ANNAPOLIS, Md. – The Washington Capitals looked to the future this weekend, providing their top prospects with an opportunity to show off and improve their skills ahead of training camp and the first preseason game on Sept. 24.
The rookie camp opened Saturday at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington before moving to John McMullen Hockey Arena on the U.S. Naval Academy campus in Annapolis on Sunday. The head coach for the Caps affiliate team the Hershey Bears ran the practice, aiming to get players ready for the next level.
“Now it’s go time,” said Todd Nelson on Saturday. “We just want to make sure that they’re ready, so today’s practice was a pretty intense practice for the first day.”
Holding the practice at McMullen Arena gives players a chance to get away from the Capitals facility and experience a new environment, according to Capitals Assistant General Manager Ross Mahoney.
“It’s such a good facility and so close by,” said Mahoney. “It was kind of in the works for about a year trying to get it worked out and be able to make this work.”
A handful of fans attended, buzzing with excitement over which rookies they might see suit up for the Capitals this year. The players took pictures with the fans and signed autographs briefly after each practice.
Camp consisted of fast-paced passing and breakaway drills, working on player’s speed, footwork, passing and shooting abilities. The goalies warmed up before practice and were in the net blocking shots for all the drills.
Among the 21 prospects and invitees attending the camp were Hendrix Lapierre and Vincent Iorio, both being part of the Hershey Bears Calder Cup Championship team.
The Capitals drafted Lapierre 22nd overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, despite lingering injuries during his draft-eligible year. In the years following, Lapierre received limited playing experience due to shortened seasons as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Hershey, Lapierre found consistency and became part of a deep playoff championship run.
“I think winning itself is a form of experience – like you don’t realize it, but just going through the motions, the ups and downs, like when you lose a game and play the game after,” said Lapierre at MedStar Capitals Iceplex Saturday.
Lapierre showed off his skating ability in many drills, outpacing many teammates and hitting his shots in stride.
After trading away their 2021 first-round pick for Anthony Mantha, Vincent Iorio was the first player drafted by the Capitals in 2021, taken 55th overall. Iorio made the jump to the professional level in the 2022-23 season, playing 63 regular season games with the Bears and three at the NHL level with the Capitals.
“That experience of winning, It’s different watching them, as far as the way they carry themselves, I think it’s more confident,” said Mahoney after camp on Sunday.
Iorio seemed calm and composed while defending during drills, using his agility to keep his opponent in front of him. He showed some frustration with his shot placement during the second day of the camp.
Another of the more professionally experienced prospects attending was Ivan Miroshnichenko. The Capitals drafted Miroshnichenko 20th overall in the 2022 NHL draft, a few months after his diagnosis with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Miroshnichenko would finish his treatment and be cleared to play part way through the 2022-23 season, appearing in 23 games at the highest Russian professional level.
“He can really shoot the puck, and he’s physical,” said Mahoney. “He’s got a good character and leadership, too.”
Miroshnichenko briefly took slap shots from the left faceoff circle – known as the “office” of Caps’ star player Alexander Ovechkin – after practice on Sunday. Miroshnichenko emulated the Capitals captain, firing shots that startled the fans behind the glass when he missed.
Other notable prospects there were Alexander Suzdalev and Andrew Cristall.
Drafted in the third round of the 2022 draft, Suzdalev played the entire season with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League alongside 2023 first-overall pick Connor Bedard. Suzdalev may make the jump from the junior level to Hershey in the coming season.
“I’m trying to improve every day and listen to the coaches, take advice, and just focus on the next step,” said Suzdalev. “If the chance comes and if I get some games I’m sure I’ll be ready and do my best.”
The Capitals selected Cristall 40th overall in the 2023 NHL draft from the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL. Like Suzdalev, Cristall is familiar with Chicago Blackhawks 2023 overall No. 1 pick Connor Bedard, having played together at a young age. He scored 95 points in 54 games at the junior level last season, showing a high-level scoring ability, with skating speed his biggest weakness.
Cristall demonstrated his stickhandling skills at camp, effortlessly weaving the puck around and between his opponent’s legs.
Since the draft, Cristall has made improvements in his skating ability but still has room to grow, according to Mahoney.
“I’m glad it’s, you know, showing that it’s improved a little bit, but you know, still a lot of work to go,” said Cristall. “I definitely feel you know, step faster for sure.”
Four goaltenders attended the camp, with Mitchell Gibson and Clay Stevenson having the most experience.
Drafted in 2018’s fourth round, Gibson played three seasons with Harvard University, recording a .919 save percentage in the 2022-23 season.
Stevenson made the jump to the professional level after signing with the Capitals following his 2021-22 season with Dartmouth College. He played 36 games with the Caps’ affiliate South Carolina Stingrays, recording a .916 save percentage.
“We’re always patient with those guys and most of them end up starting in South Carolina,” said Mahoney about the goalies.
The camp concludes today, before the start of training camp, and the first preseason game on Sunday, Sept. 24.
This article was originally published on CNSMaryland.org and is republished with permission.