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The Capitals’ Top 25 Under 25: 2021-22, Part III

A look at the top 25 players in the Capitals organization under the age of 25, finishing with numbers 5 through 1.

Earlier this month we took a look at 20 of the top 25 players under 25 in the Caps’ organization (and if you need a refresher, here’s Part I and Part II). Now it’s time to wrap things up with a look at the final five.

5) Alexander Alexeyev, LHD, 21yo, 6’4” 209lbs (Previously Ranked 5th)
KHL: 55GP - 8G - 8A
AHL: 12GP - 2G - 7A

The Skinny: Alexeyev headed to the KHL once the pandemic hit last season, and did very well for a 21-year-old playing in the second-best league in the world. He clocked in the third-highest time on his team among defensemen and played both left and right side on just about every pairing. For him to eat those tough minutes while also playing different sides of the ice is very impressive and is very valuable experience. Among all U22 defensemen in the KHL, he was second in points with 16, fifth in points-per-game (0.29), and first in games played.

Once his season ended in the KHL he came over to Hershey and finished his season there, where he was a man among boys. After getting top-four minutes in the KHL, the transition to the top pairing in the AHL was probably pretty easy for him. His 0.75 points per game was 6th among AHL defensemen that played at least 10 games, and tied for first among defensemen under 22. He also tied with Martin Fehervary for first in even-strength primary points and primary points per game. He was second in even strength primary points per game.

Potential and Comparable: Alexeyev certainly isn’t the sexiest defensive prospect out there because he isn’t a pure offensive defensemen, but he still has the potential to be a really strong top-three defensemen in the NHL. He’s reminiscent of Mattias Ekholm, a big body that can skate well, that you can use in every situation against any opponent and just a very reliable defensemen who does everything above average.

An easier way to look at Alexeyev is just a bigger version of Dmitry Orlov. We all know how great Orlov is at both ends of the ice, and Alexeyev will bring that same element but in a bigger package... which should scare other teams.

What’s Next: Alexeyev is probably NHL-ready, but it seems Fehervary is in front of him on the depth chart and it’s hard to see head coach Peter Laviolette having two rookie defensemen in the lineup at the same time. It’s also hard to see Brian MacLellan allow Alexeyev to sit in the press box every game, so Alex will probably spend one more year in the AHL, although he’ll hopefully get a handful of NHL games in as an injury call-up. It won’t hurt his development to play in Hershey one more season, but starting in 2022 he’ll need to be getting full NHL time.

4) Alexei Protas, C, 20yo, 6’6” 214lbs (Previously Ranked 8th)
KHL: 58GP - 10G - 8A
AHL: 16GP - 2G - 5A

The Skinny: Protas, like Connor McMichael, blew up in his D+1 season, doubling his points from 40 to 80 points in three fewer games (58 games). He was poised to blow up on the WHL for his D+2 season but when the WHL shut down for COVID he went overseas to play in the KHL. Unfortunately he got mostly fourth-line time there (13th among forwards on his team) but he still made the most of it. Among U20 forwards in the KHL, he was first in points with 18, first in games played with 58 and fifth in points-per-game with 0.31. He deserved more ice time but when he was given it he produced, and by the playoffs he had moved into his team’s top six, responding with four points in five games.

After he played a grueling KHL schedule he flew over to North America to play for Hershey but still didn’t get the ice time he deserved (11th among forwards on his team). Again, he was still able to produce in limited time, with seven points in 16 games. If you include playoff games, Protas played 79 professional hockey games between the KHL and AHL in the 2020-21 season, and scored 13 goals and 16 assists (29 points). That is all sorts of impressive for a 19-year-old that played mainly fourth-line minutes.

Potential and Comparable: Protas is such a unique player. He clocks in at 6’6”, 214 lbs, but has elite vision and hands, and his shot is above average. Even his speed is good for someone his size (as you can see in the video below). He honestly doesn’t have many flaws and a lot of pluses.

There aren’t really any comparables for him because no one in today’s NHL has Protas’ combination of size and skill. A close option could be Nick Bjugstad, who has the size but perhaps not the offensive upside Protas has. He may even have a little Mark Stone in him - perhaps not the same level of skill, but has similarities in the size, the above-average shooting and passing ability, and limited skating that can be overcome with elite hockey sense.

What’s Next: Protas is probably behind McMichael in terms of call ups, so if there isn’t room for McMichael there certainly isn’t room for Protas with the Capitals. He’ll play at least another year in the AHL, but most likely two. The issue with being in Hershey is that they tend to go by a three-year plan with their kids, where their first two seasons are in the bottom-six, then the third year they get the minutes they deserve - but Protas really should get top-six minutes right away, so hopefully they’ll give him that shot.

3) Connor McMichael, C, 20yo, 6’0” 187lbs (Previously Ranked 7th)
AHL: 30GP - 14G - 13A

The Skinny: It’s no surprise that McMichael checks in as the top prospect on this list, as he continues to prove he’s one of the more promising prospects in the game. After blowing up his Draft+1 (D+1) season in the OHL with 102 points in 52 games (47 goals) he looked primed to go back there for his D+2 season and possibly be the highest scorer in the league. But with the pandemic hitting he was forced to play pro with the Hershey Bears in the AHL last season - and it was probably the best thing that could have happened to him.

As fun as it would have been to see him tear apart the OHL, it was better for his development to play against men and build is overall game. Looking at his numbers (27 points in 32 games), it doesn’t blow you away but it’s impressive when you consider he led the whole team by three points as a 19-year-old.

Potential and Comparable: There’s no doubt that McMichael has a top-six future in the NHL; the question is, can he be a legit first-line player in the NHL? He has the brain, vision, and shot, so it’s really up to him how far he can go. But the fact the Capitals were able to grab someone of his talent at the end of the first round is already a win.

Bo Horvat and Travis Konecny are pretty good comparables for McMichael, as both are smaller guys who play a fast, highly skilled game. The difference for now is that Horvat and Konecny have a bit more of a physical edge to their play - but this is something that McMichael could certainly add to his game as he builds up strength.

What’s Next: McMichael is probably NHL-ready but the Capitals’ center depth right now may be too deep for him to crack the roster. They could try him at wing but again, the Capitals are pretty stacked there as well and it isn’t worth bringing him up to be the healthy scratch. He needs to be playing and he’ll get plenty of playing time in Hershey as their number-one center continuing to round out his game and get stronger. Expect him to get as much NHL time as they can give him (potentially to start the season, depending on where Nicklas Backstrom’s recovery is).

2) Daniel Sprong, 24yo, 6’0” 200lbs (Previously Ranked 4th)
NHL: 42GP - 13G - 7A

The Skinny: I’ve been pumping Sprong’s tires since he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2015. He’s an electric player with great speed and has one of the best releases in the game. His passing is a very underrated aspect of his game that he has to use more. He had a stellar season for the Capitals, scoring 13 goals in 42 games, basically a 25 goal pace over a full season, while playing bottom six minutes.

This past season, at 5v5 per 60 minutes among forwards that played at least 20 games (he played 41), Sprong was second in goals and 20th in points. Looking at the same 5v5 stats among forwards from the last three seasons that played at least 100 games (he played 113), Sprong ranks 11th in goals per game and 109th in points. And if you look through the names on the list I just mentioned, no one around him played close to the time on ice per game stat he did. Maybe give the kid more ice time and see what he can do with it?

Potential and Comparable: Sprong could hit 35+ goals and be a 60+ point player in his prime, but that would require consistent top six minutes with first-unit power-play time as well. Sprong won’t get that time with the Capitals, which is a shame, but it’s not the end of the world for the Capitals, who obviously have loads of shooting talent.

If Sprong was developed properly he probably would have been similar to Jakub Vrana, maybe a little step down. He gets a lot of comparisons to Cap fan favorite Brett Connolly, who also made the most of his goal-scoring abilities in limited minutes. Sprong is a step above Connolly though - he’s more than just a shot, he has speed and plays a more physical game too. He also is a good playmaker, though that hasn’t shown much with the Capitals but will hopefully come out with more ice time.

What’s Next: Sprong forced himself into the lineup and though he didn’t get to stay in the lineup as much as he should have, he impressed enough to get protected in the Seattle expansion draft. Hopefully, he gets top nine minutes from the start of the season and is the first winger moved into top six when there’s an injury or a shake up needed. The best option would be to start Sprong in the top six and put T.J. Oshie on the third line to spread out the speed and skill... but that may be wishful thinking for now.

1) Ilya Samsonov, G, 24yo, 6’3” 205lbs (Previously Ranked 2nd)
NHL: 19GP - .902sv% - 2.69GAA

The Skinny: It’s probably an understatement to say that last season did not go as planned for Samsonov, which included a bout with COVID. We know how hard it can be for anyone to come back from that feeling 100%, and that’s probably particularly tough for a professional athlete who needs to be in the best shape possible in order to do their job.

That’s not to say there weren’t flashes of what makes him a great goalie: he’s almost at veteran-level when it comes to reading plays and shots, and his athleticism is otherworldly, which gives him a chance to save just about any shot. But for every handful of great saves he had, he’d give up some really odd goal (think against the Islanders, that shorthanded shot from the blue line that went five hole with no one screening him). Maybe it was his recovery, maybe it was just a mental block - whatever it was, that’s not the type of goal you want a top-level goalie giving up.

Potential and Comparable: Samsonov still has an incredibly high ceiling - he could be a top-five goalie in the league. He has the whole package when it comes to being a goalie: size, smarts, and athleticism. But it will take staying on the ice - and not allowing anything off ice to throw him off track - for him to hit his potential.

Since being drafted, Ilya has consistently been compared to Andrei Vasilevsky. Their KHL stats, their build, and ability are very similar. The difference is Vasilevsky has kept his nose to the grindstone and worked hard to eventually backstop a back-to-back Cup winning team (and win a Vezina in the process). Samsonov needs to follow suit and just focus on hockey. If he can do that the Capitals are set in net for a long time.

What’s Next: Samsonov was given a “prove it” contract this summer, signing a one-year, $2M deal, and will be an RFA next season with arbitration rights. If he wants to stick in this league (and with the Caps), he needs to make this season count. He’ll be given his chance to do just that, but Vitek Vanecek is waiting right there in the wings, so Samsonov’s leash won’t be very long.