Time 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.