-- Ted Leonsis, July 2012
It makes for a fine plan. You build a common culture among players "growing up" in the same system, and if you are lucky, you get production relatively cheaply if players produce on their early-career contracts. What team would not want those benefits?
The trouble is, drafting teenagers with an eye toward what sort of production they might provide five or ten years down the road might be art as much as science, especially given the nascent state of hockey analytics. Put another way, drafting is not easy, and it lacks certainty.
One might argue that the Caps have not been as efficient as they need to be to be an elite team that depends primarily on the draft for talent, but it would be only fair to put the Caps' performance into a broader context. We can look at this by taking a fan favorite notion, "we coulda had [fill in name of player]," and apply a little rigor to it.
To do that, let's take a look at "draft neighborhoods" over the 2001-2010 period. We will exclude more recent drafts because developmental schedules might unduly affect results; fewer of those players would normally have reached the NHL in the best of situations. The "neighborhoods" we will look at would be the series of picks surrounding a Capitals selection, the idea being that there would be hits and misses within a broader "neighborhood" of picks.
Hits would be those situations in which the Capitals selected a player that teams immediately preceding their pick passed on, who then went on to play a significant number of NHL games. Misses would be instances in which the Caps passed on a player selected "in the neighborhood" - within a pick or two later - who went on to play a significant number of games. Then there are those "undeveloped" neighborhoods in which the Caps draft a player who might not make significant contributions down the road, but it part of a series of picks in that neighborhood in which no one seems to have realized success.
This conversation is limited to the first two rounds of the draft. One would expect more "hits" in the higher rounds, and the idea we are testing here is that even with a larger talent pool yet unselected at the top of the draft there are no guarantees (put another way, we are not trying to identify "diamonds in the rough" discovered in late rounds).
Let's start with 2001. The Capitals drafted defenseman Nathan Paetsch with the 58th overall pick. His journey as a Caps draft pick would be, to say the least, interesting, but that is another discussion. The fact is that he never reached the big club, although he did play 167 NHL games after going back into the draft in 2003 and being drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the seventh round. The point here is that this was not an especially successful draft pick in terms of his eventual NHL contribution in games (167 over six seasons). But did the Caps pass over a gem in taking Paetsch in 2001? If you look at the next 12 picks from that draft there were 11 skaters picked (plus journeyman goalie Peter Budaj taken at 63rd overall) who have played a total of 196 games:
59. Chicago: Matt Keith
60. New Jersey: Victor Uchevatov
61. Tampa Bay: Andreas Holmqvist
62. Detroit: Igor Grigorenko
64. Florida: Tomas Malec
65. Toronto: Brendan Bell (the only one in this group to play more than 100 NHL games (102)
66. Vancouver: Fedor Fedorov
67. New Jersey: Robin LeBlanc
68. Florida: Grant McNeill
69. Anaheim: Joel Stepp
70. Dallas: Yared Hagos
Grigorenko had his progress stifled as a result of a car accident in May 2003, a fact that undoubtedly contributed to the fact that he would never dress for an NHL game. But one still had to go all the way to the 71st pick overall (Tomas Plekanec) to find a player who dressed for more NHL games than did Paetsch. In our definitions of neighborhoods, you might look at the 58-to-70 picks (which extended into the third round) as an "undeveloped" neighborhood.
In 2002 one could argue that the Caps had a "hit" in the neighborhood in which they picked in the first round. The Caps had already picked Steve Eminger and Alexander Semin with the 12th and 13th overall picks, but they still had another pick at 17th overall. The Montreal Canadiens picked Chris Higgins (601 games to date), but then there were a couple of picks that were clear misses. Edmonton selected center Jesse Niinimaki with the 15th overall pick a player who never made it to the NHL and played in only 24 games in the AHL before returning to Europe. Ottawa took forward Jakub Klepis with the next pick, a player who would ultimately dress for only 66 games in the NHL (all of them, it turned out, with the Caps after he was traded by the Senators to Buffalo, who then traded him to Washington in 2004).
Both teams passed on Red Deer forward Boyd Gordon, taken by the Caps with that 17th overall pick. Gordon has gone on to play in 560 regular season games with Washington, Phoenix, and Edmonton. Making it perhaps a better pick was what followed. Los Angeles took defenseman Denis Grebeshkov (234 NHL games) with the 18th pick, and Phoenix then took Jakub Koreis, who never dressed for an NHL game. Even if Gordon was not a top-six forward, this would reasonably be called a hit based on the neighborhood of the pick.
The 2003 draft is the basis of one of the more famous "misses" in Caps drafting history in this period, the "We Coulda Had Getzlaf" draft. The Caps selected Eric Fehr with the 18th overall pick, passing on center Ryan Getzlaf (taken by Anaheim with the next pick) and defenseman Brent Burns (taken 20th by Minnesota). Both Getzlaf and Burns have 633 regular season games on their resume. Fehr, while having reengineered his career as a checking line forward, has never quite achieved his promise as a goal-scoring winger (due in no small part to a series of injuries in his early career). This one might be overstated as a "miss," but it sure has been a hearty conversation topic over the years.
2004 will always be the "Ovechkin Draft," but there was activity down the card that bears noting. After Ottawa selected defenseman Andrej Meszaros with the 23rd overall pick, Calgary and Edmonton whiffed on the picks that followed. The Flames took Kris Chucko (two career NHL games), while the Oilers selected Rob Schremp (114 games over six seasons with three teams). When Washington went on the clock after the Vancouver Canucks took goalie Cory Schneider at 26th overall, they selected... no, not Mike Green. They took Jeff Schultz with the 27th overall pick. Schultz has played 399 regular season games with the Caps and the Los Angeles Kings. Then after the Dallas Stars passed on Green in favor of defenseman Mark Fistric, the Caps took Green. Fistric has been an intermittent NHL player (316 games over seven seasons, but not playing in more than 35 NHL games since the 2011-2012 season). Green was the best offensive defenseman in the NHL for a period of time and arguably is still a very good defenseman. Call this a double-barreled hit.
But there was a miss, too. Late in the second round the New York Rangers had taken Brandon Dubinsky, then the Pittsburgh Penguins took Alex Goligoski, both of whom have gone on to be regulars in their respective lineups (Dubinsky in Columbus, Goligoski in Dallas). When the Caps came up next, though, the took Mikhail Yunkov, who would never so much as play a single game in North America at any level. The troublesome part of this pick is that with the next pick the Boston Bruins selected David Krejci, who has more than 500 games on his resume and 378 career points.
2005 was, of course, the "Grand Lottery" that sent Sidney Crosby to Pittsburgh. For Caps fans it was perhaps the single most unproductive draft of the decade. But in the context of "neighborhoods," they were not alone. Take their first of two first round picks. Before the Caps selected at 14th overall, the Rangers took defenseman Marc Staal in the 12-slot. Certainly a hit for the Rangers. Then there was a big hole into which the Caps fell. Buffalo took forward Marek Zagrapan with the 13th overall pick, followed by the Caps taking defenseman Sasha Pokulok with the 14th overall pick. Neither have played a game in the NHL. But things weren't rosy in the picks that followed, either. The New York Islanders took center Ryan O'Marra, who has played in only 33 NHL games to date (31 with Edmonton, two with Anaheim, and none since 2011-2012), while the Atlanta Thrashers took Alex Bourret, who did not dress for an NHL game and was last seen playing in the AHL with the Worcester Sharks in 2011-2012. Call this an undeveloped neighborhood in what was a somewhat disappointing first round overall.
There was a miss, though. The Caps had a second first round pick - 27th overall. Before the Caps went on the clock the St. Louis Blues had taken forward T.J. Oshie, and Edmonton took forward Andrew Cogliano. Calgary then took Matt Pelech, who has played only 13 NHL games. Picking next, the Caps took defenseman Joe Finley, who did not dress for the Caps and to date has only 21 games of experience in the NHL. What the Caps did there was pass on another defenseman, Matt Niskanen, who has 491 games of NHL experience (and is now likely to be sought after free agent), taken by Dallas with the 28th overall pick. For that matter, the Caps passed on forward Steve Downie, who was taken one spot after Niskanen, and forward James Neal, who was taken 33rd by Dallas.
This was something of an odd draft for the Caps, at least when one gets past Nicklas Backstrom taken fourth overall. The first oddity is that with the next two picks the Caps took goaltenders. The first of them - Semyon Varlamov - was taken 23rd overall right after the Philadelphia Flyers took center Claude Giroux with the 22nd pick. It was the second of these Capitals picks that is of interest.
Ottawa took forward Nick Foligno with the 28th overall pick late in the first round. After that, though, it was something of a wasteland for a stretch...
29. Phoenix: Chris Summers (47 NHL games)
30. New Jersey: Matt Corrente (34)
31. St. Louis: Tomas Kana (6)
32. Pittsburgh: Carl Sneep (1)
33. Chicago: Igor Makarov (0)
That put the Caps on the clock where they took goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who has played in 136 games with the Caps and Buffalo. The Caps could not help have a miss to go with that hit, though. They had the next pick and selected forward Francois Bouchard (who has yet to play in an NHL game), passing on forward Jamie McGinn who was taken by San Jose with the next pick and who has 347 games on his resume.
The Caps had a top-five pick in the 2007 draft that they used to select defenseman Karl Alzner. They had two picks in the second round next pick and both, as a matter of drafting, ended up being similar. St. Louis took forward David Perron with the 26th overall pick late in the first round, a player who has more than 400 games on his resume. Detroit took defenseman Brendan Smith, a player with a somewhat lesser resume, but still with more than 100 games to his credit.
After that, however, there was a stretch of 14 picks who to date have combined for only 207 NHL games. Seven of them have not yet appeared in an NHL game. Josh Godfrey, taken 34th overall by the Caps, is smack in the middle of that 14-pick run and one of the seven who has not yet played in an NHL game. Just to put an exclamation point on this largely undeveloped neighborhood, there are 16 picks after David Perron at 26th overall with a total of 462 NHL games played before you get to the 43rd overall pick in this draft - Montreal's P.K. Subban.
Subban would be something of an island in that second round. After that pick there would be another long run of futility - 11 picks totaling 290 games (only Tampa Bay's Dana Tyrell with more than 100 games). Seven of those picks have yet to play in an NHL game, including defenseman Theo Ruth, taken 46th overall by the Caps. Ruth, as Caps fans will remember, was traded to Columbus for Sergei Fedorov, one of the more productive trades in recent memory, but Ruth, along with Godfrey are part of a second round in 2006 that was largely an undeveloped neighborhood.
It is one thing to miss. It is another to trade two picks to move up two slots to pick the player who would be a miss. That is what the Caps did in 2008 when they sent the 23rd overall and 54th overall picks to the New Jersey Devils to move up to 21st to select Anton Gustafsson, who has no NHL games on his resume to date and has not played a game in North America since 2009-2010 ("a game" is what he played, one game with the Hershey Bears). That pick between the original and the new pick, the 22nd overall pick? Edmonton took forward Jordan Eberle, who has 275 games and 221 points on his resume to date.
The Caps rehabilitated that miss by selecting John Carlson with the 27th overall pick, itself the product of a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers that sent defenseman Steve Eminger and the 84th overall pick to the Flyers for the pick used on Carlson.
However, the Caps would end up being in another of those undeveloped neighborhoods when they got to the second round. There were intermittent successes late in the second round - the Rangers taking Derek Stepan at 51st overall, the Islanders taking defenseman Travis Hamonic at 53rd overall. But after Minnesota took defenseman Marco Scandella (165 NHL games) with the 55th pick, things dried up in a hurry. Montreal took forward Danny Kristo with the 56th overall pick. Then the Caps had consecutive picks. They whiffed on both - defenseman Eric Mestery and forward Dmitry Kugryshev, neither of whom have appeared in an NHL game. In fact, they have only three games of North American minor league experience between them (all by Kugryshev in the ECHL).
The Caps were not alone, though. Their two picks were followed up by eight picks from which only one player has yet to appear in an NHL game -- Jimmy Hayes (drafted by Toronto, 96 games played, no more than 53 in any season, that with Florida last season).
The first round of the 2009 draft is one of those instance in which Caps fans might look back and think the team did not do well, but context does matter here. Marcus Johansson was taken with the 24th overall pick. Let's say up front that Johansson has the eighth highest number of games played and sixth highest point total in his draft class, in a sense outperforming his draft slot. He does not seem to get much recognition for that fact.
In the context of the draft, though, Johansson has to be regarded as a "hit." It starts with defenseman Nick Leddy being taken 16th overall by Minnesota. Leddy has 258 games of NHL experience (all of it with Chicago). After than selection, though, there was bumpy stretch:
17. St. Louis: David Rundblad (55 games)
18. Montreal: Louis LeBlanc (50)
19. NY Rangers: Chris Kreider (89)
20. New Jersey: Jacob Josefson (118)
21. Columbus: John Moore (173)
22. Vancouver: Jordan Schroeder (56)
23. Calgary: Tim Erixon (15)
The Caps then selected Johansson. This draft is close enough to the present to have developmental noise start to make its presence known. For example, Kreider spent three years at Boston College after he was drafted by the Rangers. He shows signs of becoming a fixture in that lineup. But consider the picks after Johansson, too. Jordan Caron (Boston), Kyle Palmieri (Anaheim), Philippe Paradis (Carolina, no games yet played in the NHL), Dylan Olsen (Chicago), Carter Ashton (Tampa Bay), and Simon Despres (Pittsburgh) hardly qualify as clearly better picks than Johansson would have been at 24th overall.
It is harder to play "hit or miss" with this draft as the idea applies to the Caps than it is to think about risk. It is too early to call this draft a "bust," but it hardly looks like a "boom," either. Eight of the first nine picks in this draft have appeared in at least 145 NHL games. But after that, only two of the next 51 picks through the end of the second round have appeared in that many (Cam Fowler, 12th overall by Anaheim; and Justin Faulk, 37th overall by Carolina). Between Fowler and Faulk are 24 draft picks that have appeared in 837 games (an average of 35 apiece). Right in the middle of that group is Evgeny Kuznetsov, taken 26th overall and who has 17 games of experience, all of it this past season. The Caps assumed a measure of risk that Kuznetsov's appearance in North American would be delayed. It was, of course. But on the other hand the team and its fans hope that Kuznetsov will be the steal of this draft, especially given where he was taken, despite the risk of delay. For the time being, though, we can only think of his neighborhood as being under development.
This is hardly a scientific look at the draft over the 2001-2010 period, nor is it necessarily exhaustive. It is offered to make a point. I do not think that the Caps have drafted well enough for a team that chooses to use the draft as the centerpiece of its roster development. But truth be told, drafting isn't easy, either. Trying to forecast what the performance of a teenager might be five or ten years down the road is among the most difficult tasks in sports management. The development of more sophisticated hockey analytics might lead to better (or at least more confident) evaluations, but the human element being what it is, and the effects of chance or misfortune or sheer luck being unpredictable, what looks like poor performance might be as much a reflection of shared circumstance among clubs in any given draft.
It is part of what makes the draft so intriguing as it unfolds. What does the future hold in store for the young men about to be selected? We just cannot know for sure.