The Washington Capitals have taken a simpler approach: draft bold, draft deep, draft smart.
This new plan has resulted in Washington’s renaissance of domination. Just like the Detroit Red Wings from the 1990s to 2000s, the New Jersey Devils from the 1990s to 2000s and the Chicago Blackhawks post-2010, much of the team is spurned out of the draft. Understanding a rebuild was necessary, Washington began shelving out cap space in the early 2000s by trading veterans for draft picks. Superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were drafted in 2004 and 2006, respectively. The Capitals were built to support Ovechkin until a couple years ago when a managerial reset delivered a new look on the ice.
In the past 10 years, Washington draft picks have won the Art Ross Trophy, Maurice Richard Trophy, Hart Trophy, Vezina Trophy and Ted Lindsey Award. Washington is a Stanley Cup contender with its roster 52.3-percent comprised of original draft picks. Here, we will take a closer look at the drafts that have impacted today’s club the most.
2008 NHL Entry Draft
This draft is influential in bringing the Capitals where they are in today’s standings (pssst, they are the best in the league). In 2008, Washington picked a cornerstone defenseman and a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie. At Scotiabank Place, now known as Canadian Tire Centre, in Ottawa, the Capitals used their first round pick on a disappointing Anton Gustafsson. However, before the round was over, former general manager George McPhee traded defenseman Steve Eminger and a draft pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for the 27th overall pick. That pick turned out to be the tall, mobile John Carlson.
McPhee and his staff snagged another cookie in the fourth round. Via a network of trades, the Capitals were able to grab the 93rd overall pick and select Braden Holtby from the Saskatoon Blades. Holtby came in as a butterfly goaltender with good size. Having developed faster than anticipated, he has ironed out Washington’s carousel of goaltenders.
Defensemen and goaltenders often take longer to adapt to the level of speed and skill featured in the NHL. Both have slid into the adjustment well. Carlson is now a top-four blueliner in the league while Holtby earned the 2016 Vezina Trophy and is contending for a second consecutive title this season. The Capitals rely on Carlson and Holtby as both are excellent in their positions. Carlson is ranked 20th in scoring among the league’s defensemen with 25 points. Hotly has posted a .929 save percentage and 1.99 goals-against average and is ranked fifth in wins (22).
2006 NHL Entry Draft
The Capitals used the fourth overall pick in this draft to bring Backstrom to the nation’s capital. Washington fans and management projected that he would become Ovechkin’s setup man and he’s met expectations, recently picking up his 500th career assist and often when the Russian sniper is finding the back of the net.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) January 15, 2017
Washington drafted Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov, and Michal Neuvirth in the first two rounds of the 2006 draft. Varlamov was eventually traded to the Colorado Avalanche for a first round pick (Filip Forsberg). Neuvirth was packaged in another unproductive deal.
Backstrom is the superstar out of the 2006 Capitals draft pool. Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews were drafted at two and three, respectively. However, neither center would fit well as Backstrom. He is a hard-working and sneaky hockey wizard on the ice who can elevate any team into a championship contender. Looking back, Backstrom or Toews could have been selected first overall and Washington was fortunate that Backstrom was still available.
2004 NHL Entry Draft
Of course, here it is. I’ve got to include the draft that changed Washington’s history forever. Ovechkin, aka the “Great 8” or “Ovi,” came into the league with universal recognition as the next great superstar. To say the least, he did not disappoint. Remember the goal he scored twirling the stick with one hand while sliding on his back?
Without Ovechkin, Washington would not attract elite players like Justin Williams, Brooks Orpik or Matt Niskanen. Ovechkin is the captain of the Capitals for a reason. He wants to win, plays to win and will do anything to capture the Stanley Cup.
The team is ready for a deep playoff run because they have grown together and learned to win over the past few years. Instead of acquiring pieces to fill around Ovechkin, Washington has looked at the draft for speed and skill and has inked contracts with top-end players.
Michael Mazzuca graduated from The University of Scranton with a degree in journalism and electronic media. Mike began writing for The Hockey Writers in December 2016. He has written for the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins as well as the Rockland Boulders independent baseball team. Follow him on Twitter at @MazzucaMike.