Two weeks ago we counted down the first 15 players in our annual "Top 25 Under 25," and our criteria and assorted whatnot can be found in that post. We followed that up last week with the bottom half of our top 10. Now it's time to read about the top of the class - the players most likely to make significant future contributions to the Capitals' organization, the top five Caps' players under 25.
5. Dmitry Orlov, D (24.2-years-old as of October 10, 2015; drafted 55th in 2009; previously ranked 3rd)
After a strong rookie season, Orlov's development has been derailed mostly by injuries, to the point that he has played just 59 of a possible 212 Caps regular season games over the past three years, including missing the entirety of 2014-15 following a broken wrist, subsequent surgery and complications stemming from it. But he's ready to go for 2015-16, and the Caps will need him to be as good as they think he should be.
Orlov is still a bit of an unknown commodity - better all-around than some conventional wisdom might suggest, but probably not the offensive threat others might think he is. But again, this is a 24-year-old defenseman with just 119 NHL games under his belt, and there's no reason to think that with a full season working under Todd Reirden's tutelage (not to mention the benefits of playing on a veteran-laden blueline) and in a manageable role, Orlov can't still develop into a terrific defender. It would seem that the biggest challenge for him might be staying healthy.
4. Madison Bowey, D (20.5; drafted 53rd in 2013, previously ranked 8th)
Entering his first professional season, Bowey is a player for whom the Capitals have very high hopes. The young defenseman did a lot of winning last year - first earning gold for Canada at the World Junior Championships, then captaining the Kelowna Rockets to a WHL championship and a second place finish in the CHL Memorial Cup - and posted an impressive 60 points in just 58 regular season games last season (a total he reached in 14 more games a season before).
Bowey is a right-handed shot that some see as the club's next Mike Green (with all that comes with that role) due to his high offensive upside and mildly concerning defensive acumen to date. Bowey will likely stick around the big club for the majority of the preseason before kicking off his professional career in Hershey, where he should see significant ice time. Barring a significant injury, it's hard to see Bowey stealing a roster spot away from either Orlov or Schmidt this season - but his day will surely come.
3. Jakub Vrana, W (19.6; drafted 13th in 2014, previously ranked 7th)
Vrana, like the two young players ranked ahead of him, is a dynamic offensive talent. He's not a big kid, measuring in at just 5'11", but he makes up for what he lacks in size with his ability to work in tight spaces while maintaining possession of the puck. Vrana was a member of the Czech team at the World Junior Championships for the second straight year, and, following that tournament and a successful season in the top Swedish League (12 goals, 12 assists in 44 games for Linkoping HC), began his North American professional career late last season when he joined the Bears - and by all accounts gave a good showing.
Vrana impressed during this year's development camp and there is a chance, albeit a small one, that he will follow the same path as Burakovsky and make the Capitals this season (and while the thought of the Caps running three skill-heavy scoring lines is enticing, it's unlikely to happen). Look for Vrana to have a strong first full season in the American Hockey League, and to get a taste of NHL action if the Caps need an infusion of skill in the lineup.
2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, C (23.4, drafted 26th in 2010, previously ranked 2nd)
He may be number two on this list, but no young Capital was more impressive than Evgeny Kuznetsov during the 2014-2015 NHL playoffs, and his late heroics against the New York Islanders in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals put him in a special place in the franchise's history books - the only other Capitals to score a game-winning goal in a Game Seven are Sergei Fedorov ('09), Dale Hunter ('87), and Joel Ward ('12).
Only one Capital (Alex Ovechkin) fired more shots on net during the playoffs than Kuznetsov and none of his teammates scored more goals. Kuznetsov was the undisputed driver of the Capitals second line, and a constant scoring threat during the team's 14-game playoff run. So, while it may have taken awhile, the young Russian appears to have adjusted his game to fit the North American ice surface.
|Prior to All Star Game||44||15|
|Post All Star Game||36||22|
Kuznetsov still has to prove that he can be a part of a line that can effectively drive puck possession and the hope is that Justin Williams will provide him with the possession support that he needs. But, for now, Kuznetsov is primed to take another step forward during the 2015-16 season as the team's full-time second-line center.
1. Andre Burakovsky, Forward (20.7; drafted 23rd in 2013, previously ranked 4th)
With all but one first place vote, Andre Burakovsky has claimed the
crown krona as our best Capitals player under the age of 25 (and he's the first forward to rank first on the list since Nicklas Backstrom graduated prior to the 2011-2012 season).
Burakovsky had a strong NHL rookie campaign last year. His dynamic play down the middle of the ice was something to behold, and he was similarly impressive once he was switched to the wing. His game is noticeable, exciting, and most importantly, effective.
Burakovsky produced five-on-five points at the third-fastest rate on the roster (trailing only Backstrom and Ovechkin), and when he was on the ice, the Capitals offense did a lot of things well even when Burakovsky wasn't generating points - Burakovsky's on-ice Goals-For rate of 3.28 goals per 60 minutes of five-on-five play was the highest on the team by over half of a goal.
|On-Ice Statistic (5v5)||Data||Rank on Team|
|Goals Per 60||3.28||1st|
|Scoring Chances For Per 60||29.82||1st|
|Shot Attempts For Per 60||63.51||1st|
|Score Adjusted Shot Attempt Percentage||55.1%||1st|
While it's great that good things happen while he is on the ice, it's more important that Burakovsky has shown an ability to drive offense. He did that for portions of his first NHL season and the stats back it up. We wrote about who was driving puck possession, by way of passing, back in May and the head of the passing-project, Ryan Stimson, took a deep look at Capitals forwards and their passing abilities in the middle of August:
The trio of Kuznetsov, Johannsson, and Burakovsky all seem to shoot at similar rates (11 – 13 iCF/60), but we see a wider range in their passing ability. Burakovsky had the second-highest mark on the team in terms of total passing contributions. And sure, his most common linemates at five-on-five were Johannsson, Ovechkin, and Backstrom, but it’s still impressive.
At just 20-years-old, Burakovsky appears to already be an offensive catalyst.
Despite all of his statistical success there were still some trials and tribulations for Burakovsky in his rookie season, specifically in regards to his ice time and his defensive play. While he is arguably one of the best six forwards currently on the roster, it's unclear whether and where Burakovsky fits into the top-six this upcoming season. He is most often projected to be either the second-line left wing or the third-line center, but those projections rely on Backstrom being healthy to start the season and it's possible that what's best for the team may not necessarily line-up exactly with what's best for Burakovsky.
Regardless, Burakovsky will look to improve upon his point totals while growing his defensive game in 2015-16, but the sky is the limit with this kid, the Caps' top player under the age of 25... who may hold this position for the next handful of years.