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The Capitals and the Draft: Gains from the Lower Third of the Draw

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The Washington Capitals have had success in the lower third of the first round in recent drafts. Here's a look at the history of 21-30 picks.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Since 1974, the Washington Capitals have selected 422 players by way of the draft. Of those 422 draft picks, none have come with a 22nd overall pick, the slot in the first round from which the club is expected to make its first selection of the 2015 Entry Draft.

That said, the club has had a substantial amount of experience in selecting players from the lower third of the first round, or picks 21-30, over the years. It might be of some interest to look at the history of those picks, especially the recent history, to see where the Caps might go with this year's 22nd overall pick.

Since the Caps came into the League, they have had 20 picks in that 21-30 range. They break down into two amateur draft picks, two supplemental draft picks, and 16 entry draft picks; 19 skaters and one goaltender:


source: hockeydb.com, hockey-reference.com

1974-1989
The first player that the Caps took with a pick in this range was right winger Mark Lofthouse of the New Westminster Bruins in the 1977 entry draft. A player of modest achievement, Lofthouse's biggest contribution would be as trade bait, sent to Detroit in exchange for goaltender Al Jensen in 1981. Jensen would go on to post a 94-48-18 record with the Caps over five-plus seasons in the 1980's.

Paul MacKinnon was one of two MacKinnon's drafted in NHL history, the most famous of them until Nathan was drafted first overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2013. Paul was a defenseman taken with the 23rd overall pick in the 1978 amateur draft. He signed as an underage free agent by Winnipeg in the World Hockey Association, but he would be reclaimed by the Caps in June 1979. He played all five of his NHL seasons with the Caps but was out of the NHL and professional hockey at the age of 25.

The following year the Caps selected 24th in the first NHL entry draft and took left winger Errol Rausse. He played in only 31 games over three seasons in the NHL, all with the Caps, spending most of his playing time with the Hershey Bears in the AHL. After the 1982-83 season with the Bears, he headed to Europe where he played first with SG Cortina, then with HC Alleghe for his last 11 seasons of pro hockey.

The Caps had two supplemental draft picks in the 21-30 range in the late 1980's, neither of which would yield any dividends. Steve Cousins was taken 23rd in the 1986 supplemental draft, and Karl Clauss was taken 24th in the 1980 supplemental draft. Neither would ever appear in an NHL game.

1990-2000
The next dip into the entry draft in the 21-30 range came in 1990, when they took defenseman Rod Pasma of the Cornwall Royals with the 30th-overall pick. He would never dress for an NHL game, making it only so far as the ECHL, where he played his first - and last - season of professional hockey for the Louisiana IceGators.

The futility in this range of the draft continued for the Caps in 1991, when they selected left wing Trevor Halverson 21st overall. Having spent three seasons with the North Bay Centennials, he played one more in the Ontario Hockey League before moving up the development ladder and splitting time between the ECHL, AHL and IHL from 1992-94.

Halverson did not reach the NHL until the 1998-99 season, when he dressed for 17 games with the Caps. Those would be the only NHL regular-season games he'd ever appear in. The following season, in a fight-filled and eventful preseason game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Halverson ended up dropping the gloves three times - the last of which, a bout against Remi Moyer, effectively ended Halverson's NHL career. He missed the entire 1999-00 season with a concussion and did not play hockey again.

Selected four spots after Halverson in 1991, Eric Lavigne never dressed for the Caps, his lone NHL game played for the Los Angeles Kings in the 1994-95 season. Their next pick, 1995's 23rd-overall pick Mikko Elomo, was relatively more successful in that he at least played for the Caps... but only twice, both of which were in the 1999-00 season. He recorded his only NHL point - an assist - in what would be his second and final NHL game, a 7-1 loss to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in October 1999.

After somewhat mixed results (to say the least) when picking 21-30 early on, things started getting better with the 29th pick in 1999, although the Caps hardly knew it at the time.

That pick was used to select Michal Sivek, a name that is likely familiar to many Caps fans despite the fact that he never played a game for the Caps (or even one in the Caps' organization) - because he was part of the deal, along with Ross Lupaschuk and Kris Beech (and cash), that netted Jaromir Jagr from the Pittsburgh Penguins in July 2001. Sivek played in 38 NHL games, all with the Pens in 2002-03. Two seasons later he was back in his native Czech Republic where he played the last four seasons of his hockey career... and Jagr was no longer a Capital.

Jagr 2001 Press Conference

Jonathan Newton/TWP

2000-2008
From there the success, at least in terms of games played for the club, accelerated. It started with forward Brian Sutherby, taken 26th overall in 2000 in what would be the first of three consecutive picks in this range out of the Western Hockey League. Sutherby's progress was uneven at the beginning of his career, bouncing between the AHL and NHL over his first three seasons as a pro. In 2005-06 it looked as if he might have blossomed, posting a 14-16-30 scoring line for a team taking its first steps toward respectability after the fire sale leading into the 2004 lockout.

He struggled with injuries, though, and never matched that output again in another season with the Caps and five NHL seasons overall. His NHL career ended after the 2010-11 season with the Dallas Stars and after the 2012-13 season he hung up the skates. Today he's back with the team that drafted him, working as an amateur scout for the Caps.

In 2004 the Caps had two picks in the bottom-third of the first round and used them to select a pair of defensemen - Jeff Schultz and Mike Green, both out of the Western Hockey League. This started a parade of defensemen in this part of the draft for the Caps; four out of the next five late first-round picks between 2004 and 2008 would be defensemen, with Joe Finley (27th in 2005) and John Carlson (27th in 2008) rounding out the quartet of blueliners. Schultz, Green, and Carlson combined to play a total of 1,372 regular season games with the Caps through the 2014-15 season, posting a combined 169 goals and 624 points in that time.

Schultz was among the more polarizing of players for the franchise over his tenure with the club. His progress was steady and sure after he was drafted, as he spent another two years with the Calgary Hitmen before splitting time between the Hershey Bears and the Caps in 2006-07. The following season he made the jump to for good, and a year after that, posted the first season of plus-50 or better by a defenseman in ten seasons (Chris Pronger was plus-52 in 1999-00), but he was often criticized for not being as physical a player as his size might have suggested. After the 2012-13 season he signed with the Los Angeles Kings as a free agent, and went on to appear in a handful of games on their run to the Stanley Cup.

Green's WHL roots were with the Saskatoon Blades, a team that in 2003-04 posted a record of 7-52-11-2. But Green was a standout, finishing the year with the second-most goals (14) and points (39) despite playing in only 59 of the Blades' 72 games. He spent another year at Saskatoon, where his numbers (14-52-66, plus-36) and the team's (37-23-6-6) improved dramatically, then split 2005-06 between Hershey and Washington before becoming a permanent NHLer 2006-2007.

Since then, Green's established himself as one of the more prolific blueliners in franchise history; by the end of the 2014-15 season he was sitting at seventh all time among Caps' defensemen in games played (575), fourth in goals (113), and fifth in points (360). His 52 career power play goals are just one shy of the franchise record set by Sergei Gonchar... and will probably stay there, as his tenure with the Caps appears to be nearing its end.

Clyde Caplan / clydeorama.com

Finley was something of a transitional draft pick for the Caps. Taken 27th in 2005, he appeared to be a selection more suited to a game that no longer existed after the 2004-05 lockout, with the rule changes that accompanied that post-lockout League making life inhospitable for 6'7", 250 pound defensemen. The club toyed with the idea of making him a forward for a brief time, but ultimately he never dressed for the Caps at either position. In September 2011 he signed a minor-league contract with the Rochester Americans and later appeared in a total of 21 NHL games for the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders. Last season he played for the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL.

Carlson, like Finley, was a product of the USHL, and like Finley, was taken with the 27th overall pick, that one in the 2008 draft... but the similarities end there. Carlson's climb up the developmental ladder was sure and swift. The year after he was drafted he skated for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. From there it was on to the Hershey Bears, where he stayed only briefly before being promoted to the Caps late in the 2009-10 campaign. He appeared in all seven games of the Caps' postseason that year, and he has since emerged as a cornerstone defenseman for the club.

The lone non-defenseman taken during that 2004-2008 period is one of the bigger busts in draft history, as much for the circumstances surrounding the pick as the pick itself.

On the day of the 2008 draft, the Caps sent their 23rd and 54th overall picks in that draft to the New Jersey Devils for the 21st-overall pick. Presumably, given that the Caps jumped two spots over the Edmonton Oilers, the Caps were concerned that the Oilers were poised to pick the player they wanted - Anton Gustafsson for the Frolunda junior team in Sweden and son of former Caps forward Bengt Gustafsson. It was a pick that did not work almost from the start.

In both the 2008 and 2009 development camps with the club, Gustafsson sustained injuries, part of a chain of them - back, concussion, sprained knee, broken finger - that delayed his progress. In the preseason of the 2009-10 season he was assigned to Hershey, where he lasted one game before going on loan to Borås HC in Sweden. That was the beginning of the end of the relationship between player and club. Gustafsson returned to North America for the 2010-11 season but was assigned to the ECHL out of training camp . There he played one game, expressed his desire to go home, and returned to Sweden, his contract suspended by the club. He is currently with the SCL Tigers in Switzerland.

2009-2014
The Caps' last three players taken between 21 and 30 have been among their more successful overall, at least so far, using all three picks on European forwards - Marcus Johansson (24th overall in 2009), Evgeny Kuznetsov (26th overall in 2010) and Andre Burakovsky (23rd overall in 2013).

To date, Johansson is eighth in his draft class in games played with 345, and his 61 goals are seventh among 2009 draftees - surpassed only by John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, Ryan O`Reilly, Craig Smith, and Nazem Kadri. He's accumulated 186 points, trailing only Tavares, Duchene, O'Reilly, and Kane

The long road to the NHL for Kuznetsov - 1,354 days from the day he was drafted to his first appearance with the Capitals - was frustrating for fans and management alike. Despite that lengthy delay, however, he's made up some ground on his draft class cohorts, ranking 27th among 2010 draftees in games played (97), 24th in goals scored (14), and 19th in points (46) after just over a full season in the NHL. Kuznetsov led all rookies in playoff goals scored this season (5) and shots on goal (42), while he was tied for third in points (7), and is poised to fill the long-empty void as the team's second-line center.

Burakovsky stunned a lot of folks when he made the parent club right out of training camp last fall, just 15 months after he was drafted. He appeared in 53 games with the Caps in 2014-15 (with another 13 in Hershey with the Bears), but he finished in the top-20 among rookie forwards in goals (9), points (22) and plus-minus (plus-12), and could be ready for a permanent spot in the Caps' top-six forwards next season.

Of the 20 picks that fell into the bottom third of the first round, the lone goaltender selected by the Caps was Semyon Varlamov, who was taken at #23 in 2006, the third goaltender taken in that draft (after Jonathan Bernier and Riku Helenius) and the first goaltender taken in the first round by the Capitals since Olaf Kolzig was taken 19th overall in 1989.

Varlamov's progress through the system was steady. He spent two more seasons in Russia with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, with a trip to the 2007 World Junior Championship thrown in, then joined the Hershey Bears for the 2008-2009 season. At that point, his development accelerated. Varlamov got six games of work during the regular season with the Caps, starting with a 32-save effort in Montreal in his NHL debut, a 2-1 win, and ending with a 29-save effort in a 4-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers in April that gave him a 4-0-1 mark.

Over the next two seasons Varlamov alternated between providing solid backup support in the regular season for starter Jose Theodore and providing at times stellar performances in the playoffs. But after a series of injuries and the lack of regular season experience, the team was reluctant to give Varlamov the starting job going into the 2011-12 season - and at the request of the goaltender, was traded, sent to Colorado in July 2011 for the Avalanche's first round pick in 2012 and a second round pick in 2012.

In the end, the history of picks in the 21-30 range has been one of eventually getting it right. The Caps have had some misfortune of timing (Joe Finley in 2005) and outright busts (Anton Gustafsson in 2008), but the recent history of these picks - nine in 15 drafts from 2000 through 2014 - has been one of finding good contributors. It would not be surprising to see the Caps repeat this trend in 2015.