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Two Dudes: Building Through the Draft

The Capitals have prided themselves on constructing a contender from the ground up. Has it worked?

Greg Fiume

With another Draft barely behind us and another free agency period just ahead, the new coach no longer so new and the Young Guns definitely no longer young, now would seem to be a fine time to give the Two Dudes treatment to the organization's philosophy on building the team through the draft... and to pour ourselves a draught.

As Ted Leonsis told us a year ago, "Our goal always has been to draft, develop and retain our own players." Well... is it working? Take it away, Rob.

Rob: Alright. Draft day just passed, and fans everywhere are sizing up the new prospects that have entered the organization. Is the first-round pick going to be a surefire impact player? Is there a late-round pick buried somewhere that will someday score an overtime goal in the Stanley Cup final?

The importance of drafting and developing talent has been put into stark relief by the recent Chicago-Boston final, with two incredible teams playing exceptional hockey and both teams priding themselves on building primarily through the draft. Remember the days when the Caps were a prime example of that approach? Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin were piling up points and accolades. Mike Green was being robbed of nominated for Norris Trophies, Jeff Schultz was thriving, John Carlson and Karl Alzner formed the most promising defensive duo in the AHL, and the organization had an embarrassment of riches in net. And all of it was homegrown. Even the Hershey Bears were tearing up the AHL, thanks in no small part to Caps' draft picks. The Southeast Division was full of nothing but bugs on the Caps' windshield and the window was opening. Wide.

Well, Alex and Nick are now on the contracts that will bring them well into their 30s, the team has had a glaring need at second-line center for most of Ovechkin's career, the defensive depth has suddenly been challenged in a way most of us didn't anticipate... and the Bears' roster suddenly doesn't promise a whole lot of immediate help. The team's top pick in the 2011 draft was used to acquire a right wing that is really better suited for a grinder's role, and its top pick in 2012 didn't last ten months before being flipped for a left wing who will turn 32 this summer. Obviously they haven't won their Cup(s)... yet. But it's hard to say that, to this point, building through the draft has worked.

JP: To me "building through the draft" is a means of establishing a core of young talent as a foundation and then filling in around it via the draft, trades and free agency. The Caps have done that. Alex Ovechkin. Nicklas Backstrom. Mike Green. John Carlson. Karl Alzner. Braden Holtby. All their own draft picks, and they comprise the bedrock of this team, along with Brooks Laich (whom they obviously acquired early on). They also turned drafted players into Martin Erat and a year of Mike Ribeiro, and picked Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault and Michal Neuvirth (with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson, among others, hopefully waiting in the wings).

The problem isn't with the core they've drafted; it's in what they've surrounded that core with, which becomes an even bigger challenge over time. And by that I mean that a key, but almost unspoken, component of "building through the draft" is to have important contributors contributing before they hit their big pay days. Take a look at this year's Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford were all well-paid and yet still playing on deals they signed as restricted free agents and thus cheaper than their full, open-market value. Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, Viktor Stalberg and Andrew Shaw finished in the team's top-11 in scoring during the regular season and combined for a cap hit that was less than the Caps took on Joel Ward this past year. With production like that, you can afford free agent (gasp!) fill-ins like Marian Hossa and to keep paying Patrick Sharp, as well as to make a few mistakes along the way.

Hell, look at the 2009-10 Caps. The team had some big-ticket talent in the two-time Hart winner, the two-time Norris finalist and their second 40-goal scorer... but they also had Backstrom scoring 101 points for $2.4 million, Laich potting 25 goals for $2 million, Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischmann combining for 44 goals and 90 points for under $1.5 million combined, Jeff Schultz giving them 20 minutes a night in the top pair (and posting his somewhat infamous +50) for $715k and Semyon Varlamov going 15-4-6 for $813k. Those are all Caps draft picks (or, in the case of Laich and Fleischmann, guys who they acquired very early on). The problem wasn't the picks - the problem was the players with whom they surrounded those picks, most notably on the blueline. Consider that after Ovechkin, Green and Alexander Semin, the biggest cap hits on the team were Jose Theodore and Tom Poti.

Now those core players have had some moderate and large pay days, and even the next wave (John Carlson and Karl Alzner) has or will. As the core that was built through the draft gets older, it also gets more expensive, harder to keep together and harder to build around - especially when its own well of talent dries up, which is where the Caps have been for the past couple of years. Whereas teams like Chicago or Los Angeles or Pittsburgh or San Jose have had a seemingly endless stream of NHLers ready to fill in around their respective cores, the Caps haven't. They've had some busts in the draft (although granted, everyone does), traded a first round pick, and traded a couple of nice prospects in Filip Forsberg and Cody Eakin for veteran talent. Even forgiving the missed picks, they've essentially turned Forsberg, Eakin and that 2011 first into Erat (and Michael Latta), that ultimately fruitless year of Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer... to say nothing of over $8 million on next year's cap (which doesn't even count the $5 million or more that Ribeiro will fetch somewhere). That's a lot of flexibility that they've exchanged for a couple of wings, and they've still got gaping holes at second-line center and one top-four defenseman.

So perhaps the problem isn't limited to the actual drafting piece of the "build through the draft" model - how much of the issue is with player development or simply how they've tried to fill-out the roster around their core?

Rob: For fans sitting at their computers with no direct access to the internal workings of an organization, it's impossible to tell the difference between "good drafting" and "good developing." Did the Bruins and 'Hawks develop their late round picks into what they've become or did they just get lucky? For those of us on the outside, there's no real way to know.

What we can tell is that guys that are drafted by the Caps and that have provided significant contributions are almost all first round picks. These are players that are supposed to contribute. Further, half of the core that comes to mind are top-five picks. Is that good drafting? I have a hard time giving the scouts a firm pat on the back for hitting on Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Alzner (though teams do miss with the fourth and fifth picks with some regularity).

But to really get to your point, let's talk about filling out a roster when you have cheap studs. The Caps, as you noted, had a lot of production for cheap in the years up to and including 2009-10 - and instead of providing that cheap production with solid role players they relied on an inconsistent veteran and a rookie in net, on recycled defenders who had never handled the responsibility the Caps were giving them or inexperienced defenders that were still learning the NHL. Defense is a position that is notoriously experience-reliant, but for most of Ovechkin's and Backstrom's cheap years, Tom Poti was the veteran presence on the blue line. The way Poti was playing at that point might have allowed him to contribute to a team like the 2013 Bruins or 'Hawks... but he obviously wouldn't have been eating the tough minutes and penalty-killing duties he was given with the Caps.

And it wasn't just the defense and goaltending that presented holes to that cheap, talent-laden team. The second-line center was never addressed adequately (and even the guys that were nominal centers when drafted, Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov, are now playing wing), and those veteran-type guys that have played key roles on Cup-winning teams (see: Guerin, Bill) never seemed to pan out in DC, although Sergei Fedorov made a nice go of it. I won't say it's for lack of trying - George McPhee always tried to bring in complements, but the complements that are available at the deadline are rarely the kind that can fix major holes on a roster (and if they are, they are far too costly). As Mike Gillis says, "You better draft centres because it's impossible to get them." And it has been.

So what's the vision? The strategy? How did they fail to build around a generational goal scorer and an elite center, along with some other very talented players littering the roster?

JP: Yeah, it's going to take an awful lot to not look back on 2009-10 as the missed opportunity of a lifetime (and that includes 1985-86... well, my lifetime does, at least). And we've discussed the fall-out from that season plenty. Since then, the Caps have been chasing systems and styles, but some constants have remained - both the 2009-10 Caps and the 2013-14 version (as of now) had about 48% of the cap tied up in their top-five players (by cap hit) and about 34% in their top-three. This past year's Blackhawks, by contrast, came in at 43% and 26%. This past year's Bruins? 36% and 25%.

The Caps have an expensive core, and that limits what they can do around it. Without an influx of cheap, young talent, it's tough to outperform your payroll, even if every salary on it is around fair market value. Add in a bad contract or two (or more) and it's not hard to see how the team has failed to take that next step over the past few years - the depth simply hasn't been there, and that gets back to drafting and developing.

Rob: Agree. It's true that the 'Hawks and B's surrounded their less expensive cores with great complementary talent, but it isn't just about the percentages allocated to the core. Most of the players that have filled in around the core players on those teams were in fact drafted and developed (or in some cases acquired very early in their careers so as to be developed).

Who are the players that the Caps have added to fill in the margins of the roster? More pointedly, who are the players that the Caps can claim credit for "developing"? Even acknowledging that fans have very little insight into this, the guys that are homegrown and contributing look like they fit the "exceptional talent" mold rather than the "developed within the organization" mold. Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Johansson never even played in Hershey so I don't think you can credit the organization with their development (and two of them were lottery picks). Carlson was lighting up the AHL from day one and only played 48 games and two playoffs in Hershey, so I have a hard time seeing him as a "developed from within" guy. Alzner was a top-5 pick, and has largely become what he was expected to become (though a skeptic could decry his offensive development).

If I look at guys that could get credit for development within the organization, I guess I'd say Brooks Laich and Mike Green, both of whom seemed to improve significantly in their time in Hershey and then became major parts of the current team. But neither player is cheap anymore, and the fact that they have such little company seems to prove the point. Go ahead and add Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle to the list, if you like, and Dmitry Orlov, Steven Oleksy and Tomas Kundratek in varying degrees. But look at who Chicago developed on the way to their first Cup, and then jettisoned as they earned more money (oh, hey there, Troy Brouwer). Look at who replaced them for this Cup run, and the mini-fire sale that is underway again.

Since the Caps don't have the homegrown depth, they've had to try to fill out the roster with veterans who are already making market value, or more. McPhee readily acknowledged that he overpaid for Ward. A young, cost-controlled forward turned into 31-year-old Erat. Brouwer, after helping Chicago win a Cup while he was cheap, was acquired by the Caps and now is paid (at least) market value. The Caps can be competitive with the amount of money dedicated to their core, it's not that much more than what Chicago's done (and Chicago has made their fair share of free agent mistakes). But I don't see how a team can compete by routinely paying market value for players that grew up in other organizations, and I don't see the internal reinforcements that will change the picture for the Caps.

JP: Exactly. Without that cheap, young talent (which almost always comes from within), the margin for error disappears real fast... sorta like my beer. Let's get another round and see what free agency brings later in the week. One thing seems pretty likely, though - it isn't going to bring cheap, young talent to surround the firmly established core of this team.