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A Tale of Two Phenoms -- Part III

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What if...?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

[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 and the second one here.  We pick up the story with the third installment…]

In Part II of our imaginings of the Washington Capitals winning the 2005 draft lottery, we saw the Caps return to the playoffs and reach the second round before having the cold water of reality thrown in their faces.  With the off season comes another opportunity to add more building blocks for a Stanley Cup contender, and that means we start Part III with the 2007 entry draft at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

The Capitals went into the 2007 draft pleased with the progress they made over the previous three drafts.  Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Sidney Crosby, Joe Finley, Nicklas Backstrom, and Semyon Varlamov were the first round picks taken in those three drafts.  To that they might add Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Tomas Fleischmann as prospects, and Alexander Semin as a youngster playing himself into the core of Capitals.  It gave the Capitals options as the 2007 draft approached.  They could stand pat and take the proverbial "best player available" with the 17th overall pick, or they could trade picks and/or prospects for a higher spot in the draft to address a perceived need.

The Caps, perhaps looking to improve their depth on defense, faced a somewhat thin pool of amateur defensemen once one got past Keaton Ellerby and Karl Alzner at the top of most scouting rankings.  After that it was a bit of a mixed bag with defensemen such as Nick Petrecki, Ryan McDonagh, John Blum, Thomas Hickey, and Kevin Shattenkirk appearing as potential first round picks among the pre-draft rankings.

With the price to get into the top-five to draft an Ellerby or an Alzner too high for the Caps' liking, keeping that 17th overall pick seemed more likely.  As the draft began, things went more or less as expected for the first three picks.  Patrick Kane was taken by the Chicago Blackhawks, James Van Riemsdyk was taken by the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Phoenix Coyotes took Kyle Turris with the third pick.

Then things took a turn.  The Los Angeles Kings took, as expected, a defenseman, but almost no one expected that the defenseman would be Thomas Hickey, who projected as a late first round pick on many scouting boards.   When the next four picks were forwards - Sam Gagner by Edmonton, Jakub Voracek by Columbus, Zach Hamill by Boston, and Logan Couture by San Jose - it set off a flurry of telephone activity.  General managers recognized that the top two defensemen in the draft - Ellerby and Alzner - were still on the board.

The Florida Panthers had no interest in moving the 10th overall pick and scooped up Ellerby, putting Carolina on the clock.  The Capitals made a play for that 11th overall pick with an eye on Alzner, but Carolina balked at trading within the division.  The Hurricanes traded the pick to the St. Louis Blues for the Blues pick at 13 (a pick that once belonged to San Jose and then Toronto), the Blues taking Alzner.

With five picks until the Capitals were on the clock it seemed as if a decent defenseman would be available.  However, Montreal took McDonagh with the 12th pick, and Shattenkirk and Alex Plante went at 14 and 15 to Colorado and Edmonton, respectively.  The Caps attention then turned to forwards that might be available at 17.  They were eyeing Alexei Cherapanov, a right winger with Avangard Omsk in Russia, a considerable talent who was dropping through the first round, but who might be a good complement to Alex Ovechkin on the left side of the top forward line in time.

The Minnesota Wild passed on Cherepanov in favor of Colton Gillies, but the New York Rangers, picking just before the Caps, took Cherepanov with the 16th overall pick.  The Capitals then had their pick of centers out of the QMJHL - Logan McMillan and Angelo Esposito - but they took a player that would reflect a different sort of drafting strategy.  Having once drafted heavily out of the Western Hockey League in Canadian juniors, then taking a series of players from Europe, the Caps dipped into the USHL, taking left winger Max Pacioretty of the Sioux City Musketeers.

Great Expectations

The draft was not the end of the summer for the Capitals as far as roster management was concerned.  Not being a big player in the unrestricted free agent market in previous years, they sought to make up for not drafting a defenseman in the first round of the June draft and signed free agent Tom Poti to a four-year/$14 million contract.  The Caps then turned around and signed Viktor Kozlov to a two-year/$5 million deal to give the Caps some depth on the right side and another center option.

The free agent signings set the media to speculating on the Caps' prospects for the 2007-2008 season.  With Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entering their third year together, they were seen as the most dangerous offensive pair in the NHL.  The Caps would also be welcoming Nicklas Backstrom to the NHL, and there were prospects from the AHL Hershey Bears who were pushing for roster spots.  If there was a question mark it was Eric Fehr, a prospect on whom the Caps were depending for punch from the right side, whose persistent back injury was going to keep him out of action to start the season.

Nevertheless, the consensus opinion about the Caps was that the second-round advance in the 2007 post-season was a jumping off point for a bigger season in 2007-2008.  If the youngsters caught on quickly, and the new free agents fit in, this could be a Stanley Cup finalist.

A Solid Opening

The Caps opened the 2007-2008 season with games against Southeast Division opponents, the Atlanta Thrashers and the Carolina Hurricanes.  After dispatching the Thrashers in Atlanta, 3-1, on opening night, the Caps pounded Carolina, 6-0, in the home opener.  When the Caps knocked off the New York Islanders on Long Island to go 3-0-0, all was well in Capitals Nation.  That was turned to heartburn over the next three games, losses to the Rangers, the Buffalo Sabres, and the Islanders to sink the Caps back to .500.  That set up a home match with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were in the midst of considerable struggles of their own, on and off the ice.

Despite drafting the immensely talented Evgeni Malkin with the second overall pick in 2004, the Penguins were having trouble mustering a supporting cast around him.  Not only were the Penguins not winning (their last playoff appearance was in 2001), but they were at or near the bottom of the league's attendance rankings.  The 2007-2008 season was starting to look like a make or break season for the franchise, now widely rumored to be looking at relocation sites after their lease with the almost half-century old Mellon Arena expired.

If the Caps were sympathetic to the Penguins' plight, it did not show on the ice in their October 20th matchup.  Malkin had a goal and an assist, but Crosby had two of each as the Caps turned back the Penguins, 6-2.  That set the Caps off on a hot streak, winning their last five games of the month to finish October with an 8-3-0 record.

And the Goal Scoring Record for Left Wingers is What?

Alex Ovechkin had goals in eight of 11 games in October, nine goals in all.  If anything, he would be even hotter in November and December.  He posted 11 goals in 15 games in November, 11 more in 13 games in December.  With 31 goals in 39 games, Ovechkin was on a pace to score 65 goals, what would be an NHL record for a left winger if he held that pace.

Crosby was setting quite a pace of his own.  He opened the season by scoring at least one point in 28 consecutive games, finally having the streak broken, oddly enough, in a 6-3 Capitals win over Atlanta on December 8th.  By the time the 2007 portion of the season ended Crosby was 18-38-56 and on a pace to finish the regular season with 121 points.

What gave the Capitals an added boost, however, was the play of rookie Nicklas Backstrom.  While just 1-8-9 in 21 games before Thanksgiving, he finished up the 2007 portion of the season 6-13-19 in 18 games.

By year's end the Caps were making a shambles of the Southeast Division race, holding a 12-point lead over Carolina.  They were in good position in the conference standings as well.  When they beat the Ottawa Senators, 8-6, to end the 2007 portion of the season with an exclamation point, they held a 24-10-5 record, one point behind the Senators for the Eastern Conference lead.

The new year started as well as it ended for the Caps and the kids.  Washington opened by completing a home-and-home sweep of the Senators in the first game of 2008 to take the Eastern Conference lead.  It propelled them to a 7-2-0 record to start 2008.  Ovechkin scored goals in eight of the 13 games in January, putting another 14 goals on his 2007-2008 ledger.  He capped the month with one of the best single game performances in the history of the franchise.

On January 31st against the Montreal Canadiens, he scored first, last, and in-between.  When he scored the Caps sixth goal of the game into an empty net with 33 seconds left to give the Caps a 6-3 win, he became just the third player in franchise history to record five goals in a game, joining Bengt Gustafsson and Peter Bondra in that achievement.  With the assist he added on Viktor Kozlov's second period goal he became the only the sixth Capital to record six or more points in a single game, joining Mike Ridley, Dino Ciccarelli, Michal Pivonka, and Jaromir Jagr on that list.

Not to be outdone, Crosby finished January 4-15-19 in 13 games.  He had two four-point games, recording a goal and three assists in the 6-3 win over Ottawa to open the new year and a two-goal/two-assist night in a 6-5 shootout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on the 21st.

The top line was not providing all the scoring.  Alexander Semin had six goals in 13 games, and Nicklas Backstrom went 2-12-14 in 13 games, including a pair of four-assist efforts coming in consecutive games, a 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers on the 19th and again in the 6-5 shootout win over the Penguins two days later.

The Caps hit a bit of a stall in February.  They had just two regulation wins in the first three weeks of play during the month, posting a 4-3-2 record.  Although the offense slowed down some - the Caps averaged only 2.33 goals over those nine games - their defense had become a bit leaky as well, allowing 2.89 goals per game.  With the month winding down and the trading deadline of February 26th approaching, the Caps were thinking about what needed to be nailed down to give them a better shot at a long playoff run.

No Matter How Fast You Skate

The Capitals were cruising with Alex Ovechkin threatening to obliterate the league record for goals by a left wing,  Sidney Crosby heading to his third straight 100-point season, and Nicklas Backstrom on just about everyone's short list for Calder Trophy consideration at the league's top rookie.  On top of that, Alexander Semin was proving a capable complement to Backstrom on the second line, and Mike Green was emerging as one of the top offensive defensemen in the game, earning the nickname "Game Over Green" with three overtime, game-winning goals as the calendar was about to roll over to March.

Those were the young guys building their resumes and reputations.  At the other end of the spectrum time catches up with every professional athlete, some sooner, some later.  But it happens.  And there was concern about the performance of goalie Olaf Kolzig.  At age 37, Kolzig was the dean of the Capitals, drafted by the club before Crosby's or Backstrom's second birthday. After almost ten seasons as the Caps' number one goaltender, the games (almost 700 regular season and 45 more in the playoffs) and the injuries (knee, ankle, groin) over the years were taking their toll.  From the last game of 2007 through February 23rd, Kolzig appeared in 17 games and recorded a worrisome 2.92 goals against average and a .891 save percentage.  As difficult as it was to contemplate it, goaltending seemed to be the weak link in the Capitals' chain of success.

The club was faced with a difficult decision to make.  Would they ride Kolzig one last time through the playoffs, or should they explore the trade market for a goalie who could provide stronger production?  Complicating the decision for the club were two factors.  First, Kolzig had not appeared in a post-season since 2003, five years earlier.  But, in 45 career post season games he had a .927 save percentage and a 2.14 goals against average, and in five of his six trips to the post-season posted a goals against average of less than 2.25.

The second factor had nothing to do with Kolzig so much as the timing.  A shake-up of goaltenders was the sort of in-season change that could have significant effects of chemistry and performance.  The Capitals had a shake-up of similar magnitude back in 2001 when the Caps, who were rolling along in first place in the Southeast Division with a 37-20-10-2 record on March 13th, pulled the plug on a deal that sent Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis, and a first round draft pick in the 2001 entry draft to Montreal for Trevor Linden, Dainius Zubrus, and a second round pick in the 2001 draft.  The trade did not have its intended effect, to prepare the Caps for a strong finish and a deep playoff run.  The Caps finished the regular season with a 4-7-2 record after the trade and then were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.  Would the Caps make a similar move in 2008?

The Caps, demolishing opponents on offense enough to have a 37-17-7 record as the weekend before the trading deadline began and five points ahead of Ottawa for the Eastern Conference lead, were faced with a high-risk quandary.  It was one that in its own way could influence the direction of the team going forward this year and beyond as much as the drafting of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.  It is there that we will pick up Part IV in our fantasy play.