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If There Had Been No Russians

Slava Fetisov, former Russian and NHL hockey great, and now a senator in the Russian parliament, has called for prohibiting Russian hockey players from moving to North America before the age of 28 to play hockey. What if such a restriction existed in 2004?

Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

On May 19th, the Associated Press reported that Slava Fetisov called for Russia to impose restrictions on Russian hockey players younger than 28 years of age, denying permission to move to North America to play hockey before reaching that age.

Fetisov, who moved to the NHL from Russia at the age of 31 after a long career with CSKA Moscow and the Soviet Union national team, cited the aim being to keep "our most talented guys, the ones who the people come to see."

The number of Russians in the NHL has been in decline over the last dozen years or so.  In 2000-2001 72 natives of Russia dressed in NHL games, (69 skaters and three goaltenders) 44 of them younger than 28 when that season opened.  Last season, only 35 native Russians (28 skaters, seven goaltenders) dressed for at least one NHL game, 21 of them younger than 28.  The trend can be observed relative to that of other nations in a graph based on data compiled by the folks at quanthockey.com:

However, those 35 players participating in the 2014-2015 season included some of the best players currently skating in the NHL- Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Andrei Markov.  And there are the youngsters with what look like very bright futures in the NHL - Nikita Kucherov, Nail Yakupov, Dmitry Kulikov, Valeri Nichushkin among them.

In the clips of May 20th, the question was posed, "Just... try to imagine the last 10 years of Caps' hockey with such a ban in place."  Well, an NHL draft without Russians being eligible would look very different, indeed, despite the decline in the number of Russians playing in the NHL than the number playing a decade or more ago.  But imagine how the NHL would look different if the restrictions were in place in 2004. The 2004 draft would have looked very different, particularly for the Washington Capitals.

Caps fans remember that the club finished with the third-worst record in the NHL in 2003-2004, making them eligible for the 2004 draft lottery but not as the favorite to jump over the Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins to capture the top overall pick.

The Capitals did just that, though, earning the right to pick Alex Ovechkin.  Or, for that matter, Evgeni Malkin, who was viewed as a potential number one overall selection, and who would be taken second by the Pittsburgh Penguins in that draft.

Had no Russians been eligible for selection in the 2004 draft, however, how might have that draft unfolded for the Capitals?  Let us start at the top.  After Ovechkin and Malkin, the drop off to the next tier of prospects was steep.  Defenseman Cam Barker and forward Andrew Ladd were the top-ranked North American skaters in the NHL Central Scouting rankings, while forward Rostislav Olesz and defenseman Ladislav Smid topped the skater rankings among Europeans.

As we noted in another fantasy about the 2004 draft, at that point in the Capitals' evolution as a franchise, the team was frequently dipping into the Western Hockey League of Canadian juniors for high-round draft picks.  Both Barker and Ladd were playing in that league, Barker at Medicine Hat, Ladd at Calgary.  When we wrote our fantasy in 2009, we expected that in the absence of Ovechkin the Caps would select Barker.  Let's be consistent.

After this, things get as complicated - or as simple - as you wish to make them with assumptions of who would pick whom.  Just for the sake of discussion, let us assume that the goalies selected in the first round would have been taken by their respective teams, since those teams must have had their reasons for going for that position (Al Montoya sixth to the Rangers, Marek Schwarz at 13 to Buffalo, Devan Dubnyk at 14 to Edmonton, and Cory Schneider at 26 to Vancouver).  As for the rest, if you just move the skaters up to fill the blanks, it makes for some interesting results in the bottom of the first round, where the Caps had two picks.

What that would have meant is that Jeff Schultz, who was actually taken 27th by the Caps in 2004, would have gone 23rd to the Ottawa Senators.  With that 27th pick, the Caps would have taken another defenseman, but it would have been Andy Rogers, a teammate of Schultz with the Calgary Hitmen.

The 29th pick that the Caps held (and that they used to select Mike Green) is a bit more complex.  The way the 2004 draft unfolded, the Caps had the 33rd overall pick in the second round.  When they faced that situation in 2004, Dave Bolland of the London Knights was available, but the Caps selected Chris Bourque instead.  In this reworking of the 2004 draft, the Caps would face the same situation with the 29th pick - Bolland or Bourque.  Given the revealed choice, we have the Caps taking Bourque with the 29th overall pick.

That leaves the 33rd overall pick, the one they used on Bourque in 2004.  In hindsight, this part of the 2004 draft was a black hole of sorts.  The next six skaters taken after Bourque in that draft have a grand total of one NHL game played among them (Grant Lewis with Atlanta in 2009).  Using the rule of replacement we have employed in this reworking of the 2004 draft, the Caps would have taken Darin Olver of Northern Michigan University.

So, look at that 2004 draft class for the Capitals.  But before you do so, sit down.  With four of the first 33 picks they might have had:

  • Cam Barker
  • Andy Rogers
  • Chris Bourque
  • Darin Olver

I had to walk away from the keyboard after typing that.  As a group, only two of them have appeared in the NHL - Barker and Bourque - for a total of 361 games.  Neither Barker nor Bourque has appeared in an NHL game since 2013.  Barker played with HC Slovan Bratislava this past season in the KHL, while Bourque skated for the Hartford Wolf Pack in the AHL.

Making it worse for the Caps was the manner in which the 2005 draft would be conducted, that being the draft coming out of the 2004-2005 lockout set up as a different sort of lottery.  Under those rules, the Caps would have had no better chance of winning the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes since they still had that number one pick in 2004 that, in this scenario, they exercised.  Perhaps they would have been bad enough to get the 2006 top overall pick and take defenseman Erik Johnson.  Or perhaps even the top pick in the following draft (Chicago took Patrick Kane).

Given what the Caps might have ended up with in the 2004 draft, it almost certainly would have been a most grisly period in the history of the franchise.  And the effects radiate outward.  Can you possibly imagine a "Rock the Red" marketing theme?  Sellout crowds?  Perhaps eventually even a team in Washington?  Caps fans should just thank their lucky stars that Slava Fetisov was not a senator in the Russian parliament in 2004.

There is an odd footnote to that 2004 draft as it actually played out.  Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Chris Bourque, Justin Peters, Sami Lepisto, Mikhail Grabovski, Andrew Gordon, Troy Brouwer, and Kyle Wilson would all be selected in that draft and would appear, even if only for a brief time, in a Capitals sweater.  The eight skaters as a group combined for 222 goals and 630 points in their respective careers in Washington covering 1,364 games.  Ovechkin - the one who would not have been eligible for selection in that draft had the Fetisov limitation been in effect - has 475 goals and 895 points in 760 games through the 2014-2015 season.