[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. The first installment of the story can be found here. We pick up the story with the second installment…]
As we begin our second installment of our fantasy contemplating what would have happened if the Caps won the 2005 draft lottery, we pick things up with the 2006 draft.
The Washington Capitals might not have been a playoff team in 2005-2006, but it was a good year nonetheless. Having won two consecutive draft lotteries, the Caps drafted Alex Ovechkin first overall in 2005, then they won the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes a year later. With the two rookies dominating on the ice, the Caps were an entertaining team to watch. However, the Caps still did not fill their building on a consistent basis, and they did not make the playoffs, finishing with a 34-38-10 record.
Their 78 points left the Capitals thinking about the sixth overall draft pick and who might be available. With a top line center and left winger under contract, the task was to build a solid team around them. There were prospects down on the farm that might be the building blocks down the road. In 2005-2006, the Caps new AHL affiliate - the Hershey Bears - won a Calder Cup and did it largely with prospects. Tomas Fleischmann had 30 goals in just 57 games regular season games and another 11 goals in 20 playoff games. Eric Fehr had 25 goals in 70 games and scored the overtime winner in Game 7 of the Calder Cup semifinals to put the Bears into the final. Defenseman Mike Green had 43 points in just 56 games. Boyd Gordon and David Steckel provided some solid two-way play. These were players of whom much would be expected in the years to come.
For the Caps, the immediate task was to add to that prospect pool, and that left them with choices to make as the 2006 entry draft approached. One of the annual rites of June is the speculation over trades that teams might make at the NHL draft, and 2006 was no exception. The fact is, though, that far fewer trades are ever made than are speculated upon. And in this respect, 2006 was no exception. Although there was a fair amount of chatter about the Capitals wanting to trade up from their sixth overall draft position, perhaps to move up and go after one of the centers ranked highly in the draft, they held their pick.
Filling in the Blanks and an Unexpected Development
The first three picks of the draft went according to expectations. The St. Louis Blues drafted defenseman Erik Johnson first overall, followed by the Pittsburgh Penguins taking center Jordan Staal and the Chicago Blackhawks taking center Jonathan Toews. The Boston Bruins took Phil Kessel with the fourth overall pick, putting the Columbus Blue Jackets on the clock.
Columbus had a choice of centers with the fifth overall pick. On the one hand, Derick Brassard was a player of considerable offensive skill (the 2006 winner of the Mike Bossy Trophy in the QMJHL as the league's best pro prospect), but one thought to lack a physical element to his game and the consistency one would look for at the NHL level. On the other hand there was Nicklas Backstrom, compared by many to fellow Swede Peter Forsberg. Backstrom was felt to be a solid two-way player who might not measure up to Forsberg's level of accomplishment, but who would be a solid NHL contributor nonetheless. Backstrom might have been viewed as the safer pick.
Columbus had a recent history of drafting high-end skill players with top-ten picks - Rick Nash (first overall in 2002), Nikolai Zherdev (fourth overall in 2003), Alexandre Picard (eighth overall in 2004 and another Bossy Trophy winner in the QMJHL). Still, it was a surprise when the Blue Jackets went for Brassard with the fifth overall pick.
The Capitals wasted no time with the sixth pick. With Ovechkin and Crosby accompanying general manager George McPhee to the stage, the famously stone-faced McPhee almost winked as the Capitals selected Backstrom with their pick. The Capitals had a second pick in the first round, that coming from their trade of defenseman Brendan Witt to the Nashville Predators in March. With that pick, the Capitals selected what they hoped to be a successor to goaltender Olaf Kolzig, Semyon Varlamov of Lokomotiv-2 of the First League of the Russian professional hockey leagues.
Make Sure the Scoreboard Lightbulbs Work
The Capitals would have to wait on their new draft picks, though. Backstrom announced a few weeks after the draft that he would wait a year before leaving Swedish hockey and heading to Washington. Varlamov, having just turned 18 two months before the draft, remained in Russia for more seasoning in the Lokomotiv hockey organization.
Not that help was not on the way. Alexander Semin, who sat out the 2005-2006 season in Washington to fulfill his obligation to play only for Russian teams while serving his military requirements in the Russian armed forces, finally returned to Washington for the 2006-2007 season, more than two years since closing the book on his 2003-2004 rookie season with the Caps in which he scored ten goals in 52 games.
The 253 goals scored by the 2005-2006 team was the highest total of offensive output since the club scored 277 goals in the 1993-1994 season. The 2006-2007 edition of the Capitals looked as if it could do better, perhaps well enough to become one of the most prolific offensive clubs in the history of the franchise. If there was going to be an issue, it was going to be on defense. The 306 goals allowed in 2005-2006 was the first time the Capitals allowed more than 300 goals in a season since the 1981-1982 season when they allowed 338 goals and missed the playoffs for the last time before running off a 14-year streak of post-season appearances.
It was that kind of "balance" that got the Caps off to a rocky start for the 2006-2007 season. Washington went 4-3-4 in October, scoring 35 goals while allowing 35. It was much the same in November, the Caps going 6-6-2 and allowing 46 goals over the 14 games while scoring only 37 themselves.
The end of November did end well, though, with the Caps winning games in Tampa against the Lightning and at home against the Dallas Stars. Alex Ovechkin scored 10 goals and recorded 15 points for the month, while Sidney Crosby went 4-13-17 and finished the month with five straight multi-point games. If there was an area of concern for the Caps on offense, it was Alexander Semin. After posting eight goals in his first seven games of the season, he went 2-7-9 in his next 14 games through November 30th.
In December it started coming together for everyone. Semin rebounded from his six week slump to go 7-7-14 in December. Ovechkin went 9-14-23. Crosby went 7-19-26 and won NHL Player of the Month honors. The Caps went 9-4-1 to finish the 2006 portion of the season 19-13-7. They ended the calendar year in third place in the Southeast Division, one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes for second place, and sixth in the Eastern Conference, but only four points ahead of the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, each with 41 points in ninth place.
Dark Clouds Gather
There was still the matter of goals allowed. There were too many of them. All four regulation losses in December were by three or more goals, the Caps outscored by a 20-6 margin in those games. When the Capitals opened January with 3-6-1 record, the hard-won gains of December looked as if they might be slipping away. After the Caps suffered an ugly 6-2 loss at Carolina to cap a dismal pair of games wrapped around the All-Star Game break (the Caps lost to the Florida Panthers, 4-1, heading into the break), there was an uneasy feeling that change was coming.
A 7-3 win over the Hurricanes in the back-half of home-and-home, back-to-back set, quieted things for the moment, but a three game road trip that saw the Caps losing all three games, capped by a shutout at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins to end the trip, threatened to sink the Caps' season.
Early on Sunday morning, February 4, with the Caps just hours away from a return to Verizon Center to play the New York Islanders, Glen Hanlon was relieved as head coach. Bruce Boudreau was named interim coach and would step behind the bench not having seen the players he would be coaching since participating in training camp in September. On the other hand, he was coming to Washington with a 29-8-8 record with the Hershey Bears to that point in the 2006-2007 season and was fresh off a Calder Cup championship in 2006.
Just When Things Look Like They Are Turning Around
Boudreau's first game with the club went against form - both his and the club's. The Caps beat the Islanders, 2-1, in a shootout. Ovechkin did not register a point, making it the first time all season he failed to record a point in consecutive games.
The win seemed to light a fire, though. Washington followed up the Islander win with impressive wins against the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, and New York Rangers. The happy feelings were short-lived when goalie Olaf Kolzig suffered a knee injury during drills in a practice session. Backup Brent Johnson took over with the aim of helping the Caps hold their own until Kolzig could return in perhaps 3-4 weeks. It was a lot to ask since over the next month the Caps would play eight of 14 games on the road.
Compounding the problem for the Capitals was the trading deadline that was looming at the end of February. The Caps had done well stockpiling picks and prospects as part of their selloff of 2003-2004. It netted them quite a haul on the club and in the pipeline. The question was whether the Caps would move any of those assets - prospects or draft picks - for a veteran who could help them down the stretch.
They would not. In what would be a quiet day, generally, the Caps did not make waves. But for a minor deal (defenseman Lawrence Nycholat to the Ottawa Senators for defenseman Timo Helbling), the Caps stood pat. For a team committed to building from within it was a consistent move, even if it had short term consequences. For now, the team was going to have to be carried by their sophomore wonders. It certainly would help if Kolzig could get back in the lineup, though.
The Home Stretch
As it turned out, Johnson did well in relief of the injured Kolzig, going 7-4-0 in 11 games over that month of recuperation for Kolzig (Frederic Cassivi, called up from Hershey for two appearances, recorded a shootout loss and a loss in regulation). The 7-5-1 record posted by the Caps in Kolzig's absence allowed them to stay in the playoff hunt, tied with the Islanders with 78 points for eighth place in the East. However, three teams - Toronto, Montreal, and the Rangers - were lurking within two points of the Capitals. It was going to be a race to the finish over the last 11 games of the season.
Ovechkin and Crosby combined for 16 goals over the last 11 games (eight apiece) as the Caps went 8-2-1 to close the season. It was good enough to pull the Capitals into a tie with the New York Rangers, both teams with a 42-30-10 record, but the Caps took the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference by virtue of winning the season series against the Rangers.
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin hardly suffered from a sophomore slump. Ovechkin recorded his second consecutive 50-goal season, scoring his 50th as part of a hat trick performance against the Atlanta Thrashers in the season's penultimate game, finishing two goals behind Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the league lead. Crosby finished 35-88-123, winning the Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer, the Lester Pearson Award as outstanding player, and the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player. There was, however, still work to do this season.
The First Taste of the Post Season
As the sixth seed in the post-season the Capitals faced the third seed. It was not the most favorable matchup. The Atlanta Thrashers, winners of the Southeast Division, were a club against which the Caps struggled but did play tough. In eight games against the Thrashers the Caps managed only one win in regulation, posting a 3-3-2 record overall. Six of the eight games were decided by a single goal, Atlanta winning three of them (two in extra time), the Caps three (two in extra time).
The opening round series against the Thrashers pitted the powerful pair in Washington (Ovechkin and Crosby) against the dangerous duo from Atlanta (Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa). Hossa and Kovalchuk combined for 85 goals in the regular season, the same number for which Ovechkin and Crosby combined. For three of them - the Capitals' pair and Kovalchuk - it would be their first taste of the post-season. For Marian Hossa, though, it was his seventh trip to the playoffs, his first six coming with the Ottawa Senators.
With 13 goals in his last 41 playoff games, Hossa was going to be a formidable as well as experienced opponent. The Caps had their own answer in Kolzig, a veteran of six post-seasons of his own, 45 games worth of experience with a 2.14 career goals against average.
It made for an interesting matchup, at least on paper. Atlanta being entirely new to the whole playoff experience (their first playoff appearance in franchise history) and the Capitals' youth made for tense and disjointed hockey early on. None of the big four recorded a point in Game 1, but Kolzig was one better than Atlanta goalie Kari Lehtonen (making his first post-season appearance) in a 2-1 Capitals win in Atlanta.
The Thrashers got the split by the same score in Game 2, leaving many wondering which - if either team - would break out offensively. They got their answer in Game 3 in Washington. Ovechkin scored in the game's first minute, Crosby scored in the last minute of the first period, and the Caps won going away, 5-2, to take a 2-1 series lead. When the Caps won Game 4 at home by a 4-2 margin, with Crosby and Ovechkin scoring a goal apiece once more, it looked promising for Washington.
The Caps had a history of struggling with 3-1 series leads in the playoffs, though. Returning home to Atlanta the Thrashers finally woke up their offense with a three-goal first period, then held on for a 6-4 win in Game 5, scoring an empty net goal in the final minute for the margin of victory.
For the Caps it would be important for Game 6 in Washington to get a good start. They got it, but from unexpected sources. Defensemen Steve Eminger and Shaone Morrison scored first period goals, and Boyd Gordon scored in the second period. Kolzig did the rest, stopping 33 shots, including a breakaway by Kovalchuk in the second period that would have halved the Caps lead. Washington advanced to the second round with a 3-1 win.
The second round was not nearly as kind to the Capitals. The Buffalo Sabres finished the regular season with a league-high 53 wins and tied for the league lead with 113 points. They led the league in scoring offense (3.63 goals per game), and it showed early in their series with the Caps. Taking advantage of holes on the Washington blue line, the Sabres won Games 1 and 2 by identical 5-1 margins. In Game 3 in Washington the Caps tried to go toe to toe with the Sabres on offense, and it made things worse. Despite three-point games by both Ovechkin (two goals, one assist) and Crosby (three assists), the Caps lost, 7-4. Buffalo completed the sweep in Washington when the Caps, who looked spent, mustered only 18 shots on goal against goalie Ryan Miller in a 4-1 loss.
The Capitals just were not deep enough or experienced enough for a deep playoff run. Any thought that fans might have entertained of a 300 goal season were the stuff of fantasy. In reality, there just wasn't enough offense behind the big three. Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Alexander Semin combined for 123 goals of the 253 goals scored in the regular season (tenth in the league and the same number as in 2005-2006).
The Caps also struggled with their blue line play. Mike Green, a 2004 first round draft pick, was in his first full season and finished with three goals in 70 games. Steve Eminger, out of whom more was expected on offense, managed only two in 68 games. The rest of the defense did not present much of a profile that suggested offense from the blue line. It was not a group that was especially adept in their own zone as a group, either.
It made life difficult for Kolzig in goal, whose 2.92 goals against average was 30th among 44 qualifying goaltenders. His save percentage of .912 ranked him higher (14th overall among qualifying goalies), but the difference in rankings reflected the heavy shot burden he had to bear.
For Crosby and Ovechkin, the addition of Alexander Semin meant one more offensive weapon to take some of the defensive pressure off them. And, the addition of Bruce Boudreau behind the Caps bench seemed to provide them a coach who could take greater advantage of their offensive gifts. There were holes that still needed to be filled, but further development of youngsters such as Mike Green and Brooks Laich, not to mention reinforcements in the system such as Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr, and Nicklas Backstrom, made the future look more promising. We will get a glimpse of that future in the next installment.