ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — While the Washington Capitals try to return to the playoffs with the third-oldest roster in the NHL, coaches and players kept a keen eye on the world junior championship in Sweden.
That’s where a glimpse of their future was on display with prospects Ryan Leonard and Ryan Chesley playing significant roles in helping the U.S. win gold in the under-20 tournament. Knowing they’re on the way soon, along with 2022 first-rounder Ivan Miroshnichenko, gives the organization optimism about what the post-Alex Ovechkin era could look like.
“I was able to catch a few games of those two playing, and they look really good,” 22-year-old Capitals center Connor McMichael said. “Obviously world juniors is a pretty big test of a tournament, and I thought they both performed well. It’s exciting stuff for us.”
Rookie coach Spencer Carbery is trying not to get too excited about players who aren’t with the team yet, preferring not to let his mind drift too far beyond the here and now. He’s just happy for Leonard, now Washington’s top prospect after taking the forward with the eighth pick in the draft, and Chesley, a second-rounder a year earlier who played top-pairing minutes on defense for the Americans.
Winger Tom Wilson, who looks like the next Capitals captain when Ovechkin departs after signing a $45.5 million, seven-year extension last summer, said Wednesday it looks like Leonard and Chesley are very talented players.
“It’s great to see those guys have success,” Wilson said. “Whenever they get here, you do your best to make sure they feel comfortable.”
That could be as soon as this spring when their college seasons — Leonard at Boston College and Chesley at Minnesota — are over. Those decisions are looming, but neither wants to get ahead of himself about making the leap to the NHL.
“It’s always in the back of your head when you’re going to turn pro and kind of when you’re going to take that next step,” Leonard said on a video call with reporters . “But honestly right now I’m worried about (facing) Providence Friday night, so that is kind of the last of my worries. The NHL’s always going to be there, but I think college is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you never want to rush out of there.”
That didn’t keep the two 19-year-olds from talking about wearing Capitals red, white and blue together some day while in those same colors representing the U.S. on the international stage.
“We know it would be really cool to play together sometime in the future,” Chesley said. “Try not to think about it too much, stay in the moment, but yeah, obviously it’d be really special.”
Now almost six years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, plenty of changes are on the horizon for the Capitals. They’ve already seen Nicklas Backstrom step away, and there’s one year left on T.J. Oshie’s contract after this season and two more for Ovechkin, who at 38 is chasing Wayne Gretzky’s NHL career goals record.
General manager Brian MacLellan has tried to add youth on the fly, extending mid-20s forwards Dylan Strome and Sonny Milano. Then there’s Miroshnichenko, who debuted earlier this season at 19 and got four games in before heading back to the minors for more seasoning.
“It’s fun to have guys come up,” Strome said. “Miro could’ve had three or four goals in the time that he was here, with the chances that he had, and lots of guys come up and play well.”
NOTES: Ovechkin, who was banged up last week against Carolina, is questionable to play Thursday night against Seattle after not taking part in practice. … Oshie is expected to return after missing the past 11 games.
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