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Offseason Opinions: Next Man Up

Which prospect takes the next big leap?

Columbus Blue Jackets v Washington Capitals Photo by John McCreary/NHLI via Getty Images

Ladies and gentlemen... the offseason. It stretches out ahead of us, seemingly endless, with little hockey news to report. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about! Over the next few months we’ll be tackling different questions, roundtable-style - with topics ranging from things facing the Caps right now to things we just like talking about.

First up, a look at which of the Caps’ many talented prospects might get a shot at the big squad.

Who is the next Caps’ prospect to make the leap to the full-time NHL roster?

Rob: I guess McMichael was full time last year, on the roster if not the ice, so he probably doesn’t count but everyone is looking for him to break through. I think the team wants and needs a defensemen to step up–real bad timing for the Alexeyev injury–but I’m going Protas. Lavi liked his game last year, he’s a big body that can handle NHL physicality, and the forwards are riddled with injuries going in to the season.

Luke: I’m going to skip McMichael, Protas, and Leason as they all played over 30 games last season. My first answer was Alexander Alexeyev, but a shoulder surgery will keep him out for months, which is a real shame. This was his time to finally shine but we’ll have to wait a bit longer. So I’ll go with Joe Snively. He only played 12 games last year but put up 4 goals and 7 points in the NHL.It will be fascinating to see what he can do with a full season, or at least a long consistent stint. Issue is he will have to fight Conor Sheary and Marcus Johansson for a top nine spot while Backstrom, Wilson, and Hagelin sit in LTIR, which won’t be easy since Laviolette loves his vets. But Snively brings a more offensive game than the other two, so if he can keep putting up points maybe he can solidify a spot.

Peerless: Even with the injuries with which the Capitals must contend to start the season, I think it will be tough for any prospect to crack the lineup on a regular basis in 2022-23. But at the end of this season, ten of the 20 roster skaters will be unrestricted free agents, and three others will be restricted free agents (two with arbitration rights, according to capfriendly.com), which could create a number of vacancies into which a prospect or two could get a foothold.

If I were to limit the pool to players who have not yet appeared in an NHL game or rookies who played fewer than 20 games last season, I think this might come down to Joe Snively or Hendrix Lapierre among the forwards. But keep in mind, too, that after this season the Caps have one roster defenseman under contract – John Carlson. This could open a path for a player like Alex Alexeyev, who will be spending much of this season rehabilitating and coming back from shoulder surgery, but who might be in a position to assume a regular role by 2023-2024, although he is a restricted free agent after this season.

Of these three, Snively might be more “NHL-ready” than the others (although he is coming off wrist surgery), Lapierre might have the most long-term upside, and Alexeyev might have the most uncertainty as a product of his injury. Of this trio, I’m with Luke and going with Snively. And no, I did not forget goaltenders, but I find it unlikely any goalie in the Caps’ system is going to be breaking into the lineup on a regular basis any time soon.

J.P.: Protas and Snively are both good answers and each, arguably, should be here full time. But I’m not sure either will. Protas is waiver-exempt, so he’s the first to go (“sorry kid, your time will come”); Snively strikes me as a flash-in-the-pan, but more than that, I’m seeing a top-nine that looks something like this while they wait on Tom Wilson (and his $5+ million cap hit) to return:

Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Brown

Mantha-Strome-Oshie

Johansson-Eller-Sheary

And that doesn’t even include McMike, who probably finds his way into that mix. So that’s ten guys for nine slots. Who (which two players) does a Protas or Snively (or Lapierre or Leason) bump from that group?

The fourth line, however, has a Carl Hagelin-sized hole on it, and the obvious fit there is Hagelin 2.0, a.k.a. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. It’s not a sexy pick, but AJF fits the role and, likely more importantly, at $750k is the cheapest guy on the team, coming in meaningful dollars lower than the other guys we’ve named. Every dollar is going to matter this year, as Brian MacLellan juggles his roster, and having a guy who can play at the League-minimum makes him a pretty good bet to make the team. Either him or that Ovechkin kid…

Okay, we’ve had our say. Now it’s your turn! Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below.