Picking Splinters: Bright Future for Caps

Now is the time. The Washington Capitals know it. Their fans know it. And their owner, Ted Leonsis, said as much on the recently-aired HBO mini-series “24/7: Road to the Winter Classic.”

Now is the time.

The Washington Capitals know it. Their fans know it. And their owner, Ted Leonsis, said as much on the recently-aired HBO mini-series “24/7: Road to the Winter Classic.”

Yes, the Caps are on the clock to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup. But I’m here to tell you that the window to win the Cup won’t close after this season. And for that matter, it may stay open for years to come.

We know that team pillars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are under contract until cars fly, but it appears they’ll soon be joined by at least three sensational prospects with futures so bright you may have to shade your eyes.

Last week a triumvirate of Capitals dominated the World Junior Hockey Championships with a pair of Russian prospects leading their team to an upset of the Canadians in the gold medal game with an absolutely mind-boggling five-goal third period.

Simply put, Yevgeni Kuznetsov, the Caps’ first round pick from the 2010 draft, was the best player in the tournament. I know that Brayden Schenn was named the tournament’s MVP, but I never saw Schenn do what Kuztnesov did with the puck.

While Kuznetsov and his teammates will be better remembered for their comeback against Canada, it was their stunning rally three days earlier against Finland that showed just how special this future Cap can be. Trailing 3-1 in the third period, Kuznetsov displayed three distinct skill sets in a YouTube recorded performance that will sit well with Washington fans. First he notched the Russian’s second goal by using his still-developing, but already big (HT) frame to the front of the net to muscle home a shot under the pad of the Finnish goalie. Next he collected the puck in the neutral zone and danced through a pair of Finnish defenders before executing a head spinning curl-and-drag to flummox the final D-man. The Finns stopped the shot, but couldn’t control the rebound and teammate Maxim Kitsyn tapped it in, giving Kuznetsov a helper. Finally in overtime, Kuznetsov wired a shot from the slot into the upper half of the cage for the game-winner. Not bad for a day’s work.

Kuznetsov finished the tournament with 11 points, including four goals, tied for the team high with St. Louis Blues prospect Vladimir Tarasenko. Just behind those two in the points column was Dmitri Orlov, another Caps prospect, who finished with a goal and eight assists in seven games.

Orlov is cut from the same offensive defenseman mould as former Cap Sergei Gonchar, though he didn’t look quite as quick on the ice (hardly a knock considering Gonchar’s elite speed). Talking to a few pro scouts at the tournament, Orlov was the consensus top defenseman there. High praise considering last season’s No. 3 pick, Erik Gudbranson skated for Canada and one of this season’s top draft prospects, Adam Larsson, suited up for Sweden.

But what was more notable to me than the “did-he-just-do-that?” talents of those two Russians was their resilience in the face of adversity and their reluctance to quit no matter how grim their situation. Unfair stereotype or not, the knock on some Russian players in the NHL is they seem to lack passion even in big situations. Not so for these two. Trailing Canada 3-0 entering the third period, they could have rolled over and been quite content with a silver after losing their first two games of the tournament. Instead they torched their foes for five goals.

And you can’t mention grit and determination without noting the play of another future Cap: Cody Eakin. Eakin was Canada’s best player in the final. Smallish and pesky, Eakin was never deterred from sticking his nose in high traffic areas and taking the puck to the net or challenging for possession along the boards. Combine Brooks Laich’s effort with Mathieu Perreault’s stature and the hands of Buffalo rookie Tyler Ennis and you get Eakin. Dynamic players that don’t shy from contact are hardly a dime a dozen and Eakin looks like some valuable property for the Caps.

So yes, the future is now in Washington, but the days ahead look equally promising as well.