Since George McPhee took the reigns as General Manager of the Washington Capitals in 1997, he’s been one of the league’s best when it comes to targeting and selecting future impact players at the NHL Draft.
While it doesn’t take the most savvy of GM’s to recognize the talent and abilities of top-ten picks like Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Karl Alzner, it takes a more trained eye to consistently find gems outside of that range. Alexander Semin, Jeff Schultz, Mike Green, John Carlson, Eric Fehr, Marcus Johansson, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth are all examples of McPhee and the Capitals scouting staff’s ability to find quality prospects that are undervalued by clubs picking before them.
With that being said, the Capitals possess just five selections in the Draft, and only one of those is in the top three rounds, though it’s a First Round pick. Selecting late in the First Round has become routine for the Capitals, as they continue to rank among the league’s best during the regular season, and the team has demonstrated an uncanny ability to land top prospects even though they haven’t had a pick inside the top-20 since 2007.
This year’s talent pool is considered to be relatively deep, but with few potential superstars in the mix. Outside of the top 15 prospects, there are a host of players who could fall anywhere from late in the First Round to early in the Third Round, indicating that there’s a variety of possibilities with regards to what players will be available when the Caps are on the clock at number 26.
If the past is any indication of the future, there’s a reasonable chance the Capitals will take a European in the First Round, as the Capitals have used their top selections on European-trained players in each of the last three Drafts. More specifically, the Capitals have a soft spot for talented Russians, as they grabbed Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26 in 2010, and Dmitri Orlov with the 55th pick in 2009. In addition to their penchant for drafting Russians, Washington thinks highly of Swedish prospects, primarily because they tend to be swift skaters with good instincts at both ends of the ice, which is why they picked Johansson at 24th in 2009, and Anton Gustafsson at 21 in 2008.
This year’s Draft Class is one that’s deep in talented Swedish players, as they’re a good chance there will be three chosen in the top ten. Though the high-end Swedish prospects will be gone by the time Washington is on the clock, there are a couple of intriguing players that will likely be available.
One is 6’1″ defenseman Jonas Brodin, who spent last season skating with Farjestad of the Swedish Elite Leage. Brodin is a skilled puck-moving rearguard who uses his speed and hockey sense to compensate for his slight frame, as he weighs in at just under 170 pounds. He’s projected to be a late First Round or early Second Round pick, so he could be available.
Another is winger Rickard Rakell, who unlike most other Swedes spent his Draft year playing in North America, with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL. While Rakell didn’t tear apart the league offensively ,posting a respectable 43 points in 49 games, he is a contributor at both ends of the rink, which makes him an attractive option. He’s physical, agile and skilled enough to play at the next level, and projects to be a top-nine forward at some point down the road.
In terms of Russians, there are basically two options for the Capitals to ponder, and both prospects are centers playing in the OHL. Most scouts have Alexander Khokhlacev of the Windsor Spitfires ranked as the best Russian available, though he stands just 5’10″. A skilled playmaker, Khokhlacev put up impressive numbers in his first season in North America, notching 76 points in 67 games. Unlike many other Russian prospects, he plays a solid two-way game and is a tireless forechecker, so he’s an interesting prospect for Washington to consider.
The second-best Russian available is probably Vladislav Namestnikov, who plays for the London Knights. The Knights are coached by former Capitals’ captain Dale Hunter, who has gained a league-wide reputation for developing NHL-ready prospects, so that adds to the intrigue regarding Namestnikov. In 68 games with the Knights in 2010-11, the talented Russian put up 68 points, including 30 goals as a rookie. He’s got great hands and vision in the offensive zone, but at 6’0″, he needs to add weight to his 170-pound frame before he’ll be ready for the rigors of the NHL.
All four of these prospects could be available when the Capitals’ 26th overall pick rolls around, but none of them truly addresses the Capitals’ most pressing need which is on the blue line. After another Postseason that saw Washington get pushed around by bigger, more physical opponents, this may be the year that McPhee opts to go with a stay-at-home defenseman, such as 6’4″ David Musil of the Vancouver Giants or Northeastern University’s Jamie Oleksiak, who is a monster at 6’7″.
Though a stay-at-home defenseman is at the top of the Capitals’ wish-list, they’ve had bad luck with them in previous drafts, as top picks like Sasha Pokulok (14th in 2005) and Joe Finley (27th in 2005) have turned out to be disappointments.
Ultimately, Washington will likely take the player they have rated the highest, regardless of their position. Considering their tendency for selecting players who hail from Russia and Sweden in the first couple of rounds, there’s a good chance that their first pick in the 2011 Draft will be used on Khokhlacev, Namestnikov, Rackell or Brodin.