Before the team hits the ice for the official beginning of camp, we’ve got some more business to take care of — namely counting down the Caps’ top-25 players under the age of 25 (and if you missed our first installment yesterday, un-miss it here).
Let’s dive right in to the top-10, which features a handful of guys the team will be relying on to take the next step in their respective development paths in 2019-20...
10) Garrett Pilon, 21yo, C, AHL (ranked 13th in 2018-2019)
The Capitals saw something in Pilon when they traded up in the 2016 draft to grab him in the third round. He had a good junior career, finishing it off by leading his team in points to the Championship where they unfortunately lost. Last season was his first AHL season, and though his stats don’t jump off the page, he did well relative to his team. The Bears had a tough start to the year then picked it up in January and Pilon followed suit: Garrett posted 11 points in the first 34 games through December (25 point pace over a full season), but he followed it up with 22 points in 37 games to end the season (45 point pace over a full season).
Pilon is small but has above average skill, which includes great vision and hands. He has a very underrated shot from in close. If he has a second he can snipe it. For him this season, he needs to cement a lineup spot as a center and show off his offensive skills. The good news is the Capitals are very light when it comes to centers in their system so he has time to develop. If everything turns out right he could become a good middle six skilled player, potentially a Lars Eller replacement down the line.
9) Vitek Vanecek, 23yo, G, AHL (ranked 21st in 2018-2019)
Samsonov obviously gets most of the spotlight when it comes to goaltending prospects, but Vanecek shouldn’t be so easily forgotten. His stats aren’t spectacular in the AHL, but considering most the Bear teams he’s played behind have been not so great it’s understandable. Vanecek is small but makes up for it with his athleticism and smarts. He can make some amazing plays to keep his team in the game. But there’s only so much a goalie can do for a bad team.
This season will be big for him either way. Because if he plays in Hershey he’ll be behind a very good Bears team so he won’t have any excuses about poor play. But he also has a chance to make the Capitals team out of the gate because of cap constraints. So either way, Vanecek’s future will be determined this season to see if he’s worth keeping or will forever be in the AHL or another league. He has NHL potential, it’s up to him to prove he’s an NHL player this defining season.
8) Martin Fehervary, 19yo, LHD, AHL
When the Capitals selected Fehervary in the second round of the 2018 draft it was very odd for two reasons. First, it was yet ANOTHER left handed defensemen, something the Capitals already had a plethora of. And secondly, Fehervary wasn’t a sexy player, which you usually want to take in the first two rounds. But Martin quickly proved why the Capitals called his name sooner than most expected. Fehervary is an incredibly fast, smooth skater with IQ through the roof. He reads plays extremely well and knows where to be to shut down an opponent and get the puck out of his zone. There’s a reason why he was able to play against men as a 19 year old in the SHL.
Now it’s time for him to adapt that play over to North America and the Hershey Bears. Don’t expect huge point totals Fehervary but expect a reliable, high possession player that can shut down scoring chances against and help create scoring chances for. He plays eerily similar to the Capitals fan favorite Nate Schmidt. They both can fly up and down the ice and help with puck possession while playing against high end talents. If the Capitals were able to grab a Schmidt in the second round, then it is well worth the price.
7) Brett Leason, 20yo, RW, WHL
Being dubbed the steal of the 2019 draft (though the Los Angeles Kings selecting Arthur Kaliyev so late might have something to say about that), Brett Leason finally landed on a team after being passed over twice before in the draft. And how couldn’t a team select him this time around? He absolutely shredded the WHL this season, being ranked first in even strength primary points per game and third in all strengths primary points per game. He’s big, fast (for his size), incredibly smart, has great vision, and has an NHL ready wrister.
But that was in juniors and no matter how impressive that was, he was still a man playing among boys. What he does this year in his first professional season in the AHL will say a lot about what the Capitals have. Leason got a lot of Mark Stone comparisons because of the size, great two-way play, and scoring ability. In fact, Leason had better or similar even strength stats in his 19 year old WHL season than what Stone put up. But Stone followed that final WHL season up with 38 points in 54 AHL games. Can Leason follow his footsteps? If he can than the Capitals have a legit top six player to work with and he’ll shoot up to the top of this list next season.
6) Connor McMichael, 18yo, C, OHL
For the first time since Evgeny Kuznetsov in 2010, the Capitals took a center in the first round. And though he probably won’t be another Kuznetsov, McMichael certainly has top six abilities. He’s not the biggest but he lives in the slot and is able to hold his own against anyone who tries to move him. He’s a sniper with a great release, but what makes him a deadly goal scorer is finding those soft, high danger spots around the net. He’s a good skater with a good IQ that’s able to break up a lot of plays, though it’s arguable he could put more emphasis on his defensive game.
McMichael will spend next season back in the OHL with Dale Hunter’s London Knights as their number one center most likely. He still has awhile to go but his raw skill is a good base to build off of. He needs to grow his game before hitting the next level, but if he pans out the Capitals should have a top six center on their hands. He plays similar to Travis Konecny or Bo Horvat, both smaller but tenacious players that won’t let anyone get in their way. He could probably adapt to play wing as well, but considering Backstrom isn’t getting any younger the Capitals would prefer he grew as a center.