With Whalers Out, Time to Catch Up on the CHL

Posted April 29, 2013

Tom Wilson, 2012 Draftee of the Washington Capitals and member of the Plymouth Whalers (Photo Credit: M. Richter).

While many Caps fans are still mourning what could have been with Filip Forsberg (who finished out the NHL season playing on the Nashville Predators, were he earned a single assist in five games played), it’s important to remember that there are plenty of other assets that could become important to the organization in the not too distant future.  Several of those assets are currently finishing out their seasons in the Canadian major junior leagues, and with the recent exit of the Plymouth Whalers (current home of prospects Tom Wilson and Connor Carrick) it’s a good time to take another look at those gentlemen in the North.

Whalers’ Hopes Torpedoed in the Third

The Plymouth Whalers’ last game of the playoffs read like the script for a classic sports drama – down in the series 3-1, trailing 4-0 in the game, and then they managed to struggle back and force overtime.  Unfortunately, their season ended less than a minute after that extra period began, when draft-eligible forward Max Domi tallied his tenth goal of the post-season for Dale Hunter’s London Knights and shut the door on the Whalers’ dreams of Memorial Cup fame.

It wasn’t the result that most Caps fans were hoping for.  Plymouth’s 2012-13 roster had two Capitals prospects, both products of the 2012 draft:  Tom Wilson and Connor Carrick.  However, there is an up-side to the loss.  While it would have been nice to win the Western Conference’s Wayne Gretzky Trophy, or even the J. Ross Robertson Cup (awarded to the winner of the OHL playoffs), the third round exit gives both players a chance to further their development and experience by playing with at the next step up the ladder in the AHL.

(Per the above tweets from Carrick & Wilson, it looks like both will be joining the Bears with plenty of practice time ahead of Saturday’s Game 3).

The other silver lining for Caps fans comes in just who it was that managed to beat the Whalers – former Capitals Head Coach and Alumnus, Dale Hunter.  The win sends him and his London Knights into the OHL Finals, where they will play the winner of the Barrie Colts v. Belleville Bulls series for the right to hoist the J. Ross Robertson Cup and a chance at the CHL’s Memorial Cup.

The Prospects Themselves:

Tom Wilson is the highest-rated prospect the Capitals have in the CHL, with expectations about his play continuing to grow following his performance this season. After struggling in his first two seasons with a combined thirty-three points in seventy-seven regular season games and a point-per game performance in 13 playoff games in 2012, Wilson had somewhat of a breakout season.  He scored twenty-three goals and fifty-eight points in forty-eight games through the regular season. His play improved from previous seasons, adding playmaking and goal scoring to his resume , as well as being a physical presence.

During the playoffs, Wilson continued to raise his profile – most notably against London – by providing an offensive touch with 6 goals, including a hat trick in Plymouth’s one win over the Knights in the Western Conference semi-finals. With Wilson joining the Bears, chances are he’ll benefit from the experience and try to earn his chance to become an AHL regular.  While popular sentiment sees queries about his potential as a Capital next year, he’s still young, and would benefit from some time in the AHL before making the final jump.

Connor Carrick made his OHL debut last fall after two years with the US National Development Team.  Expectations weren’t particularly high for the eighteen (now nineteen) year-old defenseman, but his forty-four points in sixty-eight games were definitely a step up from his previous performances, as was his seventeen-point performance in this season’s 14 playoff games with the Whalers. While he’s coming down to Hershey with Wilson, there’s no guarantee that either will see actual game time with the Bears.  That will depend on their performance in practice this week and the holes that inevitably develop in the current lineup.

Over in the Western Hockey League, the Capitals have two more prospects, Jaynen Rissling and Chandler Stephenson. While Stephenson has only five playoff games under his belt with the Regina Pats, his point totals have increased over the last two years.  It’s hoped that he will prove to be somewhat of a late-bloomer on the prospect radar. As for Rissling, the blueliner is currently playing for the Calgary Hitmen in the Eastern Conference finals against the Edmonton Oil Kings. At 6′ 4″, he’s known for his physical presence,  but also contributes offensively.  He currently has six assists so far in the 2013 playoffs.

Words of Caution

It’s easy to get swept up in the optimism of the prospect pool – Oo, this one made the playoffs! Oo, that one has a fantastic point total!  As most of us are aware, CHL play doesn’t always translate to NHL success, and it’s important not to conflate the two.  However, it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on the young guns lurking in the development diaries and scouting reports.  Every once in a while, the rough and tumble leagues turn out a quietly refined gem.

M. Richter contributed to this report.