The journey from hyped prospect to full-time NHLer starts with that all-important first game – the NHL debut.
Last night marked such a rite of passage for Jakub Vrana, the 20-year-old Czech selected in the first round of the 2014 draft. After the traditional rookie hazing of a lonely warmup lap, Vrana took to the ice with his ‘mates and announced his presence almost immediately, getting a slick backhand shot on Isles’ goaltender Jaroslav Halak early in the first period - one of four shots he put on net in just over ten minutes of ice time overall.
Vrana’s eagerly anticipated debut was just one of many that Caps fans have been treated to over the past decade or so, with a bevy of first-rounders filling the organization’s coffers and eventually taking the ice in the red, white and blue.
In the 10 years between Alex Ovechkin’s draft at first overall in 2004 and Vrana’s selection in 2014, the Caps made 16 picks in the NHL Entry Draft. Of those 16 first-rounders, 14 of them played at least one game in the NHL - and a dozen of them made their NHL debut wearing a Caps’ sweater (nine of whom wear it to this day).
We’ve seen how that 12th debut went... but what about the other 11? Let’s take a look back at some memorable (and not so memorable) opening nights for some of the team’s best and brightest.
Drafted: 23rd overall in 2013
NHL Debut: October 9, 2014 vs. Montreal
Something of a surprise addition to the team’s opening-night roster, Burakovsky made his debut against the Canadiens to kick off the 2014-15 season. It didn’t take him long to announce his presence, either, as just under seven minutes into his professional career he picked up his first NHL goal to give the Caps an early 1-0 lead - the only offense for the team in an eventual 2-1 shootout loss.
Oddly enough, that was the first of two times in his first three seasons that Burakovsky has scored the team’s first goal of the year, with a two-goal outing to open the 2016-17 campaign.
Drafted: 16th overall in 2012
NHL Debut: May 10, 2013 vs. New York (PS) / October 1, 2013 vs. Chicago (RS)
Wilson has the rare experience of getting an NHL playoff game under his belt before a regular-season game... which is twice as bizarre if you consider that it occurred just a week after he got his first AHL playoff game action.
Fresh off a playoff run with the Plymouth Whalers that ended in the OHL’s Western Conference Final, Wilson joined the Bears for three games in their first-round series against Providence. Unfortunately it was the final three games of their season, as they saw a 2-0 series lead slip away; it did, however, free up Wilson to get the call to the big club for Game 5 against the Rangers, replacing an injured Martin Erat. From an individual standpoint, it was a solid but fairly quiet opening night for Wilson, who skated just 6:24... but he had the best seat in the house for a pretty thrilling overtime victory for the Caps.
Drafted: 26th overall in 2010
NHL Debut: March 10, 2014 vs. Pittsburgh
The long-awaited and oft-delayed arrival of Kuznetsov finally came about as the 2014-15 season was winding down, four years after his name was called at the draft in LA. Traktor’s playoff elimination in March of 2014 marked the end of Kuznetsov’s KHL career; less than a week later, he was here, putting pen to paper to finally become a Washington Capital.
The ink was barely dry on the contract before Kuznetsov was right in the thick of it, getting his first taste of NHL action against the rival Penguins. Kuznetsov skated just over ten minutes in that first game, registering two shots but no goals in an eventual 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh.
Drafted: 24th overall in 2009
NHL Debut: October 8, 2010 vs. Atlanta
Johansson’s debut was probably one of the more eventful ones on this list, but not necessarily in a good way. Facing off against the Thrashers in Atlanta for the season opener, the game was delayed early on when Atlanta goalie Ondrej Pavelec collapsed just over two minutes into the first period and had to be stretchered off.
Thankfully Pavelec would be okay, and Johansson would go on to skate 13:06 in his debut with no shots, no points and a sparkling 12.5% faceoff percentage.
Drafted: 27th overall in 2008
NHL Debut: November 20, 2009 vs. Montreal
Like Wilson a few years later, Carlson’s professional debut came in the postseason, joining the Hershey Bears for their playoff run in the spring of 2009; unlike Wilson, Carlson’s playoff experience was a lengthy one, as he picked up two goals and an assist in 16 games en route to Hershey’s 11th Calder Cup championship.
He was back with the Bears to start the 2009-10 season, but after 10 points in 17 games in the AHL, Carlson got the call to step in for injured Caps’ blueliners Milan Jurcina and Shaone Morrisonn (ah, memories). He skated alongside Tom Poti (...seriously, such memories), logging 17:24 of ice time, a handful of hits and one shot on goal.
Drafted: 5th overall in 2007
NHL Debut: November 26, 2008 vs. Atlanta
Alzner made the first of many trips between Hershey and Washington in the fall of 2008, when a rash of injuries decimated the Caps’ lineup heading into the near-traditional pre-Thanksgiving meeting with the Thrashers. Despite it being his first NHL action, he quickly earned the trust of coach Bruce Boudreau and logged a whopping 21:06 of ice time alongside Milan Jurcina - second only to Alex Ovechkin.
“Do you mind if I keep it simple tonight?" Alzner recalled telling Jurcina. "When you over-think things, that's when things go bad.” - Washington Post, 11/26/08
Drafted: 4th overall in 2006
NHL Debut: October 5, 2007 vs. Atlanta
After spending a year in the Swedish Elite League, Backstrom joined the Caps for the start of the 2007-08 season as they played host to their Southeast Division rival, the Thrashers. He made his debut, not at center, but on the wing, picking up second-line duties alongside fellow countryman (and landlord/babysitter) Michael Nylander and Brooks Laich. Even in this somewhat unusual position, however, Backstrom was Backstrom, earning his first NHL point with the primary assist on a Nylander power-play goal.
Drafted: 23rd overall in 2006
NHL Debut: December 13, 2008 vs. Montreal
Varlamov’s arrival in DC is part of one of the more bizarrely awesome moments in recent Capitals history. When starting goaltender Jose Theodore suffered an injury during a morning skate, the team sent for Varlamov to serve as backup; unfortunately Varlamov was in Texas with the Bears at the time, and was delayed in getting to DC. The result? A pro contract to then-web producer Brett Leonhardt, who served as Brent Johnson’s backup for the first half of the first period until Varlamov got to Verizon Center.
That excitement behind him, Varlamov made his official debut the following night in one of the toughest buildings in the League, the Bell Centre in Montreal. That didn’t seem to faze him, though, as all he did was turn aside 32 of 33 shots en route to his first NHL victory.
Drafted: 27th overall in 2004
NHL Debut: December 22, 2006 vs. New Jersey
Schultz is most often remembered for two things: actually being drafted two spots ahead of Mike Green, and becoming the first Capital to ever finish the season with the top plus-minus rating in the League (an insane +50). Well, that and the fact that he’s the only guy on this list - so far, at least - to be part of a Cup-winning team. Le sigh.
For all of that interesting Schultz-related trivia, his NHL debut was rather mundane (as is often the case with defensemen, first-rounders or not). He earned a little over 21 minutes of ice time in the eventual 4-1 loss to the Devils... but hey, he was a +1.
Drafted: 29th overall in 2004
NHL Debut: October 12, 2005
After a strong first training camp, Green opened the 2005-06 season with the Hershey Bears; just a few games in, however, he was up with the Caps for the first of 22 games he’d play with the big club over the course of the campaign. Alas, that first outing would probably be a forgettable one for him if it didn’t mark his NHL debut, as the Caps went up 2-1 to the Hurricanes before eventually falling by a lopsided score of 7-2. Green, not yet the dynamic blueliner he’d later be known as, logged about 14 minutes of ice time with nothing much to show for it.
Drafted: 1st overall in 2004
NHL Debut: October 5, 2005 vs. Columbus
In what was easily the most anticipated debut of any player in franchise history, Ovechkin took to the ice in the post-lockout NHL in October of 2005 and wasted no time in making his presence known. On his first shift, he threw a thunderous bodycheck behind the net and not only took out his target but dislodged part of the glass in the process.
Of course, that was only the beginning. Aside from the ability to literally break the rink, Ovechkin proved to be quite the gifted goal-scorer, picking up two goals against the Blue Jackets - just the first of many, many explosive multi-goal games to come for the future Hall of Famer.