As we slog through the hockey doldrums of... checks notes... October, we’re looking at the top 25 players in the Washington Capitals roster or system that are under 25 years old. We went through #25 through #11; now it’s time to look at the next five.
As a reminder, prospects are ranked using a combination of their potential ceiling and their proximity to making the NHL. (Note: ages are based on age BEFORE October 1st, 2020.)
10) C, Hendrix Lapierre, 18yo, QMJHL
The Capitals took a swing this past draft on a high risk but very high reward center in Lapierre. A player that was destined to be top 10 even top five pick in the draft fell due to injury history to his head and neck. The good news is it came out that his injuries weren’t as serious as originally thought, but he still suffered at least one concussion and one neck injury and he did miss crucial development time so there is still certainly concern there.
The good news is he’s off to a great start in the QMJHL this season with eight points in five games which leads his team. Unfortunately Covid-19 put the season on hold so Lapierre can’t continue his progression but hopefully he gets to play more this season. It’s supposed to pick up soon but who knows how long that will last. He was invited to the World Juniors Canadian camp but it is a stacked team so it is certain he’ll make it. The QMJHL season will have to start up and stay active while he tears it up to cement his spot on the team.
The Capitals staff love this kid and truly believe he has number one center ability with his offensive skill set, brain, and willingness to work in his own zone. It’s too early to tell if that will happen, but if it works out that way the Capitals will be able to extend their Cup winning window even longer and Lapierre will quickly shoot up this list.
9) G, Vitek Vanecek, 24yo, AHL (Previously ranked 9th in 2019-2020)
Being able to sign The King, Henrik Lundqvist, was a great grab by the Capitals. He will be a strong back up and teacher for Ilya Samsonov. But outside New York Ranger fans, the most bummed out person is probably Vanecek. He was destined to be Samsonov’s back up this year but, obviously, won’t get that chance now unless injury occurs. Which is a shame because Vanacek has put in his time and has been a strong goalie for the Herhsey Bears for years. Like all Bears last season, he struggled the first couple months but pulled together a good season with a .917sv%. He looked great in pre-season and in the playoff bubble in Toronto as well.
The concern now is he has to go on waivers to return to Hershey to start the season. Usually, goalies are never picked off the waiver wire to start the season but then you wonder if teams look at Tristan Jarry from last season who went through waivers, then was called up to the Pittsburgh Penguins and had a great year. Could a team be looking at Vanecek and thinking the same? Who knows.
This is the last year that Vanecek will make this list, which is odd because it feels like the Capitals just drafted him yesterday. Goalies are weird and voodoo, so it shouldn’t be too much of a concern that Vanecek hasn’t made his NHL debut just yet. He still looks like, at least, a good NHL backup, but certainly has starter potential in him with his athletic and aggressive playing style. It’s just a matter of getting a chance to prove it.
8) C, Alexei Protas, 19yo, KHL (Previously ranked 16th in 2019-2020)
When the Capitals moved up in the 2019 draft to grab Protas in the third round, it was surprising, but the Capitals love to move up to grab the player they want. In Protas first year after his draft it’s easy to see why the Capitals took him. Protas is kind of a unicorn. He’s not only a big boy, clocking in 6’6” and 209 pounds, but he has the vision and hands like a high end playmaker. It’s hard to think of anyone with that combination.
Last season, in the WHL, Protas led his team in points with 80 in 58 games. That was 10 more than the next player on his team and Protas played six less games. It was a stellar year for him and he ended up putting up some of the best points of any player in the CHL (WHL+OHL+QMJHL) drafted in 2019. He ranked ninth in even strength primary points per game, 11th in primary points per game, and ninth in even strength primary points per 60 minutes. Some names he was better than: Ryan Suzuki, Phillip Tomasino, Samuel Poulin, Raphael Lavoie, Jakob Pelletier, Maxim Cajkovic, Alex Beaucage, and others that were ranked higher than Protas during the draft.
With the AHL postponed until February, Protas was loaned to the KHL to play for Dinamo Minsk. That’s a big deal. Protas is only 19 years old and is playing in the second best league in the world against men. He averages the 12th most time per game among forwards, so he’s basically just playing fourth line time, but for him to get any ice time is a great thing. He has four goals and one assist in 20 games, which doesn’t sound amazing, but again taking account his age and the league he’s playing in that’s very good. He has gone scoreless in the last seven games so hopefully that turns around soon.
It’s surprising he doesn’t have more assists with his playmaking ability but he probably isn’t playing with the best talent. But again, him sticking in one of the best leagues in the world is good news. He still has lots of developing to do, especially on his skating, but he has legit middle six center ability. Like an Eller type: a high end third line center that can step into second line duties when called upon.
7) C, Connor McMichael, 19yo, OHL (Previously ranked 6th in 2019-2020)
I know, this doesn’t make sense. McMichael is not only not in the top five but he moved down a space from last season?! The insanity! But remember this is not just about ceiling ability but proven ability too. Players in front of him not only have high ceilings, but they have been playing in the pros and have shown good to great results. McMichael had an amazing, historic season last year but has more to prove to move up this list, which we all know he will do. He’ll be number one here soon enough.
As it was just stated, McMichael had an absolutely amazing season last year. He had a good draft year, but his D+1 season came out of nowhere. Among all CHL players drafted with McMichael he ranked first in even strength primary points per game, second in primary points per game, and fourth in even strength primary points per 60 minutes. But what was really spectacular about his season was that he scored 26 more points than the next person (who was a defensemen) on his team, who played eight more games than him! This means it wasn’t like his team carried him, he carried them. Imagine if he had a bit more talent around him.
The issue is, currently, McMichael is not playing anywhere like some of the other Capitals top prospects. His last real game was in March and the OHL season isn’t kicking off until February. That’s nearly a full year without hockey development. He did get to spend time in the Toronto bubble with the Capitals and he is going to the World Juniors this year in November and December that will take up about four week time so that will certainly help. But it would have been nice if he was playing somewhere full time in Europe.
If McMichael can prove last season was the player he will be, then the Capitals could have hit a home run with their pick that could turn into a legit top line talent. If both him and Lapierre hit their ceilings the Capitals window could be open much longer than anticipated. But right now that is just a projection. We all need to see what McMichael does the next time he hits the ice and if he can continue his elite play.
6) LHD, Martin Fehervary, 20yo, KHL (Previously ranked 8th in 2019-2020)
When Fehervary was drafted in the second round in 2018, it felt a lot like when the Capitals drafted Jonas Siegenthaler in the second round of the 2015 draft: meh. Neither player is sexy in their style of play so they don’t really catch the eye, but then you see why the Capitals drafted them. They are fantastic skating defensive defensemen that ooze smarts and just know what to do with the puck in the defensive zone.
Also like Siegenthaler, Fehervary has been playing against men for years starting back in Europe so it’s no surprise that he’s adapted to the pro style in North America so well. His first year in the AHL was a huge success. His wheels and brain allow him to shut down the top end players in the AHL. He even had a six game stint with the Capitals and didn’t look much out of place.
Every time General Manager Brian MacLellan talks about Fehervary he speaks so highly of him and he’s a player the Capitals want in the lineup now. But with so many defensemen signed this summer it’s going to be hard to find playing time for Fehervary so he may have to go back to the Bears for one more season. There’s a top four player that looks quite similar to Nate Schmidt in Fehervary. He has the wheels and brain, if he can add a bit more offense to his game he will probably hit that ceiling.