I took a drive up to Hershey on Wednesday to check in on the Bears. The outcome wasn’t good; Hershey squandered a 3-1 third period lead and dropped a 4-3 decision to the Portland Pirates. But I came away with the impression that Washington’s 2004 draft class — already the best in franchise history — could get even better.
With the promotion of Eric Fehr to Washington on Monday, most of the core of the 2006 Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears team is now in Washington. Defensemen Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, and forwards Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann, Boyd Gordon, David Steckel and Brooks Laich are all in Washington now, with only Schultz and Fehr having spent any time in Hershey this season. Only four of the above seven players (Green, Schultz, Fehr and Gordon) were Capitals draft choices, but the next wave of prospects is heavy with Caps draftees.
Chris Bourque (second round, 33rd overall in 2004) had a cup of coffee with the Caps in November. He is the Bears’ third-leading scorer and is headed for a second straight 20-goal season with Hershey. Bourque is one of the few players remaining in Hershey who was part of the championship run two springs ago. He figures to get a longer look in the red, white and blue later this season or next.
It’s been a while since the Caps have turned up a gem in the late rounds of the Entry Draft, but the early returns on 22-year-old first year pro Andrew Gordon have been impressive. A solidly built (but not big) right wing, Gordon is as good a kid as you’d want to meet off the ice, “the kind of kid you’d want your daughter to marry,” as one scribe put it. On the ice, he has been a revelation. Gordon accounted for all three Hershey goals on Wednesday, his second hat trick in 11 days. Gordon has 10 goals and 26 points in 32 games, and ranks among the league’s top 20 in scoring by rookies despite missing a third of the Bears’ games to date.
Throw in the eight goals and 14 points Gordon recorded in an early season stint with South Carolina of the ECHL, and he has 18 goals and 40 points in 43 games in his first pro season. The scoring is nice, but the rest of Gordon’s game is also well-rounded.
Defenseman Sami Lepisto (third round, 66th overall) is playing his first season as a North American pro. The 23-year-old Finnish blueliner has played four seasons as a pro in his native country, and that polish is extremely evident in the game he has brought to North America in 2007-08. Lepisto is smooth and poised on the blueline. He possesses excellent hockey sense, and even though he is not a big defenseman (5-foot-11, 176 pounds), he handles himself well in high traffic areas. Lepisto has two goals and 24 points in 35 games with the Bears and is second among all rookie defensemen in the league in scoring.
Lepisto’s plus-23 is tied for second in the league and is tops among all AHL rookies. Gordon’s plus-17 is third among league freshmen.
Moving onto the 2005 draft, goaltender Daren Machesney (fifth round, 143rd overall in 2005) had the night off on Wednesday, but he has impressed me every time I’ve seen him this season. Most people talk about Simeon Varlamov (first round, 23rd overall in 2006) and/or Michal Neuvirth (second round, 34th overall in ’06) when they talk about the Caps’ goaltenders of the future, but I think it would be a mistake to dismiss Machesney summarily. He leads the AHL with a .931 save pct. and his 2.13 goals against average is fourth in the circuit. A second-year pro, he turned 21 in December.
Finally, there’s also some positive news on a 2006 Caps draftee.