We all know about the Capitals’ wealth of young talent on the NHL roster (a la Ovechkin, Green, Semin, Backstrom, etc.), but many casual fans don’t realize just how rich the Caps are in their development system as well. I went to Development Camp yesterday, and while it was only day 1, I had a great opportunity to see some of the new blood in action. I felt like I got a pretty good feel for the “big names” of the camp, so here are my observations.
Braden Holtby surprised me a little with his size and athleticism. Several times he made strong lateral moves to stop shots, and he rarely gave up goals on the first or second shot. His puck handling skills seemed to be much stronger than Varlamov, and he seemed relatively calm in net. This may be a result of the group he practiced with (he was with the more physical of the two groups), but he seemed to be able to handle shots much easier and challenge shooters more than I expected him to do. The only negative I really saw (which was probably because I saw him practice for the first time in a while) was that he had a tendency to be a little slow to recovering to his skates after a save. This resulted in some bad rebounds and goals on third and fourth cracks at the puck. His glove hand seemed strong and he didn’t seem to have any trouble with keeping hold of the puck once it hit him in the hand.
Big Joe Finley has all the size and physicality that I expected him to have. Dude is a freaking Great Dane on skates. The only problem with Finley is that he looks a little like a Great Dane puppy that isn’t quite used to his paws. His skating ability leaves a lot to be desired, and he became turned around easily. He seemed to always try and line up the big hit, and found himself out of position often against quicker skaters (i.e. Mathieu Perreault). When he was able to land a hit, he was vicious. It’s easy to tell that he still has the arm-breaking, Badger-whacking temperament that has developed into his MO. His shot also seemed to be sneakily quick, and we all were a little surprised at how heavy his shot was for coming off his stick so fast. After my talks with some of the guys around me, consensus was that Finley can be really good with a few years of seasoning in Hershey to work on his skating.
Mathieu Perreault seems to have worked quite a bit on his conditioning since the end of the season, and he was able to zip around slower defenders often during the morning skating session. Boudreau was so impressed that at one point (after Perreault beat Finley to the net and scored top shelf), he yelled "If youda done that in Game 5 you all wouldn't have had to go back to Manitoba!" Obviously he has some skills but Gabby worries a little about the consistency. It was also a little hard to tell just how good he was considering he was in a much less “skilled” group, but I'll trust Boudreau's assessment and agree that he looked pretty good.
Group B Standouts (aka The "Skill" Group)
Dmitry Kugryshev really showed up as an offensive force in this group. Kid has some serious wheels and handles, and seemed to be able to get his shots of quickly and with good location against the severely overmatched netminders. Kugryshev seemed a little bigger than I expected to be and above average with maintaining puck possession in traffic. That being said, Kugryshev’s defensive game leaves a lot to be desired (if not EVERYTHING to be desired). He had trouble against bigger forwards in drills when he was trying to match up and take them off them puck. That being said, I was eerily reminded a little bit of Alex Semin with his offensive prowess, albeit a poor man’s Semin (I’ll let you take that one Doug).
Stefan Della Rovere really surprised me with his strength on the puck and ability to get to the net. His shot wasn't the fastest or the hardest, but he seems to be one of the hardest workers of the group. His desire seemed much higher with regards to getting a shot on net and getting into open passing lanes. His size will be a little bit of a problem, but you have to like a guy with that kind of heart in your system. It was obvious that he had played some international-level hockey within the last year.
Dmitri Orlov was one prospect that seemed to jump out at me. The guy had a lot of moxie, and seemed to play with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. I found it interesting that Boudreau had him paired with John Carlson most of the day, since Orlov is also supposed to be an offensive-minded guy. After what seemed to be some early communication issues between the two (obviously language-based), they seemed to gel and Orlov gained some serious confidence. I only really remember him getting beaten badly once by Della Rovere, and laying a couple of big licks on Anton Gustafsson (one of which he came up smarting from). I liked his energy level and positioning overall.
Speaking of 'Lil Gus (don't call him that though, I don't know that he'd like it), Anton Gustafsson was all that he's been advertised as. The kid is extremely strong on the puck and seemed to skate with a low center of gravity. He had little fear in going to the net, although he did end up on his head in the crease when he decided to get a little too cute with the puck. It's obvious to me that Gus has great potential to anchor the second line in the future, and it's very encouraging to see that he feels ready to play in North America this year. He seemed to be very calm and poised, something you love to see in a young pivot. He's got a lot of learning to do in moving to a smaller sheet of ice, but with his size, skating ability and mental toughness, Gus seems like he's a big plus for the organization heading into the future.
Another nice pivot that I noticed was Cody Eakin, who had a lot of determination and want-to. He was very intent on maintaining a high energy level during his first practice with his new organization, and he also seemed to have good strength on the puck. He seemed to be pretty defensively responsible and fared well in one-on-one puck drills.
FInally we get to the gem of the group. Nineteen-year-old John Carlson seemed to impress everyone in the building as soon as he got out on the ice. I was impressed by his size and swagger, and he seemed to be a men among boys throughout the entire practice. His leadership immediately showed when he was paired with Orlov, and he seemed to be an extra coach on the ice to the newer blue-liners. Carlson's positioning was very good, and Boudreau never had to address his spacing, which was something that he harped on through the entire afternoon practice. Carlson did look a little bored in my opinion, but the effort was there, and he's only going to improve. He was able to maintain puck possession extremely well against forwards in one-on-ones and used his size and stick handling equally to embarrass other players. With his shot, positioning, stick skills and hockey sense, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see him in the district come October.
Overall I was pretty impressed with the development group, although I was a little disappointed with the talent distribution. It would have been nice to see guys like Gus and Della Rovere go up against Holtby, and vice versa. That's what you deal with in a split practice. I'll be interested to see how the rest of the week shakes out.