HERSHEY, Pa. — June’s NHL draft in Vancouver will mark the five-year anniversary of the Washington Capitals drafting winger Jakub Vrana with the 13th pick, the last time the team used a first-round pick on a forward. For how much the Capitals have leaned on homegrown talent over the years, their prospect pool at forward has been considered a weakness since Vrana graduated to full-time NHL duty two years ago, leaving Washington without any other forwards who project as top-six players in the NHL.
That hasn’t necessarily hurt the Capitals, because there isn’t an immediate need on their top two lines. Washington is expected to return its entire top six next season and probably beyond, and the team has seen less-heralded prospects fill important depth roles, over the past two seasons especially. There could be some opportunity in the bottom six again next year. With salary cap constraints likely, the Capitals may need to lean on their organizational depth for an inexpensive solution.
Brett Connolly, Carl Hagelin and Devante Smith-Pelly are unrestricted free agents, and it’s doubtful Washington can afford to re-sign all three or even two of them. Teams typically retain restricted free agents, but Andre Burakovsky, Dmitrij Jaskin and Chandler Stephenson all had uneven seasons, so it’s unclear whether the Capitals will tender qualifying offers to all three. Two to three spots could be available at training camp.
So who might claim them? The Capitals were high on Axel Jonsson-Fjallby going into this season because his speed and penalty-killing prowess should translate well to an NHL energy role, but there was organizational disappointment when he chose to leave Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., after 16 games to return home to Sweden and play in the top league there. Jonsson-Fjallby is back with the Bears for their postseason run — Hershey is playing Charlotte in the second round — and he said he plans to play in North America next year.
“I could’ve stayed, but I just felt like — and I talked to Washington and Hershey — there’s no stress for me,” Jonsson-Fjallby said Monday. “Before this season, I had only played one whole season in senior hockey [in Sweden], so I just felt like I could go back and develop at my own tempo, but I don’t regret it. I learned a lot this season and I feel better for next season. I feel ready. . . . I’m going to be here in North America. My goal is to take a spot in Washington, but I think probably I’ll be here. Either way, it would be good.”
Jonsson-Fjallby, 21, expressed disappointment with his regular season production with Djurgardens — he had one goal and nine assists in 36 games — but he ended the year on a positive note with seven goals and five assists in 19 playoff games. If there’s a depth forward spot available in Washington next season, he would be a strong candidate to get it, even if his relative inexperience playing the North American game is a strike against him.
Kody Clark, whom the Capitals drafted in the second round last year, and fellow 19-year-old Riley Sutter, a 2018 third-round pick, could play their first seasons in Hershey next year. Among the Capitals’ former draft picks, forward Riley Barber had the most productive season in Hershey with 31 goals and 29 assists in 64 games, but the 25-year-old hasn’t appeared in a game for Washington since 2017. Barber took that as writing on the wall, and as an unrestricted free agent this summer, his impressive campaign potentially sets him up well for an opportunity elsewhere.
“I kind of know what they think of me and how they see me,” Barber said. “It’s pretty obvious over the years. I just took a different approach, meaning it’s every day that I get to play a game that I love, no matter where I’m playing it.”
Hershey’s season started off poorly as a young team under a new coaching staff took time finding its footing. Much of the growth came within the forward corps, where the Bears had several rookies, from last year’s college signees Shane Gersich and Brian Pinho to 2016 draft picks Garrett Pilon and Beck Malenstyn, Canadian major junior players before this season. Malenstyn’s improvement over the course of the season garnered some comparison to Capitals forward Tom Wilson for his physical game, but he hasn’t displayed the same kind of scoring touch as Wilson yet. Gersich played in three regular season and two playoff games last season for Washington, but he wasn’t recalled this year and had eight goals and 16 assists in 66 AHL games.
“A lot of it was adjusting to playing bigger guys,” Pilon, who had 10 goals and 23 assists in 71 games, said of the early struggles. “A lot of us were getting pushed around at the start, getting knocked off pucks more. Maybe not necessarily just getting stronger, but getting a little more aggressive in the corners and expecting that sort of pressure.”
Said Bears Coach Spencer Carbery: “Those guys have all taken, I think, steps this year in learning the game but also understanding how fast, how physical it is. And that’s part of the progression, and now where it goes from there, it’s up to them to seize the opportunity going into next year.”