20 June 2007

NHL draft talk - #5 pick: Washington Capitals

Full text/summary of my mock top 5 can be found on SportsGrumblings.com (signin required but they mercifully don't put you on any mailing lists)

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After yet another down year, the Capitals as they present are constructed - unlike a franchise like, say, Los Angeles - don't exactly have an impending crop of young players at the NHL level ready to help make the team take that next step towards respectability. Last year's fourth overall pick - center Nicklas Backstrom - returned to Europe in 2006 rather than immediately sign with Washington (although he was
just signed by the Capitals to a three-year entry-level deal). Talented forward prospects like Eric Fehr and Francois Bouchard (QMJHL scoring leader with 125 points) should still be expected to be at least a year or two away from not only earning a full-time spot with the big club but having any sort of positive impact.

In terms of goaltending, the team drafted two in the top 34 picks last year in prospects Michal Neuvirth (2nd round, 2006) and Semen Varlamov (1st round, 2006) and both are developing nicely: Neuvirth led his Plymouth Whalers to their first OHL title and Memorial Cup last month, sporting a .932 save percentage over 18 playoff games; Varlamov excelled at this year's World Junior Championships (WJC) and is generally considered the top Russian goaltending prospect, putting up a 2.12 GAA in the Russian Super League. There should be good competition in coming years once longtime incumbent Olaf Kolzig finally retires.

In other words, barring a rash of trades and free agent signings this summer, the Capitals will still be building for a few years down the road (and have Alexander Ovechkin's restricted free agency status to look forward to after this coming season). Assuming that Washington's brass feels the same way, trying to figure out the direction of their first round selection is intriguing. Finding that one specific position in the Capitals' organization that they need to upgrade is difficult, and at the number five selection they could reasonably be expected to take whom they deem is the most-talented player available. If I'm going by my biased assumptions of the first four selections, James VanRiemsdyk and Jakub Voracek won't be available (if they are, Washington would be well off selecting either one)

The Capitals could continue their European invasion by drafting Alexei Cherepanov, the top-ranked European in the draft. Cherepanov will help eventually give the Capitals an outstanding top 4 with Alexander Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin - perhaps as early as next season. Cherepanov was the top forward at the WJC this past winter and scouts rave about his offensive presence and creativity. The knock is that he can be maddeningly inconsistent and disappears at times. By drafting the Russian and putting fellow countryman Ovechkin at his side, the Capitals may be able to take this high-risk / high- reward player and help transform their club into an offensive dynamo over the next few seasons.

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