Prior to last month’s NHL draft, in a conference call with reporters, Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney was asked to assess the defensive depth of Capitals.
Keep in mind, it was before the free-agent signings of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.
Mahoney rattled off his list of blue liners, starting with Mike Green and continuing with Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Connor Carrick, Patrick Wey and Madison Bowey, followed by Blake Heinrich, Tyler Lewington and Christian Djoos. We can assume Jack Hillen and John Erskine were unintentional oversights.
During the Caps’ development camp, we checked in with Heinrich, a 19-year-old, left-handed shooting defenseman taken by the Capitals in the fifth round (144th overall) of the 2013 NHL draft.
At 5-foot-10, 198 pounds, Heinrich is an offensive defenseman who likes to play a physical brand of hockey. Considered one of Minnesota’s top high school players at age 17, Heinrich left his home state to play for the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL in 2012 and had signed a letter of intent to attend Minnesota-Duluth before changing his mind and signing with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.
At the time of Heinrich’s signing, former Winterhawks coach Mike Johnston, who has since replaced Dan Bylsma as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins head coach, described Heinrich as a “dynamic defenseman who is a perfect fit for our style of play. I expect he will be a big part of our future over the next two seasons as we rebuild our defense.”
In his two seasons with Sioux City, Heinrich recorded 10 goals and 26 assists and was a plus-14 while piling up 227 penalty minutes in 84 games. After the Musketeers were eliminated from the playoffs, he joined Portland for the final week of their playoff run, getting into one game against Edmonton in the Western League finals, where he played with Caps defensive prospect Garrett Haar.
“It was an awesome experience, and that’s where I’ll be going next year,” Heinrich said. “I learned a lot there. It’s a different style of play. I think the biggest thing was the skill level of the guys was better than the USHL. The coaching staff out there wanted me to experience that.”
Mahoney said he was happy with the development Heinrich showed in his two seasons in the USHL and is hoping for another year of growth with a full season or two with the Winterhawks, who replaced Johnston with former Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Jamie Kompon.
Heinrich said he was a little sore at the conclusion of his second development camp with the Capitals, saying it was a one-week crash course on how to defend against the organization’s top prospects, notably first-round draft picks Andre Burakovsky and Jakob Vrana.
“I think they burned me a couple times with their speed,” Heinrich said. “I’m not used to playing against guys that fast. It’s an adjustment, but it’s fun playing against those guys. Their talent level is just unbelievable.”
Heinrich said he’ll bring the mental notes he took last week with him to Portland next season, where he said he will work on his skating, moving the puck quicker, playing more physical and developing an NHL shot.
“I just want to work my butt off,” he said. “It’s a different level and that’s the bigger challenge, comparing yourself to different players from different leagues.”