Call it what you will, the “Rock the Red” era, the “Alex Ovechkin era,” the “Will We Ever Win a Stanley Cup” era, but whatever you call it, you could reasonably argue these are the glory days of the Washington Capitals history. The Caps stand on the brink (cusp, threshold…precipice…no, not that one) of the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. It is a time of great anticipation and excitement. If (and remember, it is still “if”) it should come to pass, Caps fans will remember where they were and who they were with when the final horn sounded in the final game on this final journey in search of the team’s first championship.
The word “remember” is on our minds. Perhaps it is a product of having followed this team since we moved here in 1984 and adopted the Caps as our favorite local team. Perhaps is it the product of being a fan of a different age and having a longer road of time on which to look back than many other fans. But for an Alex Ovechkin, for a Nicklas Backstrom, for an Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, or Braden Holtby, there is a counterpart in that past that might deserve a moment to remember.
For an Alex Ovechkin, there is a Mike Gartner.
Alex Ovechkin was a number one overall draft pick in 2004. Since that day – in fact, before it – it seems as though every event, every kudo, every blemish, every accomplishment, and every disappointment in Ovechkin’s storied career has been chronicled. But 25 years earlier, Mike Gartner was the fourth-overall draft pick. He already had professional experience, spending a year as an underager with the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association in 1978-1979 (remember that Ovechkin began his career skating in the Russian Super League at age 16). Gartner debuted with the Caps in the 1979-1980 season, and in the nine full seasons he played with the Caps starting with that campaign, only five players compiled more goals than the 371 Gartner scored.
However, as prolific as Gartner was in the regular season, success eluded him and his teammates in the postseason. Like Ovechkin after him, until this season, Gartner and the Caps never advanced past the first round in six playoff appearances, and his 16 goals in 47 post season games over that span was somewhat disappointing. It was a case of efficiency eluding him. Over eight full seasons with the Caps, Gartner averaged 14.0 percent shooting, never finishing a season under 11.6 percent. However, in those six postseasons with the Caps, he averaged 9.2 percent and only once finished a postseason over 12.1 percent. Gartner embodied much of the frustration the Caps experienced in the 1980’s. He was a gifted scorer who just could not unlock the door to a deep playoff run any more than his teammates could. Gartner went on to play in 19 seasons in the NHL, reaching the playoffs 15 times with five different teams. However, he never won a Stanley Cup, the conference final he played in 1994 with the Toronto Maple Leafs being his career postseason highlight.
For a Nicklas Backstrom there is a Bengt Gustafsson
It isn’t that both Nicklas Backstrom and Bengt-Ake Gustaffson hail from Sweden. Backstrom is one of the best offensive players of his generation, but it overshadows at times the fact that he is also among the most accomplished two-way players of this era. Gustafsson did not have Backstrom’s draft pedigree (Backstrom was taken fourth overall in the 2006 entry draft, Gustafsson was a fourth-round pick in the 1978 amateur draft). But as Backstrom did after he was drafted, Gustafsson chose to remain in Sweden for another year. He then signed to play with the Edmonton Oilers in the WHA before he was claimed by the Caps upon Edmonton’s merger into the NHL for the 1979-1980 season.
Like Backstrom, who has been overshadowed for much of his career by Alex Ovechkin, Gustafsson was overshadowed by more prolific scorers in Mike Gartner and Bobby Carpenter for a good portion of his tenure in Washington. His being more a smooth, as opposed to flashy player (much like Backstrom) did nothing to encourage a brighter light to be shined on him. But in nine seasons with the Caps (he missed the 1986-1987 season to play in Sweden), only Mike Gartner appeared in more regular season games (758) than Gustafsson (629). Only Gartner had more goals (397 to 195). Only Gartner had more points (789 to 554). And like Backstom, one had the feeling that Gustafsson had another offensive gear that perhaps he was not being selfish to employ so that he could fit better into the team framework. He did, after all, have a 32-goal season in 1983-1984 and topped 20 goals six times in nine seasons (Backstrom had a 33-goal year in 2009-2010 and has hit the 20-goal mark five times in 10 full seasons, not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, and he had an injury-shortened 2011-2012 season).
But like Backstrom after him (and Gartner by his side), a deep run in the playoffs was not on his Capitals resume. His disappointment came despite the fact that in 115 career postseason games with the Caps, he scored 31 goals and had 97 points. His 0.88 points per game over his career with the Caps is sixth-best in team history (minimum: 25 playoff games). As it turns out, that is one spot ahead of Backstrom (0.84).
For a Braden Holtby there is an Olaf Kolzig
Eighteen goalies have dressed for the Caps in the postseason in team history. Braden Holtby and Olaf Kolzig have almost as many wins, combined (64) as the other 16 netminders (67). They represent the goaltending royalty in the history of this franchise. Time has not receded so much that fans will forget Kolzig and the chants of “O-LIE O-LIE O-LIE” whenever he would make a great save. It has a haunting similarity to the “HOLT-BY HOLT-BY HOLT-BY” chants that go up when Holtby foils an opponent with a ten-bell save.
But the memories are a bit dimmer of that 1998 run to the Stanley Cup final. It would not be hyperbole to state that Kolzig carried the Caps to the final on his back. Through three rounds in that postseason, Kolzig had the best goals against average (1.69), best save percentage (.946), stopped more than 80 more shots (546) than the next goalie on the list (Dominik Hasek: 482), and led all goalies in shutouts (four). Only four times in 17 games did he allow more than two goals, and only three times in that span of games did he finish a contest with a save percentage under .900. Only once did he allow as many as three even strength goals in a game.
But three rounds was as far as Kolzig could carry his team in 1998. He would hold the Detroit Red Wings to two first period goals in the first game of the final, but his teammates – Richard Zednik, specifically – could manage to get only one of them back in a 2-1 loss to the defending champions. It would be just the first example of how heartbreakingly close a club can get to a championship. Kolzig and the Caps had a two-goal lead in the third period of Game 2 of that series and, in perhaps the most famous gaffe in long history of them for the Caps before this season, had the game on the stick of Esa Tikkanen, who had an open net at which to shoot in that third period and missed, the Caps eventually falling in overtime. They lost a third-straight one-goal decision in Game 3, the Red Wings scoring a late goal to eke out the win. In those first three games, Kolzig stopped 116 of 125 shots (a .928 save percentage) and faced 60 shots in the Game 2 overtime loss. Kolzig carried his team as far as he could, and further, but could not carry them to those last four wins. It would be 20 years before another Caps goalie would get the chance.
For an Evgeny Kuznetsov there is a Michal Pivonka
Stop us if you heard this before. Supremely talented individual, among the top-rated in his amateur draft, falls through the first round over concerns over drafting and signing players from his country. It was true when Evgeny Kuznetsov was on the draft board in 2010, the third-ranked European skater according to Central Scouting (behind Mikael Granlund and Vladimir Trasenko). In 1984, the issue was amateur hockey players from eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, home to Michal Pivonka. Bringing players from behind the Iron Curtain in that era was a challenge, and it was true for Pivonka, who defected in order to join the Caps in 1986, two years after he was drafted in the third round.
Pivonka immediately went into the Caps lineup and had a very respectable 18-25-43 rookie season in 73 games. He would go on to play 13 seasons for the Caps as an underrated offensive player and a very capable two-way player. At the time he retired from the Caps, Pivonka was third on the all-time franchise list in games played (825), tied for eighth in goals scored (181), first in assists (418), second in points (599). In Caps postseason history, he was third in games played (95), tied for fourth in goals (19), fifth in assists (36), and third in points (55). Fate was especially cruel to Pivonka in the postseason, though. He was held to just 33 games played in the 1997-1998 regular season, posting his lowest career scoring numbers (3-6-9). He would dress for only 13 of the Caps’ 21 postseason games and would not see the ice at all after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final against Buffalo, missing the last eight games of the Caps’ run through the Stanley Cup final.
For a John Carlson there is a Kevin Hatcher
They were born more than 23 years apart, but there are similarities between John Carlson and Kevin Hatcher. Both are defensemen, both are American-born (Carlson in Massachusetts, Hatcher in Michigan), both were first-round draft picks of the Caps (Carlson 27th overall in 2008, Hatcher 17th overall in 1984). Hatcher had the benefit of joining a club that already had hall of fame in waiting defensemen in Rod Langway and Scott Stevens, but it did not take him long to establish himself as a productive scorer from the blue line, much as Carlson did almost out of the gate in his career with the Caps.
Hatcher, like so many of that era for the Caps, had nothing but postseason frustration after regular season success. He received all-star votes in five of his last six seasons with the club, and he finished in the top-ten in Norris Trophy voting as the league’s best defenseman three times. He is still the franchise record-holder in career goals scored by a defenseman (149) and is still third on the all-time list in points by a defenseman (426). He was the first defenseman in team history to record a 30-goal season, his 34 goals in 1992-1993 still the most ever recorded by a Capital defenseman.
However, in ten trips to the postseason with the Caps he had 16 goals in 83 games, only one of them being a game-winner. It was not enough to push the Caps past the second round of the postseason, even in 1990, when the Caps did reach the conference final. In that postseason, Hatcher played in just 11 games, missing the entire conference final against the Boston Bruins with a sprained knee.
Hatcher would eventually find himself in the position Carlson is about to find himself, a player in search of a new contract. The dynamics of free agency were much different in 1994, and Hatcher and the team could not come to terms on a new deal. Hatcher expressing a desire to leave Washington (something Carlson has not done) no doubt played a role in his being traded before the start of the late-starting 1994-1995 season. At the time he left the club, Hatcher was second in games played by a defenseman in team history (685), first in goals (149), second in assists (277), second in points (429), and second in penalty minutes (999). Compare that to Carlson, who despite playing in an era where offense is more depressed, is seventh on the franchise all-time list in games played (608), seventh in goals scored (77), sixth in assists (256), and seventh in points (333). What Carlson has that Hatcher does not is that Eastern Conference title and is closer to a Stanley Cup than Hatcher or any of his era ever were.
For an Andre Burakovsky there is a Richard Zednik
Andre Burakovsky and Richard Zednik came from opposite ends of the draft continuum – Burakovsky the 23rd- overall pick in 2013 and Zednik a tenth-round pick (249th overall) in 1994. What they had in common coming to the NHL was promise as a productive scorer. Both put up large numbers in Canadian junior hockey, despite both having been born and trained in Europe. Burakovsky spent one year with the Erie Otters in the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 41 goals and posting 87 points in 57 games. Zednik played in 126 games over two seasons with the Portland Winter Hawks in the Western Hockey League, posting 79 goals and 167 points.
But both also struggled, to a point, being as productive, or at least as consistent scoring at the NHL level. Burakovsky has shown flashes of being a top-end goal scorer and playmaker, but has struggled with injury and consistency, seeing his games played drop in each of the past two seasons. In four full seasons with the Caps, Zednik never hit the 20-goal mark (neither has Burakovsky in any of his four seasons with the club), but then again he only topped 70 games played once.
Burakovsky has been consistently less than hoped for in the postseason, while it could also be said he hasn’t been guilty of poor production. He has recorded goals in each of his four postseason appearances, but eight goals and 15 points in 48 career postseason games is less than might have been expected or hoped for. Recently it has been a case of being in a bit of bad luck, his “playing” being more impressive than his “production,” which makes him still a tantalizing player who is still just 23 years old.
Zednik played two postseasons for the Caps, one of which was that 1998 Stanley Cup run. And he was productive, to a point. He appeared in 13 of the Caps’ first 17 games through three rounds of that postseason and went 6-3-9, plus-1. However, after scoring the Caps’ first goal of the final round, his score sheet went blank. That would be the only point he recorded in the final. It is not unlike Burakovsky, who scored two goals in the series-clinching game against Tampa Bay in the conference final, but who has yet to record a goal in four games of the final. Players of great ability and considerable promise. Zednik never quite realized his in Washington before departing for Montreal late in the 2000-2001 season (he would return for one season, playing 32 games in 2006-2007 before being shipped to the New York Islanders). Burakovsky remains a player with that same considerable talent and promise.
For a Tom Wilson there is a Keith Jones
Tom Wilson is a guy that fans of 30 other franchises despise but who might very well be welcomed by those 30 fan bases were he to become available to them. He is an agitator with talent, a power forward with an edge. And one can draw a line from Wilson to another similarly edgy player of the early 1990’s. Keith Jones did not enjoy Wilson’s lofty draft status (Wilson was a first-round pick; Jones was taken in the seventh round in 1988), but both had similar statistical profiles in their early years. Wilson has had slowly and steadily increasing scoring numbers over his five seasons with the Caps so far, posting career highs in goals (14), assists (21), and points (35) this season, along with a career high in penalty minutes (187).
In four full seasons with the Caps to start his career, Jones showed a similar ability to mix points and penalty minutes. In 247 games over those four full seasons with the Caps, Jones went 60-62-122, plus-28, and he added 441 penalty minutes.
Wilson has displayed a similar slow and steady progress in his postseason numbers, scoring eight goals in 33 games over the last two postseasons after drawing a blank in his first 28 playoff games over his first three seasons. Not that the production has smoothed the harder edges of his game. Wilson is the only player over the last four playoff seasons to amass more than 100 penalty minutes (103).
Jones was similarly prickly in the postseason in his four full seasons in Washington. In 26 games played, his 75 penalty minutes were second only to Dale Hunter (97), and he did pitch in four goals and nine points in those games. But unlike Wilson, who has played in the second round or further in each of the last four postseasons, Jones played in the second round just once in his four full seasons in Washington. It would not happen until his next to last season in the NHL (with the Philadelphia Flyers) that he would reach a conference final round, falling to the New Jersey Devils in seven games.
These are but a few of the threads through history one could weave. For a Jakub Vrana there might be a young Peter Bondra. For a Chandler Stephenson there might be a young Steve Konowalchuk. What the Capitals are in a position to accomplish is to be celebrated, but there is much about the history of this franchise to respect, even in the frustrations of it all. And those players to whom a bright line might be drawn from the current Capitals deserve to be remembered, too.