-body defenceman much like John Erskine, only with more offensive potential.
Keith Seabrook: Seabrook was taken in the second round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, and appears to be working his way up the depth chart nicely. He spent one season with Denver in the NCAA before transferring to Calgary to play WHL hockey with the Hitmen. In 2007-08, his first with the Hitmen, Seabrook seemed a little hesitant on the offensive side of the puck, only recording four goals and 13 assists in 59 games. However, he showed great improvement this season as he put up 15 goals and 40 assists in 64 games. Seabrook looks to be the best two-way defenceman behind Karl Alzner, and should be with Stingrays at least for the 2009-10 season.
Oskar Osala: The Finnish left winger might be the best all-around forward in the Capitals' system right now. Osala was drafted in the fourth-round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, and has benefitted from the experience of playing in the Finnish Hockey League with the Espoo Blues. Osala made the jump from Finland to the AHL this season, appearing in 75 games with the Hershey Bears, scoring 23 goals and adding 14 assists. In watching this young man play, he has a quick release, and understands his role defensively. While his vast offensive potential has yet to be tapped, he plays well in his own end and still has room to grow. He should be playing in Washington within a couple of years.
Chris Bourque: Bourque was a second-round pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, and has really begun to come into his own as a player. This is his fourth year in the Capitals' system, having only played 12 games for the NHL club. However, he has steadily improved each year in the AHL, posting an increase in points every year. In 2005-06, he scored eight goals and 28 assists in 52 games. In 2006-07, Bourque scored 25 goals and added 33 assists in 76 games. In 2007-08, he played in 73 games, scoring 28 goals and adding 35 assists. And last season, he played in 69 games, scoring 21 goals and recording 52 assists. Bourque is one of the fastest players on the ice as well, making him a threat every time he gets some open ice. Bourque should be an NHL fixture with Washington by the 2010-11 season if he continues to produce in the AHL.
Anton Gustafsson: Gustafsson was taken in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, but his progress has been hard to follow. He remains in Sweden, playing for a Tier-1 Swedish team where he scored six goals and four assists in 25 games. The problem is that the Tier-1 Swedish League would be equivalent to the ECHL in some regards, so it's hard to tell if Gustafsson is improving. A move to North America where he can adapt to the game would be helpful. Some scouts have indicated that Gustafsson could be a good second-line centerman, while others have indicated that he'll be no more than a third-line checking centerman. The jury is still out on Gustafsson, but he's young and has great potential, so there's still time for him to impress.
Mathieu Perreault: Perreault was selected in the sixth round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Perreault was a bonafide scoring threat with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the QMJHL, but there was some concern about his defensive responsibilities. How a player who scored 119 points in 2006-07, and 114 points in 2007-08 in the QMJHL slipped to the sixth round is beyond me, but the Capitals benefitted greatly. In his first season with the AHL's Hershey Bears, Perreault really came on in the second half of the season, and ended with 11 goals and 39 assists in 77 games in his first pro campaign. Perreault looks like he will remain with Hershey for next season, but he could be a future second-line centerman for the Capitals. He dishes the puck well, and his defensive responsibilities really improved this season, particularly in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Andrew Gordon: Gordon was selected in the seventh round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, but is the only right winger on the list that I can see having a future with the Capitals. Gordon is hard-working, grinding forward who doesn't shy away from a hit, and can put the puck in the net. In 2007-08, Gordon only appeared in 58 AHL games with the Bears, but scored 16 goals and added 35 assists. This past season, Gordon's production dropped off a little as he scored 21 goals and 24 assists, but he was better on the defensive side of the puck. Gordon appears to be a third-line winger, but if he can bring his offensive game to the forefront, he would the power forward that Washington would need with all their skill up front.
Stefan Della Rovere: Della Rovere was selected in the seventh round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Della Rovere is a feisty agitator. He starred with the Barrie Colts of the OHL this past season where he 27 goals and 24 assists in 57 games. He was an agitating presence who showed flashes of goal-scoring brilliance with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships this past year, helping the team win the gold medal. While Della Rovere only played in two games with the Stingrays this season, he appears to be on the right path for a professional career.
Make no mistake that other organizations have blue-chip prospects. What makes the Capitals' system so good is their depth, their drafting and scouting, their commitment to winning, and their development system. They have blue-chip prospects at every position, and all of them have won at various stages of their careers.
With a future this bright, the Capitals are at the dawn of greatness.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!