PHILADELPHIA – Ross Mahoney sat at Podium 1 inside the Wells Fargo Center interview room, smiling as a reporter recapped the 2014 NHL draft, without a question tacked onto the back end for the assistant general manager. The Washington Capitals entered the weekend’s festivities here holding nine picks, tied for the most of any team. They left having selected six prospects, the reduced number a product of three separate trades, which according to the team’s media guide set a franchise record for a single entry draft.
Mahoney nodded. Yes, he confirmed, the Capitals were indeed busy.
“You target different players and you have players of the draft and you don’t think a player’s going to be there when it’s your opportunity to pick, you’ve got to be able to try to maneuver yourself up to try to get players you like,” he said.
After selecting winger Jakub Vrana at No. 13 on Friday night, the Capitals returned with a flurry of action the following morning. They moved up in the second round, and traded back into the third round. They obtained a backup goaltender for Hershey, packaged with another advancement in the sixth. For better or worse, Washington had its targets clearly identified, and made the moves necessary to get them.
“It enables Brian, as a general manager, to make the moves he would like to make,” Mahoney said. “It’s pretty hard if you don’t have extra picks and you’re scrambling around, trying to find more. If you know that going in, that’s part of your strategy, you know you have those extra picks [that] could be valuable as the draft goes on. In our case it was.”
With everything wrapped up in Philadelphia, the floor and stage being broken down and the team officials trickling away, here’s a recap of Washington’s seven picks, with thoughts on each from Mahoney:
First round, 13th overall
LW/RW Jakub Vrana, Czech Republic, Linkoping (Sweden)
After the Capitals tried and failed to move up so they could select defenseman Haydn Fleury, who was ultimately nabbed by Carolina at No. 7, Washington picked Vrana, the speedy 18-year-old winger from the Czech Republic who has spent the past three years in Sweden. Vrana finished as the top goal-scorer (eight) at the under-18 world championships playing for his native Czech Republic and, according to Mahoney, projects to be a top-six forward.
His growth was somewhat stunted this past season, playing primarily on the fourth line for Linkoping in Sweden’s top league, so a priority for Washington will be ensuring his next stop earns Vrana proper ice time.
“Jakub’s a very good skater,” Mahoney said. “He’s competitive but he has a gift. He can score goals and he’s proven that everywhere he’s played. Especially in the bigger games, in the tournaments. Another reason why I thought the Czech team played really well. I think he had eight goals in seven games. They weren’t just eight goals in seven games. They were important goals. They were game-winning goals and overtime goals and shootout goals. He did the same in the summertime also. He can skate. He’s a smart player. He’s a hard worker but he has a gift.”
Second round, 39th overall
G Vitek Vanecek, Czech Republic, Liberec Jr. (Czech Junior)
Twenty minutes into the morning, Washington sent the No. 44 and No. 74 picks to Buffalo for the No. 39 pick to select Vanecek, rated the eighth-best goaltending prospect in Europe by NHL Central Scouting. Three goaltenders were taken in the five picks prior to No. 39, which Mahoney said the Capitals anticipated, “so we had to be prepared to get one of the ones we targeted.”
It may be viewed as a reach based on the rankings, but Washington has proven itself adept at drafting netminders in recent seasons. A Czech Republic native like Vrana, Vanecek caught Washington’s eye during a summer tournament last season, with five Capitals scouts in attendance, and again at the under-18 world junior championships in April.
“We thought he was one of the reasons why the Czech team had such a good tournament,” Mahoney said. “Very athletic, very competitive. That’s probably the qualities that made him most attractive to us. We didn’t think he’d be later. You target certain players and do everything you can to try to move up to take them. We’re really happy to have the opportunity to take him.”
Third round, 89th overall
LW Nathan Walker, Australia, Hershey Bears (AHL)
A familiar face to the Capitals brass, Walker was only eligible for the 2014 draft because of a contract technicality that forced him into a one-year deal with Hershey last season, after scoring an invitation to Washington’s training camp. Clearly, the Capitals were afraid he would slip out of their hands on Saturday, despite expectations from personnel in Hershey that Walker would be selected in the fourth round at the earliest. Washington sent its No. 104 and No. 118 picks, both in the fourth round, to the New York Rangers. In moving back into the third round, the Capitals ensured they kept Walker in-house.
“Obviously we’ve been following Nathan for a few years because he was at our camp. We thought we had really good coverage on him,” Mahoney said. “He’s obviously ahead of some of the other players we drafted today because he has been playing with men. We’ve had him at our camps, we’ve had him play rookie games and exhibition games, which he played very well in all of those. His development for us is obviously sped up because of his ability to play with men.”
Washington made Walker the first Australian ever picked in the NHL entry draft.
“It’s unbelievable,” Mahoney said. “When he comes up and says, ‘Hey mate, how are you?’ it’s a little bit different. You don’t usually get that from the hockey players. We have a few different languages but Australian isn’t what’s being thrown at us.”
Fifth round, 134th overall
C/LW Shane Gersich, Minnesota, U.S. under-18s (USHL)
Another player tabbed from the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) by the Capitals, Gersich played his high school hockey in Minnesota and plans to skate with Omaha in the USHL next season.
“We’re happy with the path he’s chosen,” Mahoney said. “He probably played a little further down the lineup as compared to if he would have stayed in high school hockey. Getting that opportunity to go play in the USHL we expect him to play even more of an offensive role there.”
Mahoney said Washington views him as, “an excellent third-line center.”
“He’s a very good two-way player, very intelligent,” Mahoney said. “We’d like to see him get the skill level he showed a year ago, build on that after showing more of a checking role for the under-18 team.”
More on Washington’s relationship with the USNTDP tomorrow.
Sixth round, 159th overall
RW Steven Spinner, Minnesota, Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School
The product of Washington’s third and final trade, which shipped the No. 164, No. 192 and a 2015 seventh-round pick to Winnipeg for No. 159 and the rights to goaltending prospect Edward Pasquale, Spinner comes from Eden Prairie High School, but plans to play in the USHL next season before enrolling at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
“Really determined young man,” Mahoney said. “He’s one of those guys who really battles, takes the puck hard to the net.”
Pasquale will become a restricted free agent on July 1, but Hershey general manager Doug Yingst told the Patriot-News that he hopes Pasquale will stick around to back up Philipp Grubauer with the Bears this season.
Seventh round, 194th overall
RW Kevin Elgestal, Sweden, Frolunda Jr. (SHL)
With its final pick, Washington claimed the 6-foot-1 winger who posted 12 goals and 22 assists in 44 games against junior-level competition.
“Kind of the same situation as Gersich a bit,” Mahoney said. “He played on all the Swedish under-18 teams, [played] for the national team and also played junior during the season. [He] was in more of a checking role on the national teams, but he did put up good points when he played in the junior league. Same kind of player as Spinner too. Skates well, really works hard, kind of likes to get in the forecheck and be physical and take pucks hard to the net. Pretty similar, the last two picks we had.”