Drafting Well Is Now a Washington Hallmark

Cup'pa JoeTime was, drafting 24th in the first round as the Capitals will this Friday night, while a sign of standings success, was somewhat an occasion for frustration and lament — all the really good ones are gone by then, generally. Not so now, not in light of the haulings made late each June by the Caps’ talent acquisition team of late. Can George McPhee and his scouts pull another John Carlson or Mike Green or Simeon Varlamov rabbit out of a hat in Montreal?

The Capitals are not yet Detroit when it comes to finding jewels outside of the lottery. Not yet. But they are hands down the best drafting team in their division, and one of the best in the Eastern conference if not the league. When have you been able to say that before of the Caps? More importantly, the Capitals today are rightly regarded as an elite NHL team; that cannot be achieved without annually performing well on Entry Draft weekend. 

One man does not a contending hockey team make, and so the Capitals status today is only partly attributable to the extraordinary fortune of winning the 2004 Entry Draft lottery. Dating back to the 2002 Draft in Toronto, they have secured elite talent at the 13th (Alexander Semin), 23rd (Simeon Varlamov) and 29th selections (Mike Green). We might not be long off in adding John Carlson (27th, 2008) to that tally.

The selection of Green was exceptionally fortuitous insomuch as the team had already jettisoned Sergei Gonchar, and seemed bereft of a no. 1 defenseman anywhere in the organization. Fully twenty four teams passed over Green in round one in 2004. (Not including the Capitals, who went with Jeff Schultz at 27 and allowed Dallas one good look at Green at no. 28 (they opted for Mark Fistric) before grabbing him at 29.)    

The Caps got a lot of cracks at the sweet-tasting apple between 2002 and 2008, selecting 14 times in the first round of those seven entry drafts. But success with those selections, outside of say no.1s overall, isn’t a sure thing. The outlier in all this high-end draft success is 2005. But talk about a draft requiring an asterisk. Colloquially and especially locally, history has recorded 2005 as the Screw the Caps draft.   

Still in a lockout labor impasse at the time of the draft, commissioner Bettman authorized teams being assigned one to three ping pong balls associated with the number of playoff appearances made in the previous three seasons, as well as having owned a no. 1 overall pick. Hardly a weighting system that well distinguished between the rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots.

The Caps of course had selected no. 1 the previous June. During the most recently completed season of play, 2003-04, Washington finished with just 59 points. Only Pittsburghs’ 58 points were worse. Even allowing for their selection of Ovechkin the previous June, it was outlandish to think of the Caps being anywhere but among the five or ten worst teams in the league. Nonetheless, thanks to Bettman’s “snake draft” concoction, the team selected 14th overall, in a draft whose cream quality was clearly top-10 heavy, and left with Sasha Pokulok, who through four seasons of development bears no resemblance to any of the organization’s other Sashas. Drafting ahead of the Caps then were the likes of Ottawa (102 points in ’03-’04), Vancouver (101 pts.), and Montreal (93 pts.). But I’m not bitter or anything.

Looking at the larger and more contemporary picture, the Hershey Bears’ Calder Cup run this spring afforded a choice bit of instruction regarding the maturing success of the Caps’ success with the draft. It wasn’t 2007 lottery selection Karl Alzner, deemed at the time of his selection “the most NHL ready” of his blueline class’ prospects, who most impressed and who was accorded top-pairing placement out on the Bears’ blueline by head coach Bob Woods, but rather 2008 end-of-the-first-round steal John Carlson. Alzner still figures to be a bedrock part of the contending Caps, but the Capitals today are capable of securing top-end talent anywhere they select in round one.

Durably good franchises (Detroit, New Jersey) possess this quality. But they also pick prime talent later on. The Caps are sniffing around that realm of late (John Oduya, Oskar Osala, Mathieu Perreault). The belief here is that when the day arrives that Ovi & Co.skate around Verizon Center ice holding Lord Stanley on high the names etched on it will include players culled from entry draft rounds early, middle, and late.                

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7 Responses to Drafting Well Is Now a Washington Hallmark

  1. Section 117 says:

    I’d suggest they draft well in the early rounds, and anything after round 3 you can pretty much write off for them. Considering GMGM has been running the shop, the results they’ve gotten have been below par.

  2. Todd says:

    I thought I read somewhere recently that good teams can field one line of veterans, one line of prospects, and one line of role players. Good to see that the Caps can get some prospects and roll players for with more than just first rounders, which don’t always work out.

  3. Michael says:

    “[P]retty much write them off” seems a bit of an overstatement. Not a whole lot of primo NHL talent emerges post-Round 3; we likely have about as much skill/luck as most teams not called the Red Wings or Devils. Della Rovere, Osala, Oduya, Perrault, Andrew Gordon, McChesney, Joudrey . . .
    Not a lot of doings in the bigs, but it’s still pretty early & I’d hardly write these guys off.

  4. Section 117 says:

    Oduya is the only one past round 2 that’s played more than 50 NHL games in all of McPhee’s drafts (well, not counting Nolan Yonkman.
    I like the future and all too, but those last several names aren’t coming up here for more than a cup of coffee. And I like the future as much as everyone, but like this season shows us, drafts should be about how you finish almost as much as how you start.

  5. Caps fan in Atlanta says:

    Why are you being so negative,Section 117. Again, stars are not often found past round 3. Look at the Caps recent history. They seem to be improving in selections past round 3. What about Holtby?Broda?

  6. dmg says:

    What about Holtby and Broda? You have to like what they did this year but neither has played a single professional game yet. Way too early to call them late round successes.

  7. Caps fan in Atlanta says:

    Obviously, it is too early to tell on any of the many promising late round picks since 2004. But still why is it necessary to be so negative right now? It seems as if GMGM has made a change since earlier late round draft failures. Maybe, after all is said and done, we will end up with many late round pick success stories starting with 2004. Maybe we should have some patience first. Or do you all think now is the time to make a change and fire GMGM? I tend to prefer the more patient route.

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