As training camp begins for the Washington Capitals, most of the roster is inherited from last year’s campaign. There isn’t much of a reason to change things up for a team that won the President’s Trophy and lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champs. Unlike the Maple Leafs or Sabres, the Capitals shouldn’t expect too much of a contribution from prospects this season. As multiple players are due to hit free-agency in the summer, it is likely that prospects will have to play a part in rebuilding the Caps roster next season. So what should we expect from them this year?
We can still expect a few prospects to make their Caps debuts this season. Starting with one of the only positives to come out of the 2014 season – Jakub Vrana. He struggled with injury in Hershey last season, his first in North America. However, he still put up 16 goals for 34 points in 36 games played. For a European skater, he is above-par in his transition to the smaller rink size and more physical playing style. Scouts praise him as a speedy winger who simply knows how to put the puck in the net. At this point in his development, it’s not unreasonable to expect an NHL debut to come sooner rather than later.
The problem for Vrana is the depth chart. As a left wing, he sits behind Ovechkin, Johansson, Burakovsky and Winnik. He isn’t the type of player you bring in to play on the fourth line; ideally you want him in a top-6 role. It doesn’t look like one will come without injury. However, injuries are just as real as the salary cap and they should be expected. Burakovsky and Ovechkin both played 79 games last season, Johansson: 74. If any of those players go down due to injury, expect Vrana to make his NHL debut. What’s more, an injury to any of the team’s centers would likely see Johansson moved to cover. Either way, there will be an opportunity for Vrana to play games in the NHL this season. If he performs, Barry Trotz will have a very difficult, but good problem to deal with.
A good move, albeit less than ideal, would be to move him to the right side. The depth chart is far less daunting, with Oshie, Williams, newly-inked Brett Connolly and Tom Wilson ahead of him. With rumblings that Williams may be penciled in with Lars Eller on a new scoring-third line, there’s an opportunity for Vrana to jump Connolly and Wilson into the top-6. Connolly will be given every opportunity to hold on to the role, but if he can’t produce, Vrana could be given a chance. Either way, we will see him in Washington this season; but how much depends on the players ahead of him.
Selected the year before Vrana, Madison Bowey seems to be a lock to solidify the top-6 defensemen in the coming years. Bowey played 70 games last season, putting up 29 points. A right-shot defenseman is a luxury in the Capitals system. Only Matt Niskanen and John Carlson are ahead of him on the depth chart, and there’s no way he will play himself ahead of them. However, there is an opportunity for him to play on a third pairing. If Trotz can find a way to protect Bowey and have him playing against lesser competition, he could have a spot as early as this season.
Of course, this is a best case scenario for Bowey. More than likely he will spend most of the season in Hershey, with left-handers Schmidt and Chorney fighting for a spot on the bottom-pairing. Bowey should see his NHL debut this season, but don’t expect as much out of him as Vrana. Defensemen take much longer to develop than forwards do in the NHL, and he may just need one more year to be ready for a full-time gig.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely either player contributes significantly to the Capitals roster this season. Vrana will need someone ahead of him to falter in order to get a shot; Bowey still needs more time to work on his game at the AHL level. These two players point to a bright future for the Capitals. However, it’s a long shot that they help Washington DC plan a parade in June 2017.