With rookie camp wrapping up and training camp set to begin Thursday at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, most of Washington’s top prospects are looking to do one of two things in the coming days and, if they perform well, the coming weeks: prove they’re ready to secure a spot in DC or show they’re progressing at the proper pace.
So who are they, how do they measure up and where do they fit in the Capitals’ short- and long-term plans? Here’s my crack at ranking the organization’s top 10 prospects, with thoughts on each player’s trajectory from assistant general managers Ross Mahoney and Chris Patrick.
To be clear, the ranking is mine, not the organization’s. My criteria? I only considered players who are 25 or younger and have played 40 or fewer NHL games. So no Martin Fehervary or Connor McMichael, both of whom I consider to have “graduated” to veteran status after playing 79 and 68 games last season. Or Joe Snively, who is 26. (The Athletic‘s Corey Pronman used only age, not service time, in ranking the Capitals’ prospect pool.)
Now, for my ranking.
1. Hendrix Lapierre, C
2022-23 preview: The 2020 first-rounder means business. He came to town several weeks early to participate in the informal veteran skates and, during the just-completed four-day rookie camp, he has looked like the top prospect that he is against players his own age.
Lapierre’s reach goal is to earn a spot in the Caps’ opening night lineup and, after making the cut last October, why not? The reality of the situation, though, is that Washington, when fully healthy, goes Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dylan Strome, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd down the middle, with an injured Nicklas Backstrom (hip surgery) hoping to return at some point.
Can Lapierre force GM Brian MacLellan’s hand? Perhaps. But it’s more likely he’ll start the season in AHL Hershey, where he can play top-six minutes and on special teams. A season with the Bears didn’t hurt McMichael. It won’t hurt Lapierre, either.
What they’re saying: “He’s going into camp on a mission to make the Caps, and that’s the mindset you want your top prospects to have. We’ll just have seen how things play out through camp and the beginning of the season. I feel like, as an organization, we’ve done a good job of putting our young players in the right situation for their development, and that’s what will ultimately guide our decision with him. Whatever situation he gets put in, we’ll have to ask ourselves, ‘Is this the best situation for his development now?’ because he looks like he’s going to be a very important player for us in the future so we want to make sure we bring him along the right way. That question will get answered in training camp.” —Chris Patrick
2. Ivan Miroshnichenko, LW
2022-23 preview: The Caps bet big on the 18-year-old, whom they drafted 20th overall in July after other teams passed over him due to a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis in March. Word is that Miroshnichenko continues to make strides in his recovery, though he has yet to receive full clearance to return. Assuming the right-shot left wing from Russia (sound familiar?) receives a clean bill of health in the coming weeks, as expected, he’s slated to spend this season playing in his homeland.
It may be a while before Miroschnichenko suits up for the Caps, but they’re gambling that the projected top-line power forward will be worth the wait.
What they’re saying: “He should end up playing for Omsk in the KHL. But right now they are still making sure that he’s ready to play because of what he’s gone through. He’s getting healthier and has been skating, but I don’t know if he’s had final clearance to be able to play. His dad is his hockey coach; he’s been working out with him. … (In the KHL), he’ll be playing against grown men. Everything will be faster. Physically it’ll be a challenge. But sometimes the smarter, skilled players like him don’t find the jump quite as big as some of the other players.” —Ross Mahoney
3. Aliaksei Protas, C
2022-23 preview: The 2019 third-rounder got his first taste of the NHL last season, suiting up for 33 games, and he’s hungry for more. But like Lapierre, he may need to be patient. When healthy, the Caps don’t have any openings at center, the position Washington’s decision-makers project the 6-foot-6, 225-pounder to eventually fill because of his skating style, hockey sense and skill.
Can he perform well enough in the preseason to displace a veteran? Maaaybe. It’s more likely, though, that he’ll start the season in Hershey, get some NHL games as an injury replacement and work to position himself for a full-time role a year from now when there could be a couple of center jobs up for grabs.
What they’re saying: “It’s time for him to take that next step and establish himself as one of the key young forwards on our team. He’s just got to stick with the development plan. If he’s in Washington or if he’s in Hershey, he has to understand that there’s a plan in place, there’s a process in place, and our goal is to make him the best player for the Caps, not just this year but for several years in the future ideally.” —Chris Patrick
4. Vincent Iorio, D
2022-23 preview: Like Lapierre, Iorio arrived in Washington several weeks early to participate in the informal veteran skates and to train at the facility. How much does that matter? Depends. But it certainly sends the right message to decision-makers.
One thing that jumps out right away about the 2021 second-rounder is how much bigger he looks compared to last year. And that figures to be a huge deal as he leaves junior behind for the grown-up world of pro hockey. Although he’s pegged for Hershey, he might be the fourth-best right-shot “D” in the organization behind John Carlson, Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk. And with everyone on the blue line except for Carlson playing on an expiring contract, Iorio’s time could arrive sooner than later.
What they’re saying: “He’s another high-character guy, good two-way defenseman, good penalty killer, makes a good first pass. He’s worked really hard this offseason, too. He looks a lot stronger. He’s starting to turn into a man.” —Ross Mahoney
5. Lucas Johansen, D
2022-23 preview: Is this the year the 2016 first-round pick finally makes the cut? Things certainly seem to be tracking in that direction. Although the top six on the back end—Carlson, Orlov, Jensen, van Riemsdyk, Erik Gustafsson and Fehervary—appear to be locked in, Johansen could earn a spot in DC as the No. 7.
And what if that happens? Could he eventually put some pressure on Gustafsson? No one really knows. Because Johansen has missed so much time in recent years due to injury, it’s hard to project exactly what he is at the NHL level.
What they’re saying: “He’s got a really good opportunity, and he realizes he has a really good opportunity. He just had his strongest professional season (in Hershey) and we’re really interested to see what he backs that up with. We need to get him some games, get him playing and see how he does.” —Chris Patrick
6. Ryan Chesley, D
2022-23 preview: The Caps didn’t think the US National Team Development Program graduate would still be on the board at No. 37 in July but they were elated he was.
Chesley, a 6-foot-1, 201-pound University of Minnesota recruit, is a little further away than most of the other players in this ranking, but it’s also possible he’s got a higher ceiling.
What they’re saying: “I’m a big fan of Ryan’s. I mean, what’s there not to like about him? He’s a good kid, he’s got good character and can really skateboarding. He scored more goals than any defenseman in the history of the Under-17 and Under-18 program, even though he never played on the power play. He was more in a penalty-killing role, and he accepted that role to do those things. The skating, the shot, the strength, the character, I’m excited about where he’ll be a few years.” —Ross Mahoney
7. Brett Leason, RW
2022-23 preview: Like Lapierre and Protas, the 6-foot-5, 218-pound winger has got to patiently wait for his turn in DC
After trading for Connor Brown and re-signing Marcus Johansson this offseason, the Caps simply have no room at the inn, at least when they’re fully healthy. Which, unfortunately for Leason, could mean biding his time in Hershey—again.
What they’re saying: “If things did not go our way (in free agency and the trade market), you might have him penciled in your top 12 in Washington. He’s shown himself to be a pretty useful guy at the NHL level already, just because (coach Peter Laviolette) knows what he’s going to get when he puts him out there. He’s able to play safe — and I’m not saying that in a bad way. It’s making the right plays coming out of its own end, coming up with pucks in the offensive end. He also always seems to get his one or two (scoring) chances a game.” —Chris Patrick
8. Alexander Suzdalev, LW
2022-23 preview: Connor Bedard is the projected No. 1 overall pick in 2023, and Suzdalev is expected to line up alongside him this season for WHL Regina.
Might some of that Bedard magic rub off on uber-skilled Suzdalev, Washington’s third-round pick this past July? Well, that’s the hope.
What they’re saying: “During COVID (and the 2020-21 season), there was no hockey in the Western Hockey League, so Connor Bedard went over to HV71 in Sweden and played — and that’s where Suzladev was. So this year, Suzladev decided he was going to come over to Regina and play with Connor Bedard. They’ll be on the same line. It’s a good situation. … The challenge for Suzdalev will be strength, to put some weight on. But the skating, the hands, the hockey sense, the vision is really, really good.” —Ross Mahoney
9. Alex Alexeyev, D
2022-23 preview: The good news? Alexeyev, the team’s 2018 first-round pick, is on the mend after undergoing surgery on his left shoulder in late June. The bad news? He’s still wearing a baby blue no-contact jersey on the ice and has several more weeks of rehab ahead, meaning he won’t be ready to compete with Johansen and Matt Irwin for a spot in training camp.
What they’re saying: “He stayed here after his surgery, which is encouraging, to do some training here, get some skating work in here. He made the best of a tough situation. All the reports I’ve got, he did a lot of positive things, got himself stronger and getting himself to a better spot physically. Now the challenge is to continue his rehab and (when he’s healthy) take that growth that he’s had to the next level in-season. The big thing is, can he play at NHL pace consistently? My hope is that the work that he’s put in this summer will help him get there.” —Chris Patrick
10. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, LW
2022-23 preview: With Carl Hagelin’s status up in the air due to an eye injury, there could be an opening for a left wing on the fourth line. Can Jonsson-Fjallby, 24, lock that down? Unclear. What’s clear is this: There’s going to be a lot of competition for that spot. Snively has his eyes on it. So does Beck Malenstyn. And, depending on how the top nine shakes out, so could a veteran like Marcus Johansson.
What they’re saying: “For him, it’s consistency. The role he’s got to play is not a role that you can play a certain way one night and a different way the next night. Garnet Hathaway is so good at what he does because he brings the same work ethic, compete, intensity, physicality every game. A lot of times it’s hard for a young player to execute that level of play every night in that role. It isn’t an easy thing to do. For him, that’s the big thing. Because when he’s on he’s great, but he’s got to be on every night.” —Chris Patrick
(Top photo of Hendrix Lapierre: Geoff Burke/USA Today)