Every once in a while, it is interesting to take a moment and ask yourself, “what if?” What if that meteor never hit the earth 65 million years ago to kill off the dinosaurs? What if Thomas Edison decided on a career in music instead of invention? What if the Washington Capitals made a different decision with a prized prospect in 2013? It is that last one we will take a closer look at. Let me tell you a story…
It is June 12, 2016. The Pittsburgh Penguins have just won the Stanley Cup for the third time in their club history. Once upon a time, this would make for a special kind of bitterness for fans of the Washington Capitals, but now, the Caps having been eliminated in the first round of the postseason for the third time in five seasons, missing the playoffs entirely in the other two, it hardly merits a shrug.
As the gray hairs grow more abundant on the head of captain Alex Ovechkin, the disappointments multiply in similar numbers. All Caps fans are left to ask as they watch the Penguins skate the Cup around the SAP Center ice is, “how did we get here?” The present disappointments start with a draft pick almost four years earlier that one would have thought would be the answer to the team’s prayers.
When June 22, 2012 dawned in Pittsburgh, 30 general managers in the NHL and their scouting staffs were ready. It was time to put all their time and effort to work, to draft the best amateur players available to fulfill the hopes of their respective organizations and fan bases. Mock drafts generally had a consistency to them, including the likes of Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray, Matt Dumba, Mikhail Grigorenko, Alex Ganchenyuk and a forward from Leksand (Sweden) who was ranked first among European skaters by Central Scouting – Filip Forsberg.
Most mock drafts had Forsberg going high, many of them seeing him as a top-five pick. The draft opened as expected with Yakupov going first, to the Edmonton Oilers. Murray and Galchenyuk followed to Columbus and Montreal, respectively. Then something odd happened. There was a run on defensemen. Griffin Reinhart went to the New York Islanders, Morgan Reilly went to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Hampus Lindholm went to the Anaheim Ducks. And on it went. The fourth through tenth picks were all defensemen. And as this was going on, the top European skater was skidding down the draft.
Finally, the 11th pick was on the clock, belonging to the Washington Capitals. The Caps were in no hurry to take to the podium to announce their selection. Why? They didn’t expect Forsberg to be there. And they, like a lot of teams, it turned out, were focused on defensemen. That Forsberg dropped into their lap was a surprise, but one they took advantage of, selecting Forsberg with that 11th pick.
Fast forward ten months. The Caps are approaching the 2013 trading deadline in a precarious state regarding their playoff hopes. The abbreviated schedule meant that the Caps were one of 30 teams in what amounted to a sprint to the finish from Opening Night. But by April 2nd, the day before the deadline, the Caps found themselves back in the pack with a 17-17-2 record, second in the Southeast Division, two points behind the Winnipeg Jets, but tenth in the Eastern Conference, a reflection of just how weak the Southeast was that season.
What Caps fans did not know was that there was growing uncertainty with respect to Forsberg, still skating for Leksand in Sweden, and his potential NHL upside. Complicating the matter was the Caps’ history. So many playoff appearances, so many disappointments, and the clock was ticking on this group of Capitals, not least among them being the twin pillars of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps needed a solid, veteran piece to stabilize the roster, firm up the top-six forwards, and give the Caps an added push to reach the postseason. And then, a suitor came to the table.
Washington was faced with a proposal and a choice. The Nashville Predators offered veteran forward Martin Erat, a versatile sort with a fine reputation as a two-way forward. Forsberg would be the price to obtain his services. And this presented the Caps with a hard choice, a particularly hard one given the team’s philosophy to build its core from the draft. The Caps could take the deal and improve their chances in 2013 to reach the postseason, or they could decline, hoping that in a year or two’s time, Forsberg would be everything his scouting reports said he would be. Having taken Evgeny Kunzetsov in the 2010 draft, a spellbinding natural talent, the Caps had the possibility of icing a pair of highlight reel quality forwards as a youthful complement to Ovechkin and Backstrom.
It was, quite literally, a choice between a bird in the hand (Erat) and two in the bush (Forsberg and Kuznetsov). It is the kind of decision upon which a general manager risks his reputation and future employment, and one that could have rippling effects down the organizational ladder. April 3rd came, and Caps fans were waiting. Noon passed. Through the early afternoon all was silent from Arlington. When 3:00 and the deadline passed, there was not a peep from the Capitals. Fans waited on late announcements as teams filed paperwork with the league office on deals, but no news was forthcoming. Filip Forsberg was still a Capital.
The Caps had a dozen games with which to overtake Winnipeg for the Southeast Division title and likely the only berth the division would have in the playoffs. The Caps staggered to the finish, much in the way they staggered out of the start, going 5-5-2 to finish 22-22-4, three points behind the Jets for the division title. Their season was over.
The season was a disappointment to say the least. After five straight playoff appearances, a club that included Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Mike Ribeiro missed the postseason. It made for a difficult opening to the postseason, but as 16 teams were rolling out to start their Stanley Cup journeys, the Caps were ending one. Head Coach Adam Oates was dismissed after one abbreviated season. The axe might have fallen higher in the organizational chain, but the decision to rely on futures – the arrival of Kuznetsov and Forsberg – spared General Manager George McPhee for the time being.
The Caps immediately took a different tack in selecting a head coach. Lindy Ruff had been relieved of his duties as Buffalo Sabres head coach the preceding February, and Washington signed him in early June. But while the new coaching staff provided an early jolt of enthusiasm, it was a club that struggled with consistency all season and finished out of the playoffs, fifth in the new Metropolitan Division. There were some late signs of things to come, though. Both Forsberg and Kuznetsov were brought up to the parent club late in the season, both players appearing in 17 games. Both players scored their first NHL goal in the same game, Kuznetsov scoring with 41.5 seconds left to tie the Los Angeles Kings, 4-4, and Forsberg winning it with a goal with just over a minute left in overtime.
2014-2015 was the kind of year Caps fans have seen before and were perhaps tiring of. Ovechkin had another 50-goal season (his sixth), and Nicklas Backstrom dazzled with another 60-assist season (his fourth). And Kuznetsov (11-26-37, plus-10) and Forsberg (14-23-37, plus-9) showed signs of being impact players down the road. But there was the conundrum that always seemed to plague the Caps in this playoff era. They had enough veteran assets to impress in the regular season and enough prospect assets to suggest a bright future, but they did not have the assets necessary in the playoff here and now to make a deep run. The Caps reached the postseason but were eliminated in the first round by the New York Islanders in seven games.
The 2015-2016 season dawned, as it does for all 30 teams, with hope. The Caps rolled out a top six forward group that included Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Forsberg, Marcus Johansson, and another youngster, Andre Burakovsky. It was a group that was prolific on the offensive end and, with as many players on entry contracts as they had, cap friendly to a point. What they lack, though, is a solid bottom six. They did resign Joel Ward in an effort to shore up that group, but a Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, Joel Ward trio doesn’t provide enough offensive support or make up for the defensive deficiencies of the top six to be effective.
The defense is a collateral victim of the decision not to trade Forsberg. The Forsberg situation ended with the Caps renewing their vows to build from within. It made the team unwilling to spend lavishly in free agency, either last year or this, and the Caps, having lost Mike Green to the Detroit Red Wings, are left with a top-four on defense of John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, and Nate Schmidt. The third pair is a problem all year long. Christian Ehrhoff, signed as a free agent on a one year deal in August for $1.5 million, clearly has too many miles on his body and is a disappointment. The Caps also tried their luck with Carlo Colaiacovo on a one-year deal, but he was a victim of the injury bug for much of the season.
The Caps ended the 2015-2016 season as they ended many of them in recent years, with a playoff loss to the New York Rangers. And in the end, it was an odd Capitals team to ponder, especially when you compare it with the “real” alternative universe version that sees Filip Forsberg as an opponent, not a teammate.
The “Forsberg Caps” are a team with a proven head coach and a formidable top six forward group with an intriguing mix of experience and youth. However, they lack consistency, skill, and depth on the bottom six. The forwards on the “Forsberg Caps” team can score six goals one night and be on the ice for six the next. It is a group that a savvy team, such as those one would encounter in the postseason, could exploit. In that sense it differs considerably from the current forwards, a group having much more depth with T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, not to mention players whose responsibilities align better with the skills and experience they have. There aren’t cases of a player having to shoulder responsibilities he is not equipped to carry, given his skill, experience, or both.
The defense of the “Forsberg Caps” reflects a certain organizational bias toward building from within and eschewing high-priced free agents. Holes are filled by comparatively lower priced players, something that has been a feature from time to time in this era.
Goaltending is something we did not address because we think it would have evolved in a similar way with one important, and ultimately fatal difference. The “Forsberg Caps” never see Mitch Korn as the goaltending coach. Korn might be the single most important ingredient to the success of this club since arriving here with current head coach Barry Trotz. He has revealed skills and abilities in Braden Holtby that might never have been displayed if, well, Forsberg remained a Capital. Holtby likely would have been a starter, a very good goalie, in fact. But he very likely would not have become a goaltender who wins a Vezina Trophy and can play at that level for a period of years.
Then there is management. The Forsberg Caps have Lindy Ruff behind the bench and George McPhee in the front office instead of Trotz and Brian MacLellan. One wonders if Ruff would have been as successful as Trotz in moderating the game of Alex Ovechkin without significant diminishment of his goal scoring. One wonders if McPhee would have broken out of a pattern of foregoing the more daring deals and addressing needs aggressively, the sorts of behavior that has characterized the tenure of MacLellan since taking over.
Bottom line, the Caps would have the precocious triplets of Kuznetsov, Burakovsky (well, probably for the sake of argument) and Forsberg, but there would be no Oshie, no Williams, no Brooks Orpik, no Matt Niskanen. The youngsters would be asked to grow up a little faster, and the team would be in a recurring effort to patch holes on the bottom six forwards and third pair defensemen. It would be a team that could consistently reach the bottom half of the draw for the postseason, but would it be a team in the here and now that anyone thought of as a Stanley Cup contender? Not likely. Maybe in the next few years... something Caps fans have heard for more years than they care to think about.