Capitals' New Management Places New Emphasis on Player Development

As they were formally introduced last week, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan spoke of their instantaneous chemistry and mutual vision for the direction of the franchise

Among their shared principles is their approach to player development at the professional level. Both men expressed their viewpoints on the subject in their respective interviews with team ownership.

"One thing that struck me loud and clear [from MacLellan] was that we had drafted very, very well but perhaps some of our development had gone sideways over the last couple of years and we needed to make a big recommitment to our affiliate in Hershey," owner Ted Leonsis said last week. "I think that was news to us, how we needed to re-bond and make a recommitment to Hershey.

"I've always thought when we were at our best as an organization was when the coaching staff and GM of our AHL affiliate and NHL team were in sync. Brian has a real respect for what's going on in Hershey. And from Barry, you'll also see a real appreciation for that. They both said the same things to us in different interviews. They feel this can be a partnership that can really work."

When the Bears and Capitals began their affiliation in 2005, Hershey was flush with high-end prospects that would ultimately factor into Washington's future plans (Mike Green, Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr, among others). Led by future Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, the Bears promptly won a Calder Cup championship, their first of three working in tandem with the Capitals.

Since the Bears' last championship in 2010, however, the number of draft picks and elite prospects that have passed through Hershey has diminished. Of the 15 players that skated for both Hershey and Washington last season (excluding rehab assignments for Jack Hillen and Michal Neuvirth), only four -- Connor Carrick, Dmitry Orlov, Patrick Wey and Philipp Grubauer -- were drafted by the organization.

Bears general manager Doug Yingst pointed to the dearth of homegrown players in Hershey recently as well as a disconnect between the two coaching staffs over the past two-plus seasons. 

"I think both coaching staffs were very intent in peforming their responsibilites at the NHL level and the AHL level," Yingst said. "The communications I was hoping, after training camp, would really continue but they didn't.

"I don't think it is in the best interest of the players and the prospects and the call-ups. Many things in the American Hockey League have been changing over the course of our affiliation and I just think we have to get back to where we were in winning and developing players."

Where that communication can be strengtened, according to Yingst, is in weekly to biweekly conversations regarding prospects playing in Hershey. 

"I think it's more into the depth of the mind of the player so that he is ready for recall," Yingst said. 

Once in Washington, MacLellan and Trotz want to put young players in the best position to succeed. For Trotz, that comes with supplying them with meaningful playing time. If that is unavailable at the NHL level, then players will be sent to the minors where they can have more of an opportunity instead of being thrust or pigeonholed into roles they are not suited for. 

"With younger players, the longer that you can have them be in a situation where they're playing high minutes at a high level and producing, then that's the right seat for them," Trotz said. "If they fail to do that, then the last thing I want is for a young player to be put in a position that he can’t produce and he’s losing his confidence. You don't need that.

"It’s like a ladder. You're at the bottom, you’re producing, you go to the next rung. If you start always at the top with a player and he can't handle it, then he's going down. They get moved down to the second line and the third line then the fourth line. Then they're out of the lineup and they're going, 'Well, he's not performing.' Well, it wasn't fair to the player in the first place. To me, that's an organizational malfunction, not the player. They all arrive at different times."

Two Capitals who meet that criteria are Carrick and Tom Wilson, both of whom saw mixed results in their respective rookie seasons as teenagers.

Carrick parlayed his maturity and poise into an entry-level contract last fall, commencing a whirlwind season that saw him split time among the NHL, AHL and international competition. In 34 games with Washington, though, the 20-year-old defenseman was often overwhelmed and overmatched by the sheer speed of the NHL game. 

"I think he should have been shuttled more up and down," MacLellan said. "I think we would have rather had him as a one [or] two in Hershey and used him sparingly up top instead of throwing him in the fire. It’s tough for a young kid.”

As for Wilson, he was one of three rookies to appear in all 82 of his team's regular-season games (the other two, Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon and Tampa Bay's Tyler Johnson, are Calder Trophy finalists). Wilson, who was ineligible for the AHL this season because of an age-limit agreement between the NHL and Canadian junior leagues, spent his entire rookie season on the fourth line, averaging 7:56 of ice time per game.

With limited playing time, the multifaceted forward, drafted 16th overall in 2012, had little choice but to establish himself as a heavy-hitting pugilist; his 14 fights were fourth-most in the NHL and his 151 penalty minutes were seventh. 

“Wilson, I would have liked him to play a lot more last year. There were certain points in the season where he could have been given more ice time, given a little power play, certain games where that would have been effective for him,” MacLellan said. “We’ve got to work on his skill level. That’s the key for him. He’s obviously proved he’s physical and can skate and can hit and fight, but I want him to be a top-six forward."

The Capitals have a bevy of talented youngsters -- including skilled forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and 2013 first-round pick Andre Burakovsky -- within the organization or in the pipeline to surround their veteran-laden core. When they do so will be a carefully monitored process.

“We’re in the fast food era of life where you want everything right away," Trotz said. "Sometimes the best meals are the ones that are prepared correctly and take their time. It’s just like a player. They’re all going to get there on their time, not on our time.” 

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