2024 NHL prospect pool rankings: No. 20 Washington Capitals

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2024 NHL prospect pool rankings: No. 20 Washington Capitals

Welcome to Scott Wheeler’s 2024 rankings of every NHL organization’s prospects. You can find the complete ranking and more information on the criteria here, as we count down daily from No. 32 to No. 1. The series, which includes in-depth evaluations and insight from sources on nearly 500 prospects, runs from Jan. 30 to Feb. 29.

Though they’ve aged out and graduated two of their top five prospects from a year ago, in Connor McMichael and Alexei Protas, Washington the Capitals’ pool got a major boost from the top of its 2023 draft class with Ryan Leonard and Andrew Cristall, two players of first-round talent for me. The byproduct of that boost is a pool that — while still thinner than most the deeper you go — is actually in a better spot than it has been in for years.

2023 prospect pool rank: No. 25 (change: +5)


1. Ryan Leonard, RW, 18 (Boston College)

Leonard is a prospect who everyone likes. It’s impossible not to. He’s a versatile, powerful, high-RPM player who makes things happen when he’s on the ice and who pulls teammates into the fight with his scrappy, competitive, never-stop style. He’s not just the energy guy, though. He’s got really quick side-to-side hands, a hard, NHL shot that rattles off of his stick, and quick crossover patterns that allow him to use those hands to get to places where he can look to shoot. He’ll flash one-on-one skill pulling pucks through his feet and around defenders, but it’s all focused on getting to the interior. Add in strength, power, a strong build, an ability to drive and shed contact when he gets bumped and a defensive conscience, and there’s more than just a hands-shot-worker skill set, too.

He’s not the most cerebral player, and he can be a little too net-focused at times, but he has taken noticeable strides on both of those fronts to become a more inventive, less predictable player from A to B (I’ve been more and more impressed by his little hesitations and his widened vision in possession) over the last year. His backhand has also become a legit weapon, adding another layer to his shooting arsenal. There’s just so much that looks translatable about his game: The way he gets shots off hard, even from off-balance and sometimes falling stances. The way he battles and the fearlessness with which he drives the net. His overall dexterity.

Leonard is the kind of player who will score, add physicality to a line and slide up and down a top-nine in an NHL lineup while endearing himself to his coaches. I’d like to see him play a consistent stretch without longtime linemates Gabe Perreault and Will Smith at some point, just to see what he looks like as more of a lone wolf on his line, but he’s the driver on that line and he has played to expectations as a No. 8 pick this season between an impressive freshman year at BC and a strong showing at the world juniors.

2. Ivan Miroshnichenko, LW, 19 (Hershey Bears)

Miroshnichenko’s progression has been positive without necessarily taking off since returning after missing most two seasons ago following his Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. After playing across Russia’s three levels to decent results considering his lost time, he has looked good in my AHL viewings this year for a 19-year-old (he’s not dominant at the AHL level but he has played to strong on-ice results and contributed at a good clip offensively for his age, earning his NHL call-up).

Miroshnichenko was widely regarded as Russia’s best prospect in the 2022 draft before the diagnosis, even after the start to his season had pushed him from the top-three conversation into more of a top-10 projection (before I learned of the diagnosis, he slotted 11th on my list, which was a smidge lower than most). As a player, Miroshnichenko had an illustrious international track record as a captain and first-line player in his age group (often alongside Matvei Michkov) and a good, though less inspiring, domestic track record.

There are some exciting attributes to his game and it’s well-rounded, so it’s never been hard to understand the appeal. He’s got an athletic pro frame. He shoots it hard (both his wrister and his one-timer/off one-touch shots) from mid-range. He’s a powerful skater through his edges and crossovers (though he can at times lack quickness from a standstill). He’s got good offensive instincts off the puck. He’s a dexterous player who catches bad passes, manages to keep control when the play breaks down or the ice is choppy, and gets his stick on tips, etc. And he’s noticeably engaged shift to shift with and without the puck. My big hiccup with him is that I don’t find him to be a great problem-solver. While he can make the first play he sees on instinct, he doesn’t do a good job breaking down the play to think it through. He’s on a path to becoming a middle-six winger, though.

3. Andrew Cristall, LW, 18 (Kelowna Rockets)

Though his first-round WHL playoff series and U18 worlds underwhelmed many, and combined with concerns about his skating and size to result in a second-round selection, Cristall is a creative, crafty playmaker who isn’t afraid to try things and possesses a rare ability to play in small areas, pull eyes and bodies toward him, and then expose opposing structures to the weak side of coverage.

A quad contusion cost him five weeks as his stock was on the rise in his draft year, but it shouldn’t have taken anyone long watching last year’s Kelowna Rockets to realize just how much offense he creates for himself and his teammates while being a marked man every night. Outside of Connor Bedard, he had one of the most productive draft-eligible seasons in recent WHL history (pacing to outproduce, for example, the 106 in 69 that 2011 No. 1 pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins posted by 15 points). This season, he has remained one of the WHL’s most productive players (at the time of writing, he’s third in points per game and first among under-19 skaters) while playing with a little more pace and a stride that looks like it has cleaned up a bit.

Despite his diminutive size, he’s also a smarter player off of the puck than he gets credit for and is often in the right position above the puck to hold play inside the offensive zone. He’s a ton of fun to watch with the puck on his stick. When you think you’ve got him trapped, you usually don’t, and he’ll often make plays past you with the puck even if he doesn’t skate it through you. He’s just a natural creator for himself and others who manufactures offence in a variety of ways. And while his speed in straight lines is a barrier and has some kinks, his footwork is adjustable in tight spaces. He can also stick-handle himself into trouble at times, but he does such a good job holding onto pucks until his options open up that you’re OK with the odd offensive-zone turnover. Despite his size, he’ll also track pucks to the net so that he can be opportunistic. His skill, touch, problem-solving and spatial awareness are legitimately high-end.

4. Hendrix Lapierre, C, 21 (Hershey Bears)

Lapierre’s numbers in the AHL haven’t popped through parts of the last two seasons, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen out of him for the most part, and he was still sixth on the Bears in scoring last year as a rookie and held his own defensively. This season has been a modest step forward without really grabbing hold of it. He has been good in the AHL but I’m still waiting for him to get to the middle more (a common question among scouts about his play style dating back years) and in his time in the NHL he’s been fine but hasn’t held onto the job.

When Lapierre is at his best, he’s playing a puck-transport, distribution game on the inside of the ice. But while his vision is high-end enough to create off the perimeter with east-west passes, he can put himself there a little too often. His goal-scoring has never been a major strength, but he needs to continue to make getting his looks more of a focus (there have been some positive stretches of that). He’s got an accurate, low-kick wrister that can beat goalies from the home-plate area even if not from range (and which he does a nice job adjusting around sticks and skates). He’s also a good skater who is capable of pushing tempo, being the primary carrier on his line, applying pressure and playing with pace.

Plus, he’s got an ability, despite not being the biggest or strongest player, to keep sequences alive by holding onto pucks and making plays under pressure. Whether he’ll be able to do that against NHL competition remains in question among some scouts. If he can figure it out, there’s a middle-six, PP2 ceiling as a secondary playmaker there. He may end up as a bit of a tweener with no natural role if he can’t find more of a middle-lane game at the pro level (he doesn’t lack drive, it’s more of a makeup thing).

5. Ryan Chesley, RHD, 19 (University of Minnesota)

Chesley was one of the more universally well-liked prospects in the 2022 draft among NHL folks and was a top prospect in the 2004 age group for years. Last year, he defended mostly well for the Golden Gophers in a depth role on a deep team, but also faced some challenges as he adjusted to the college level (he was also moved down USA’s lineup at his first world juniors). This year, though his production has been stagnant, he has taken on a much more prominent role, going from playing 17 minutes per game as a freshman to 22 minutes per game as a sophomore (he also played on USA’s top pairing at his second world juniors).

He plies his trade as a well-rounded, hard-shooting, honest and consistent two-way defender. I like him defensively in neutral ice, where he’s got a great stick and gaps up really well. His stick and sound positioning help him on blocks and breaking up plays. He does need to release from his spots with a little more urgency to get to pucks and close on plays sooner in the defensive zone at times, though (he can lose some races that he should have more of a jump on).

There’s a lot to work with, though. He can really rip it when he takes the five-to-eight feet available off of the line and looks for his own shot (which I’d like to see him do more often). He’s got balanced skating mechanics, good posture and an ability and willingness to defend with the body and stick, which help him defend at a very high level man-to-man. He’s effective, and there’s still some aggressiveness and (more) talent to his package, but his game lacks creativity and he’s got work to do to soften his skill. His statistical profile will likely need to take a step in order for him to get signed by the Capitals.

6. Vincent Iorio, RHD, 21 (Hershey Bears)

I have, at times, found Iorio to be a tricky player to project because, despite his status as a name prospect dating to his minor hockey days, his statistical profile never looked like that of more than a future third-pairing guy. And while I still believe that’s about where he tops out, his game has come into focus as a very projectable player for me.

It has also always been easy to see why NHL scouts liked him a bit more than I did (enough for him to be picked in the second round instead of where I had him slotted in the third/fourth). He has always been a long, athletic righty who skates well, owns the neutral zone against the rush and has learned to play an efficient, “turn-and-move-it” style. He has always done a good job walking the line to get pucks through traffic to the net. Those little elements of his game are just executed with such consistency.

I’ve also seen him stretch the ice with outlets and use his long stride to lead the rush or join in transition as an option. And while his game does lack some creativity and finesse, he’s got the makings of a reliable, complementary depth defenseman at the next level. His game has translated nicely in the AHL the last two seasons, too, playing to strong defensive results. He’s certainly got the frame/build/athleticism of an NHLer.

7. Clay Stevenson, G, 24 (Hershey Bears)

Stevenson has traveled an unconventional development path, signing an NHL deal with really just one season at a top-end level after taking the BCHL-to-NCAA route, only to lose his entire freshman year at Dartmouth to COVID-19 and then earn an entry-level contract on the back of 23 games on a bad Big Green team as a sophomore (to go from a BCHL goaltender of the year nod in 2020 to the ECAC All-Rookie Team in 2022). He then played really well as a rookie pro in both the ECHL and AHL last season and has been stellar in his first full season as a tandem goalie in the AHL.

Stevenson is a 6-foot-4, 195-pound goalie who plays an angular, aggressive game that looks to take away options from shooters and swallow the first shot. He gets out laterally with good movement and then uses his good frame and good habits/control to take away space. I like his tracking, too. Consistency has been his calling card and though he’s going to be 25 in March, an NHL opportunity will be owed at some point if he keeps it up.

8. Mitchell Gibson, G, 24 (Hershey Bears/South Carolina Stingrays)

One of the more consistent goaltenders in college hockey over his three seasons at Harvard, Gibson became the backbone of Ted Donato’s Crimson before turning pro this year. As a rookie at the pro level, he has played well in the ECHL and briefly in the AHL. The big question with Gibson has always been his smallish size. But he compensates for that 6-1 frame with athleticism, sharp angles, heady reads and good tracking. His compact game allows him to make the first save, and his feet allow him to get to a lot of second ones even if he’s not explosive.

There are still times when he doesn’t hold his line long enough and he can start to swim in his net a little, but that’s the byproduct of busy feet, a smaller frame and inexperience, and I would still say that his positioning and control are both strengths on the whole. He might not become an NHL goalie but he’s solid organizational depth and could definitely become a No. 3.

9. Joaquim Lemay, LHD, 21 (University of Nebraska-Omaha)

After finishing ninth among USHL defensemen in scoring as a 19-year-old rookie two seasons ago with 46 points in 58 games, Lemay has continued to play his physical, challenge-you game as a freshman and sophomore at Nebraska-Omaha this year. Off the ice, he’s known as a hard worker. He’s got good size and athleticism and has slowly filled out his frame. He’s an above-average north-south skater (it helps when your dad is a skating and skills coach, like his father, Sebastien, is for a number of Quebecois prospects).

On the ice, his game is about taking. Defensively, he wants to swallow space, step up in his gaps, play the body, win his battles and then get the puck going down ice. Offensively, he plays firm and intentional. I’m not convinced of his NHL prospects just yet, but he’s worth following and he’s a solid player for the Mavericks.

10. Brent Johnson, LHD, 20 (University of North Dakota) 

After a breakout year in the USHL, in which Johnson became one of the league’s top five-on-five players (as a rookie no less) at both ends of the ice in 2020-21, Johnson struggled with a predictably too-early jump to the college game as a freshman and sophomore at the University of North Dakota before entering the transfer portal and moving to Ohio State for this season (there was also an offseason shoulder surgery after his draft year that factored in as well).

He had some real believers coming out of Sioux Falls, and I still believe he has the tools to become an impactful college hockey defenseman (which he has shown a little more of this year on a Buckeyes team that loses more than it wins). And yet, while he’s still only 20, the clock is ticking as he’s already into the final stretch of his junior year, with growing uncertainty about whether he’s got what it takes to become an NHLer.

When he’s at his best, he displays the appropriate confidence and restraint with the puck, which allows him to take what’s given and execute at a consistently high level. He doesn’t have a highlight quality on the back end, but he’s comfortable out there and manages pressure well. Sound footwork also helps him get out of trouble and advance play in the right direction, and I still like his stick detail defensively. He was always going to be a four-year college, but with an average frame and some bumps in the road to this point, I do wonder whether he’ll catch up to the trajectory he was on during his impressive USHL season fast enough, before his runway runs out.

11. Ludwig Persson, LW, 20 (IPK)

One of the most productive junior-level players in Sweden two years ago, Persson made the move from Frolunda to BIK in search of opportunity and produced at a decent age-adjusted clip in Sweden’s second-tier HockeyAllsvenskan last season before making another move to Finland’s second-tier Mestis this year (where he has played to above a point per game).

Persson is a highly talented player in possession and he’s at his best when he’s getting touches and asked to be the primary offensive creator on his line. He navigates in and out of traffic smoothly, uses pressure as a tool to facilitate through, and blends fakes and delays with subtle passing touch and a very quick release. There’s a little bit of a boom-or-bust element to his projection, but there’s no denying he’s a good player in his age group (even though he never earned his way onto the Swedish world junior roster) and he’s got some legitimate finesse tools to work with. He may just become a productive mid-tier pro who doesn’t quite have what it takes to make the jump to the NHL, but that’s the tier we’re in now at this point on the list.

If he can find more ways to take pucks to the middle third a little more consistently, there might be something there. He’s a bit of a long shot but he’s signed and I’d expect him to come to North America for next season.

12. Antoine Keller, G, 19 (Acadie-Bathurst Titan)

Keller is a fascinating story as a French kid who was developed in Switzerland after being born close to the border. He was drafted with a limited sample against good competition after playing domestically, mostly in the Swiss junior ranks and internationally with France U20 and U18 teams that play in the IIHF’s second and occasionally even third tiers. He wasn’t at the draft, didn’t expect to get picked, and almost wasn’t until the Capitals traded to acquire another seventh-rounder so they could take him.

Now, he’s made the move to North America and has outperformed his partner with the Titan. He’s 6-3 with physical development in front of him, and he plays the game with a calm, structured, compact foundation and good lateral movement. He’s a project but looks like a worthwhile one.

13. Cam Allen, RHD, 18 (Guelph Storm)

Viewed as one of the better D prospects in the 2023 class coming out of his 16-year-old season after winning the OHL’s Rookie of the Year Award with 13 goals and 37 points and captaining Canada to gold at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Allen’s draft year got away from him and he looked like he was in a crisis of confidence the more it wore on. He’s a pro-built, strong-on-his-skates defenseman who was still named Canada’s captain at U18 Worlds but really struggled throughout the year with his decision-making on and off the puck. Then he underwent shoulder surgery after the draft and was sidelined until just recently with it. In my first viewing after he returned, he looked like he was still figuring it out.

With the puck, he tends to cough it up a lot and can look like he’s not processing the paths of opposing players with the proper speed. Without it, he can burn himself by mistiming pinches and close-outs. And while he’s strong in battles, his skating can look a little choppy and stomping, and the hiccups can be hard to ignore. The tools are there. He shoots it hard. He can command play when he’s really dialed in. But the execution hasn’t always been there. The Capitals likely fell in love with the character of the kid and were willing to take a fifth-round gamble on him and his tools, with the hope that they could mold him into a more refined player, but he’s got work to do to regain the status he once had.

14. Alexander Suzdalev, LW, 19 (Saskatoon Blades)

Suzdalev was a top player in Sweden’s junior ranks two years ago before a quiet U18s made some question his mid-round merits. Last season, after making the move to the WHL, he played both on the Pats’ first line with top 2023 and 2024 prospects Connor Bedard and Tanner Howe, and at times away from them on the second line (though they all played on PP1 together), producing 41 goals and 96 points in 73 games as an 18-year-old to look more like the third-rounder he was drafted as. This season, though, has been a bit of a mess. Between an injury, a start in the AHL (where he didn’t actually end up playing), a move to HockeyAllsvenskan to play mid-level pro in Europe, and then a move back to the WHL to play with the contending Blades, he and his game have kind of been over the place.

Suzdalev is a talented, pass-first winger who can play with speed or slow the game down and pick coverage apart. He’s got quick hands, room to fill out an already athletic build and just an overall feel for the way the play develops in front (and to the side) of him. He’s got a quick release. But for a player with his tools (decent size, some real signs of skill, and above-average skating), he spends too much time playing the game on the outside and pulling himself out of shifts. There’s also a lot of gliding in his game defensively. He can frustrate you and leave you wanting more. The right coach may be able to get the most out of him, but it may never fully click for him like it should.


The Tiers

As always, each of my prospect pool rankings is broken down into team-specific tiers in order to give you a better sense of the talent proximity from one player to the next (a gap that is sometimes minute and in other cases quite pronounced).

The Capitals’ pool breaks down into three tiers. They are: 1-3, 4-7, 8-14.

Also considered were OHLers Jake Karabela and Patrick Thomas and Hershey’s Bogdan Trineyev.

Rank

  

Player

  

Pos.

  

Age

  

Team

  

1

Ryan Leonard

RW

18

Boston College

2

Ivan Miroshnichenko

LW

19

Omsk

3

Andrew Cristall

LW

18

Kelowna

4

Hendrix Lapierre

C

21

Hershey

5

Ryan Chesley

RHD

19

U. of Minnesota

6

Vincent Iorio

RHD

21

Hershey

7

Clay Stevenson

G

24

Hershey

8

Mitchell Gibson

G

24

Hershey/South Carolina

9

Joaquim Lemay

LHD

21

U. of Nebraska-Omaha

10

Brent Johnson

RHD

20

Ohio State

11

Ludwig Persson

LW

20

IPK

12

Antoine Keller

G

19

Acadie-Bathurst

13

Cam Allen

RHD

18

Guelph

14

Alexander Suzdalev

LW

19

Saskatoon

(Photo of Ryan Leonard: Michael Miller / ISI Photos / Getty Images)