The Washington Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup Championship will be remembered for a number of things, among them: a much-maligned franchise finally slaying its demons and bringing home a championship to its long-suffering fan base and city a year after it’s self-proclaimed window had closed; a generational talent and all-time great goal-scorer leading his team to puck’s promised land and elevating his personal legacy from rare greatness with an asterisk to hockey immortality; and, of course, an epic summer-long party that could only start in a town like Las Vegas and has forced the League to re-think how it lets its victors celebrate... and it ain’t quite over yet.
Caps fans - as they have for more than 40 years - shared in every high and every low along the way, and have done their fair share of celebrating as well, enjoying the past three months in an often dream-like blur of unharshable buzz.
Yes, the Caps just lost a very good head coach. But oh well.— Japers' Rink (@JapersRink) June 18, 2018
No Vezina this year for Holtby, but, well...— Japers' Rink (@JapersRink) June 21, 2018
You get the point. Anyway, all of this is, in part, a long set-up for us to say that we’ve screwed up. Call it a Stanley Cup blogging hangover, but in compiling the list for these posts, we inadvertently included a player who was ineligible and omitted one who should’ve been there. Oopsie. So let’s just pretend that Travis Boyd wasn’t in last week’s post, and numbers ten through seven go 10) Madison Bowey, 9) Shane Gersich, 8), Alexander Alexeyev, and 7) Lucas Johansen. Put another way...
With that out of the way, we’ll once again thank our pals over at NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) for their help in pulling together this list and writing the blurbs for each player. And now, on to the top six...
6. Christian Djoos, D (24.2, drafted 195th in 2012; ranked 7th in 2017-18)
Djoos made the jump to the NHL last season after a stellar season in the AHL in 2016-17. The Swedish blue liner did not produce at the offensive level he did in the AHL, but that was to be expected. He did not see the same amount of ice time in Washington as he did in Hershey, with an average time on ice of 14:02. This was especially true on the power play. Djoos quarterbacked the Hershey power play in 2016-17 and led the team in power play assists with 23. He also had four power play goals. He hardly saw any power play time at all with the Capitals because he had John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen ahead of him in the pecking order. Djoos is a gifted passer and a good skater. He shared the AHL lead in assists by a defenseman in 2016-17 with 45. He also finished third in the AHL in defenseman scoring with 58 points. Those numbers were big improvements on the 14 assists and 22 points, he tallied as a rookie in 2015-16. During the 2016-17 season in Hershey, the Swede scored on 15.3% of his shots (13 of 85). That number dropped to 5% (3 of 60) in his first season in the NHL.
Djoos improved under the tutelage of Reid Cashman when he was in the AHL. Cashman is now an assistant in Washington and that can only help the Swede’s development. He is a smart player who learns from his mistakes. It is possible that Djoos pushes his way on to the second power play unit under new head coach Todd Reirden. This would give him the opportunity to increase his point total. He has done that in the past. He more than doubled his point output during his second year in the AHL. If Djoos can repeat that feat in the NHL, he will become an offensive threat for the Capitals.
5. Chandler Stephenson, C/W (24.5; drafted 77th overall in 2012; ranked 9th in 2017-18)
What a year Chandler Stephenson experienced last season. First, to start, he was put on waivers and wasn’t claimed so he went straight to the Hershey Bears. It didn’t take long for him to prove his worth putting up six points in 6 games. He was quickly called back up to the Capitals and stayed the rest of the season. And he wasn’t just a passenger, he stepped in and proved to be a legit NHL player. Wherever he was plugged into he helped with his speedy, two-way game. At one point he could be playing on the fourth line then next game be on the second, before playing on third. It didn’t matter, because wherever he played he seemed to just gel with whoever. That versatility turned out to be crucial in the playoff run for the Capitals where he provided great penalty killing and clutch plays with seven points in 24 games.
It’s safe to bet Stephenson won’t hit waivers again any time soon. He may not be a top-tier player, but guys like Stephenson are important for contending teams. He’s very reminiscent of a player like Bryan Rust for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who was crucial to their two most recent Cup runs. Rust and Stephenson are players that can be thrown into any position, whether on the fourth line and penalty kill, or slot next thigh end skill like Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Malkin, and on the power play, it doesn’t matter. Stephenson is reliable, fast, smart, with skills to boot. Those jack-of-all-trade players are needed for another run at Lord Stanley.
4. Andre Burakovsky, LW (23.7; drafted 23rd in 2013; ranked 1st in 2017-18)
The fans’ opinions about Burakovsky are divided. Many still stick to their guns and think that Andre is a legit top six forward that is capable of being one of the better forwards on the Capitals, while others think he’s a wash that will never reach that level and should be shipped out. There’s no denying Burakovsky’s skills. He has high end speed, fantastic vision, a great passer, has an underrated shot, and can break a game wide open (see 2018 playoffs, third round, game seven). Since the young Swede joined the Caps, over the last four seasons, he ranks fourth on the Capitals in 5v5 points per 60 minutes and always tends to be near the top of the list in possession and scoring chances. But his issue remains health and consistency, though the latter is connected to the former. Any time Burakovsky seem to get going he then gets hurt, which messes with his mental game, which affects his consistency.
Burakovsky knows that health and consistency are his main issues and he addressed them over the summer. He insisted that most of the injuries he suffered was due to poor protection on his gloves and will talk to the company that supplies his gear about fixing the problem. Additionally, he said he was going to see a sports psychologist about the consistency issues. If Andre can stay healthy and consistent he could finally have the breakout year many have been expecting for awhile. If he can’t put up a good season during his contract year, it’s possible it could be his last one in the red, white, and blue.
3. Ilya Samsonov, G (21.6; drafted 22nd overall in 2015; ranked 5th in 2017-18)
Ilya Samsonov is regarded as an elite goalie prospect. He has already played two full seasons at the pro-level (KHL), which is an amazing accomplishment, considering that he just turned 21 this past February, and considering that most goalies his age are playing in the minor leagues, in college, or in other developmental leagues.
During the 2017-18 season, Samsonov was the backup goalie for Metallurg Magnitogorsk to Vasily Koshechkin, who represented the Olympic Athletes from Russia in the 2018 Winter Olympics. He played 26 games during the regular season, posting a 12-9-1 record with a 2.31 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. He also played in five playoff games, posting a 1-2 record with a 2.30 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. Due to the loss of players to free agency, the team was not as good as they had been in the previous two seasons. While they made the playoffs again, the team was not as strong and appeared to struggle defensively.
The fact that he’s posted good statistics in the second-best hockey league in the world is a good sign on the level of his game, even if he has mostly served as his team’s backup. Development Camp and training camp will be huge for all goalies this summer but will especially be big for Samsonov, who will not only have to become comfortable in a new country and culture, but also adapt to North America’s smaller rink size. He will most likely play the 2018-19 season with the Hershey Bears, with an occasional call up to the Capitals.
2. Tom Wilson, RW (24.5; drafted 16th overall in 2012; ranked 3rd in 2017-18)
Love him (Capital fans) or hate him (everyone else), Wilson took a huge step forward last season going from fourth line regular to putting up top six 5v5 production when playing with Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, or Evgeny Kuznetsov. His 32 5v5 points ranked 96th among forwards in 5v5 production and in the last 82 games of the season he put up 44 5v5 points, which would have been good for 27th among forwards. That’s top line production from a guy many considered to be just a goon. Many will say he was just a passenger on that line, but he showed the speed and skill necessary to be an impactful player on that line. Was it a fluke or not? The Capitals certainly don’t think so because they signed him to a huge deal this summer ($5.17M AAV for 6 years).
No doubt he will be under a microscope with the big contract as people will be expecting continued top six production, while also staying out of the box and avoiding being suspended by the NHL. It will be challenge that every Cap fan is hoping he’ll take on and conquer. Because what’s scarier than a Tom Wilson barreling at you? A Tom Wilson that is barreling at you while also helping put pucks in the back of the net. That was the beast fans and opponents saw in the playoffs. If he can live up to it offensively while still being a physical menace than the Capitals will be even harder to compete against.
1. Jakub Vrana, LW (22.6; drafted 13th overall in 2014; ranked 2nd in 2017-18)
Vrana is a player whose work ethic and play in his own zone has not always matched his offensive talent. He was a healthy scratch for Hershey in the 2017 Calder Cup playoffs for being, in the words of his head coach Troy Mann, “irrelevant” in previous games. Vrana also found himself scratched last season by Capitals head coach Barry Trotz for not being involved enough. His lack of defensive play saw him sat by Trotz late in Stanley Cup playoff games in favor of the more responsible Chandler Stephenson. Vrana sometimes relies too much on his talent to get by instead of working. Still, there is no denying his offensive ability. The Czech winger has game-breaking speed and can blow past a defense with his skating ability. He takes a lot of shots but needs to get more on goal. He also needs to convert more of the shots he gets on net. Last season, he took 133 shots, but scored only 13 goals. That is a shooting percentage of 9.8. He needs to improve that number. He has good hands. Vrana tallied 27 points this past season and added eight in the playoffs. His biggest post season point was an game-winning goal with 4:38 remaining in game five against the Pittsburgh Penguins in game.
Vrana needs to raise his work ethic to the level of his talent and work as hard defensively as he does offensively. He has a good mentor in that regard. Teammate Alex Ovechkin struggled with his play in his own zone early in his career and has turned that around. He can help Vrana improve in that area. Vrana is capable of scoring 30 goals in the NHL. The talent is there. His speed creates all kinds of problems for opposing defenses. If he improves his accuracy on his shots and converts more of his chances, the sky is truly the limit for Vrana offensively.