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A Tale of Two Phenoms - Part I

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What if...

Ethan Miller

[Ed. Note: Back in the summer of 2009, Peerless penned a four-part fantasy tale of what the Washington Capitals might look like if they did not win the 2004 draft lottery and the right to select Alex Ovechkin with the first overall pick. Now, we thought it might be an entertaining diversion to contemplate what might have happened if the Caps won the 2004 lottery, then won the 2005 lottery as well…]

"So let's get started.  It feels good to finally be able to say... the first selection in the two thousand and five NHL entry draft belongs to the Washington Capitals."

That was the way Commissioner Gary Bettman opened the 2005 NHL draft at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa, Ontario.  After a minute of commiserating, perhaps letting the moment sink in, the Capitals brain trust made their way to the stage: principal owner Ted Leonsis, vice chairman Dick Patrick, general manager George McPhee, and director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney.

When Commissioner Bettman yielded the stage to George McPhee, the Capitals' GM made the announcement in his typically succinct and understated style that was consistent with the scaled down production of the 2005 draft.  "With the first overall pick the Washington Capitals select Sidney Crosby of Rimouski Oceanic."  Fourteen words were all it took for a tectonic shift in the balance of power in hockey.

And so it came to pass, despite emerging with only one ball in the 2005 draft lottery, the Washington Capitals defied the odds - a 2.1 percent chance of winning the first overall pick - and won the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes.  It was the second consecutive year that the Capitals won a lottery despite not having the league's worst record.  In 2004, with the league's third-worst record, they won the lottery and the right to pick Alex Ovechkin with the first overall pick.

The first round of the draft had not yet gotten past the tenth pick and commentators were discussing not if, but when the Caps would win a Stanley Cup, and the early speculation was that multiple Cups were a given.  The response in the media when the first day of the draft was quick and to the point in their headlines...

A DYNASTY IN THE MAKING: CAPITALS DRAFT CROSBY

CROSBY AND OVECHKIN: A MATCH MADE IN HOCKEY HEAVEN

OILERS 2.0: CAPITALS HAVE A CHAMPIONSHIP LOOK

CROSBY + OVECHKIN = CUPS

It was almost a "can you top this" series of predictions for the Capitals.  Having finished 28th in the overall league standings the last time the NHL played hockey, in the 2003-2004 season, there were predictions that the Capitals were a shoo-in to make the playoffs in 2005-2006.  Some thought a divisional title in the historically weak Southeast Division was almost a formality.  Others had them winning a conference title and going to the Stanley Cup finals.  One pundit opined that Crosby and Ovechkin would be hoisting the Stanley Cup on MCI Center ice in June 2006, that not since Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier entered the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers in 1979 as 19-year olds had two such prodigious young talents been seen on the same team, forgetting that the 1979-1980 Oilers were swept in the first round of the 1980 playoffs by the Philadelphia Flyers.

A Fast Start

In the 2003-2004 season, the last before the NHL went dark for a season, the Washington Capitals finished 25th in the league in attendance.  Just two seasons earlier they were 13th. It was a franchise in trouble.  When the club drafted Sidney Crosby first overall in June, coming on the heels of their drafting alex Ovechkin first overall in 2004, the thought of seeing two of the best talents to come into the NHL in a generation gave a boost to season ticket sales.  The team's home opener of the 2005-2006 season against the Columbus Blue Jackets was a sellout weeks in advance, and the requests for media credentials shattered the club record for a regular season game.  It made for a playoff atmosphere at MCI Center on Opening Night for the Capitals.

They and their brand new show pieces did not disappoint.  When the starting lineup was introduced, the roar of the crowd drowned out the announcement of the last two names -- Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.  Ovechkin sent the crowd into a frenzy on his first NHL shift when barely half a minute into the game he put defenseman Radoslav Suchy through the glass behind the Columbus net, stopping play for ten minutes as the glass was replaced.

On their next shift they brought the crowd to their feet in a more traditional fashion.  Crosby led a 2-on-1 break on goaltender Pascal Leclaire with Francois Beauchemin the only defender back for the Jackets.  Crosby lifted a backhand saucer pass to Ovechkin steaming down the left side, and Ovechkin one-timed the well-placed pass past Leclaire's blocker to give the Caps a 1-0 lead.  It would be the start of a big night for the rookies, Ovechkin finishing with two goals and an assist, Crosby with three assists as the Caps beat the Blue Jackets, 5-4.

It made for a storybook beginning that continued for Ovechkin, Crosby, and the Caps as the club rolled through October with a 7-3-1 record, tied with Carolina for the Southeast Division lead.  There were signs, though, that the Caps had issues to deal with.  In 11 games they allowed 36 goals.  Their penalty kill was under 80 percent.   And, on offense, the team was getting little offense from anyone other than Ovechkin (nine goals) or Crosby (four goals, ten assists).  Five of their seven wins were by one goal.

A Dose of Reality

The problem, as it was in the last year before the lockout, was a lack of depth in talent.  Teams started moving away from a strategy of matching their top defenders against the rookies and toward one of putting their best offensive players on against them to make them play honestly.  It had the intended results, unless you were a Caps fan.  Ovechkin and Crosby continued to be effective at the offensive end, but they were doing no better than breaking even when on the ice in the month of November.   That laid bare the shortcomings of the rest of the roster, and the Caps had a losing month, going 3-7-3 to drop to .500 on the year (10-10-4).

The Caps hung on stubbornly in December, mostly on the goaltending of Olaf Kolzig, who had shaved more than half a goal a game off his goals against average after an iffy start over the first two months.  But the Caps could barely tread water over the month owing to an offensive slump.  It made for a 6-5-1 month that left them 16-15-5 for the 2005 portion of the season.  It was good for fourth place in the Southeast Division and tenth place in the Eastern Conference.

Divide and Conquer

After closing the December with a 3-1-1 record, things looked up as the 2006 portion of the season began.  It came to a crashing halt when the Caps lost six in a row (0-4-2), scoring only 11 goals in the process.  At that point, head coach Glen Hanlon took a gamble.  He split up Ovechkin and Crosby, having Crosby center a line with Matt Pettinger and Brian Willsie, and Ovechkin man a line with Chris Clark and Dainius Zubrus.

The split did both the players and the team good.  Washington rolled off a four-game winning streak.  In the second of those games, a 6-1 win in Phoenix, Ovechkin capped the scoring with a goal that would have folks chattering for weeks, flicking the puck past goalie Brian Boucher as he was sliding across the slot on his back.  In the five game streak, Crosby had three multi-point games.

The jolt that splitting up the youngsters had did not last, though.  Washington ended the month with four losses in five games, scoring only ten goals in those five games.  The lack of depth on offense was still apparent.  Either or both of Crosby and Ovechkin figured in nine of the ten goals scored in the five contests to end the month.

The 5-8-2 record for January left Washington with a 21-23-7 record, 13th in the Eastern Conference.  Even with the fine months Ovechkin had (11-10-21, including "The Goal") and that Crosby had (6-12-18), a playoff berth was slipping away.

Disappointment?  Sure, but...

2006 was an Olympic year.  Three Capitals were named to their respective national teams.  Goaltender Olaf Kolzig was named to the German national team, defenseman Ivan Majesky to the Slovakian national team, and Alex Ovechkin to the Russian national team.  Sidney Crosby was not named to Canada's national team, however.  It did not seem to affect him much.  In six February games leading up to the break he went 3-2-5.  Ovechkin matched him when he scored goals in his last three games before the break to go 3-2-5 heading into the Olympic break.  The rest of the team, however, seemed to get an early start on a vacation.  The Caps went 1-4-0, and with a 22-27-7 record were now in the category of longshot to make the post-season.

Coming to Terms

As the NHL took up again after the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, teams started assessing their playoff situations.  Some teams were near shoo-ins to make it; others were on the bubble.  Washington, on the other hand, was sinking through the standings, last in the Southeast Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference, nine points out of a playoff spot with 26 games to play.

The Capitals, having started the season with so much promise with two first overall picks in the lineup, hoped to avoid the position in which they now found themselves - sellers at the trading deadline.  It was apparent, however, that there were issues the team still needed to address - a lack of depth on offense, age creeping up on defense (three defensemen age 30 or older) and in goal (Kolzig being 35 years old) among them.

Even after coming out of the Olympic break with a 3-1-1 record, the writing was on the wall.  Too many teams to climb over, too many points to make up, and too few games in which to do it to make the playoffs, even if they could sustain this recent run of good play.  On March 9th, Washington parted ways with defenseman Brendan Witt, a veteran of ten years and more than 600 games with the Caps, trading him to Nashville for a first round pick in the 2006 entry draft and a third round pick in the 2007 entry draft.  In a minor deal, the Caps sent forward Jeff Friesen to Anaheim for a second round pick in the 2006 entry draft.  For all intents and purposes, the 2005-2006 season came to a close.

After the trading deadline the Caps finished up with a 9-10-2 record to end the season 34-38-10 record, thirteenth in the Eastern Conference.  Their 78 points was a 19-point improvement on the 2003-2004 season, a decent first step in a return to competitiveness.  As for the two rookies, Alex Ovechkin finished the season 54-50-104 and was tied for second in the league with 24 power play goals.  Sidney Crosby finished 33-71-104 and had four four-point games.  Only Ilya Kovalchuk and Joe Thornton (six apiece) had more.  Ovechkin finished as a first team All-Star at left wing, Crosby as a third team All-Star at center.  Ovechkin finished sixth in the voting for the Hart Trophy, Crosby tied for 19th.  Ovechkin finished first in the Calder Trophy voting for the league's top rookie, while Crosby finished second, just 24 points behind Ovechkin.

The Caps as a whole, however, were decidedly a work in progress.  They were too top heavy in scoring (Ovechkin and Crosby accounted for almost 38 percent of the Caps' goal total for the season); no other Capital would record 20 goals, no other Capital would finish with 50 points.  They were more successful when holding scores down than trying to outscore their opponents in fire wagon hockey matches (the Caps were 17-14-10 in one-goal games).  And that was due more to the effort of goalie Olaf Kolzig than it was to a stout defense that was thin at best, poor at worst.  Still, they were a much better team than the one that finished the 2003-2004 season.

While the season might have ended in disappointment in not making the playoffs, it was a good foundation off which to build in the years ahead.  The key word, though, was "build."  That was going to be the key between the Capitals being a curiosity and being a contender.  That will be where we pick up the story in the next installment.