The National Hockey League selected Pittsburgh and Washington as the combatants for the upcoming Winter Classic as both a marquee matchup of the game's greatest superstars in Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, and also a matchup of two of the league's elite teams. The Caps and Pens are both amongst the league leaders in Wins, Points Percentage and Shot Differential. Both franchises have been terrific the last few seasons, with the Penguins logging three 100-plus point seasons over the last four campaigns with the other season being a 99 pointstheir Stanley Cup-winning campaignwhile the Capitals have been over 100 points for the last two seasons. Both teams don't show any signs of slowing down in the immediate future; however, what are the long term projections for the two marquee squads?
Washington Capitals - prospects
Looking at Washington, be it at the NHL level or coming up through the system, they have a wealth of young talent. John Carlson is one of the best young defensive players in the game with high end offensive upside and is already logging over 21 minutes per game before his 22nd birthday. Their other top defensive youngster Karl Alznerwho was arguably an overdraft at fifth overallstill projects as a an above average defensive player. Forward Mathieu Perreault has also turned out to have been a tremendous value pick as a sixth rounder, having shown above average scoring ability in the AHL that seems to be translating over to the NHL very well. Washington's 2009 first rounder Marcus Johanssonwho made the team as a 19 year oldis another promising youngster with a second line ceiling and is a treat to watch skate.
Looking outside the NHL, the Capitals have a duo of talented Russians playing in the KHL, as well as for the current Russian World Junior team: Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitri Orlov. I wrote some brief notes on the two in my World Junior preview for Team RussiaKuznetsov is a player that I really like. He still has a few things to address in his development, but he has the potential to be a first line player, if not an above average first line player at the NHL level if a few things go right. Other notable prospects in the system include Stanislav Galiev who was the first overall pick in the 2009 CHL Import Draft and was touted for a while as a first rounder last year before having a bad season and slipping to the third round, and Cody Eakin, who's playing for Team Canada at the World Juniors.
The Capitals also sport possibly the best collection of young goalies in the league (all levels considered), with Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth at the NHL, Braden Holtby at the AHL level and Philipp Grubauer in the OHL. Their system and collection of young players as a whole is stacked at every position, so Ovechkin and company should be expecting some quality company soon.
Pittsburgh Penguins - prospects
On the other side of the coin, the Penguins system has steadily gotten better as they've retained their last two first round picks, but their prospect core is still feeling the heat of the Marian Hossa trade that saw them lose their 2007 first round selection Angelo Esposito and their 2008 first round pick. Acquiring Eric Tangradi, who projects as a top six power forward, in the Chris Kunitz/Ryan Whitney deal has been huge for their system, as Pittsburgh has been waiting for a good winger to come up the pipeline for years. He's not the greatest skater, but he can crash and bang with the best of them and is an above average finisher.
Pittsburgh's last two first rounders Simon Despres and Beau Bennett have been risky selections of players with good skill sets, but their likeliness of panning out was questionable at the time of being selected. Two years after being drafted, Despres has made notable improvements in his game. He was always known as a plus skater with a great frame, but now he's showing puckhandling ability and the willingness to play physical. Team Canada obviously picked up on this when giving him a spot on their World Junior team. I wasn't crazy about the Beau Bennett pick in the first round, but I see the skill set the Pens like in the kid in regards to his skating and puck skills. Unfortunately, he's currently hurt with a knee injury after posting decent numbers as a 19 year old freshman with University of Denverhe had been a likely candidate to make Team USA at the WJHC. I had more notes on Bennett's season thus far here.
Other notable Penguins prospects include Dustin Jeffrey, who after going undrafted in 2006 and being picked in the 6th round in 2007 has exploded offensively in the AHL and is making a case to be in the NHL and possibly in a significant role. Carl Sneep and Robert Bortozzo are fair depth prospects on defense and Tom Kuhnhackl is a decent sleeper prospect who I discussed here.
The Penguins system as a whole has a fair amount of solid prospects, and a few with desirable ceilings but there's not enough here to push the system into the above average category unless a few of the more toolsy prospects take steps forward.
Overall, between the two teams I would have to say that the Washington Capitals have a clear edge over the Pittsburgh Penguins when it comes to their farm system and their upcoming young players. However, with these two teams, you have to say that with an asterisk when you see the ages of players like Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Nicklas Backstrom. The league should beware of the Capitals over the next five years though, as it looks like they should have a long stay near the top of the standings with the amount of quality talent in their system.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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