A Tale of Two Mountains

Esa Tikkanen; Photo: Elsa Hasch/Allsport/Getty Images

If you're an avid Puck Daddy reader (and who isn't?), you've no doubt been enjoying their late-summer "Mt. Puckmore" series, a team-by-team look at the faces that have made the National Hockey League's member franchises what they are today. And if you've been lamenting the fact that you were going to have to wait for weeks to see your favorite team's entry simply because of the cruelty of the alphabet, you're in luck - Puck Daddy isn't beholden to such conventions, and today's the day that Mt. Capsmore (written by yours truly) runs. Naturally, we'd love to hear your thoughts on our selections - feel free to agree or disagree in the comments here or, if you're so inclined, over there.

But given that without hate there is no love, without evil there is no good, etc., we thought it would be valuable to rip off Battle of California take a look at four former Caps who represent low points in the team history, the men whose faces are carved into local hockey's Mt. Suckmore.

As with Mt. Capsmore, we're going to stick to players only (that sigh of relief you just heard was Bruce Cassidy's), and take 'em chronologically. So without further ado...

Greg Joly

It's not that Joly was a terrible hockey player or that he was particularly responsible for what was the worst team in NHL history. But for Joly, expectations were decidedly higher. We'll let hockey historian Joe Pelletier set the mood:

It was the early 1970s. Bobby Orr had transformed the game. The best hockey player in the world was a defenseman and every team wanted the next Bobby Orr.

The Washington Capitals, with their very first draft pick in franchise history, thought they had landed him with the 1st overall pick in the 1974 NHL Amateur draft.

They were wrong.

Sure, that draft only produced two Hall of Famers (Joly's junior teammate Clark Gillies and Bryan Trottier) and a handful of All-Stars, but after just two seasons and change (and a minus-114 rating in just 98 games), Joly was already sent packing, traded to Detroit for Bryan Watson. Indeed, from 1968 through 2005, the only skater selected number one overall who played fewer games in the League than Joly was Gord Kluzak (whose career was derailed by injury, not ineptitude).

The Caps' early struggles are well-documented, and they certainly did Joly no favors by rushing him to the NHL. But those first few years might have been a bit less painful with a better first pick.

Alexandre Volchkov

Taken fourth overall in a weak 1996 Draft, Volchkov has the distinction of playing in the fewest NHL games (three) of any skater taken in the top five between 1969 and 2006. Stories about his poor attitude range from insisting on being called "Volch-inator" to walking out on his AHL teammates during a playoff game... and no doubt beyond. David Poile didn't make a ton of mistakes during his time in Washington, but this was one of them, as questions surrounding Volchkov's mental make-up were being asked long before he was drafted. Luckily for Poile (and Predators fans), he learned his lesson about drafting Russians in the first round.

Esa Tikkanen

On March 9, 1998, Caps rookie GM George McPhee sent Dwayne Hay and future considerations to Florida for Tikkanen, a five-time Stanley Cup winner. Tik potted a couple of goals and added ten assists in the final 20 games of the regular season, and he lit the lamp three times during the Caps playoff run that spring.

But with the Caps down a game but up a goal late in the third period of Game 2 of the Finals in Detroit, this happened:

Some kind of veteran play, eh?

Tikkanen's miss allowed the Red Wings to become the first team in 42 years to win a Stanley Cup Finals game it trailed by two goals entering the third period, and to send the series back to Washington up two-games-to-none rather than tied at one apiece. That, as they say, was that.

And lest you think we're being overly harsh on Tikkanen for one play, recall that in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, "he inadvertently scored the tying goal for the Sabres with 57 seconds remaining, [but] Todd Krygier made the mistake an afterthought with his winner in overtime."

Had Tik buried the empty netter in Game 2 in Detroit, the Caps still would have had a tough time winning three-of-five from that Red Wings team. But with momentum, home ice, and Olie Kolzig, who knows? As Mark Tinordi succinctly put it, "We were all standing on the bench and saw the open net and were about to explode. But then he missed it.''

Indeed.

Jaromir Jagr

It started out as pure joy.

On July 11, 2001, the Caps acquired the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner for three mediocre prospects (none of whom turned into much of anything); the best player in the National Hockey League was a Washington Capital. Certainly Jagr joining Peter Bondra, Adam Oates, Sergei Gonchar, Kolzig, et. al. would vault a Caps team that finished 13th in both goals for and against and had 96 points the previous season into the upper echelon of Cup contenders, right? Wrong.

Not only did Jagr's points-per-game fall off the table in D.C. (from 1.49 to 1.14, the lowest since his second season in the League), but the Caps failed to make the playoffs. Even worse, of course, early in that ill-fated season, the Caps had extended J.J. with the largest contract in League history to date: $77 million over seven years (with an option for an eighth year). Hey, at least ownership was willing to open up the checkbook for a marquee player, unlike the prior regime.

The Caps spent the next season coddling their superstar (bringing in his pals Robert Lang and Kip Miller, as well as enabling bench boss Cassidy), and made the playoffs, only to be ousted by the Lighting in the first round - Jagr's opportunity to resurrect his career in Washington in a show of redemptive glory somewhat ironically lost on Easter Sunday. Before long, the team was openly shopping Number 68 and his enormous contract, finally sending Jagr - and truckloads of cash - to the Rangers for Anson Carter in January of 2004 as an early step in the rebuild.

The Jagr Era wasn't without it's high points - a seven-point game against Florida and a four-point playoff game against the Bolts come to mind. But an acquisition that should have ushered in the golden silver age of Caps hockey instead brought about a complete dismantling of the team, sparing few.

Then again, even this dark cloud has a silver lining: without Jaromir Jagr playing the way he did, this would never have been possible.

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