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Into the Wayback Machine: The Capitals and the 1975 Draft

AKA the year the Caps traded away the #1 pick...

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Here for another installment of Caps history, our friend Glenn Dreyfuss with some draft-related from way back:

In franchise history, the Capitals have owned the number one overall amateur draft choice four times. Twice in the nascent years they picked defensemen: Greg Joly (1974) and Rick Green (1976). Then there was the Russian kid with the funny smile they selected in 2004. This story, however, is about that other first-overall pick... the one the Caps never got to use.

Before the 1975-76 season, the Caps’ high hopes put ants and their rubber tree plants to shame. Coming off a 67-loss inaugural campaign, the team’s media packets included Stanley Cup press passes. The Annapolis Capital called it “the height of optimism.” The P.R. staff should have listened more closely to G.M. Milt Schmidt, who wryly predicted, “If we don’t get too many injuries, if we play to our potential, we can finish last.” (Ottawa Journal)

To secure immediate help, Schmidt exchanged 1975’s 1st overall pick in the offseason for 4th-line Flyers center Bill Clement. Getting traded from the Stanley Cup champions to the Capitals tore him up. “It was as if I was exiled from my family.” Sandwiched between four seasons with the Flyers and seven years with the Flames, Clement spent 46 games as captain of the Capitals in 1975-76. He scored a respectable 10 goals and 17 assists - despite thinking of his new teammates as, quote, “dog meat.” (From the book Hockey Card Stories)

The Caps also got Philly’s first-round pick, 18th overall, which they used on a forward named Alex Forsyth. Red flags were raised when Forsyth announced at his first media session, “Skating is not one of my finer points.” Uh-oh. Sent to the Caps’ AHL team in Richmond, Forsyth was buried on the Robins’ bench, shattering his confidence. Signed by Schmidt to a multi-year contract, Forsyth would play just one NHL game. On November 12, 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger showed up at Capital Centre, and so did Alex, for a 5-4 loss to Chicago. Two years later he hung up his skates, went home to Kingston, Ontario, and began a more successful career as a police officer. (originalhockeyhalloffame.com, Washington Post)

This trade sometimes gets brought up on amateur draft day, and how the Flyers got the sweet end of the deal - drafting Mel Bridgman, a center who amassed 701 points in a 14-year NHL career. At the time, Philly writer Bill Fleischman called it “a deal that left many hockey observers shaking their heads in disbelief.” Sports Illustrated, though, pointed out the deal’s x-factor: the WHA was always lurking with big-money offers. “Washington realized it probably would have been unable to sign the NHL’s No. 1 amateur draft choice, so the Capitals wisely traded the pick.”

Decades later, nhl.com weighed in with a far harsher review. “The trade set the Caps’ franchise back several seasons and stands as one of the worst decisions in the team’s early history.” That’s a wildly overblown hot take, especially in a diluted draft. Because of the WHA rivalry, top prospects had been plucked as underage juniors in prior drafts. Consider also that Bridgman developed within the protective embrace of the Broad Street Bullies. Caps rookies received no such protection, making it unlikely Bridgman would have prospered as well in the Capitals’ organization.

Bottom line: no one player, much less a rookie, was going to alter the Caps’ trajectory. As proof, consider the player Washington would have drafted had it kept the pick. Not Bridgman, according to The Hockey News, but Don Ashby, a prolific scorer with the Calgary Centennials. What caught the Caps’ attention was 52 goals in Ashby’s just-completed 70-game season.

Selected 6th overall by Toronto, Ashby was promoted directly to Maple Leaf Gardens. He wasn’t ready, scoring a meager six goals as a rookie – though he did improve to 19 goals as a sophomore. The escalator only went down from there. Don spent four years bouncing between the minors and the NHL in Toronto, Colorado, and Edmonton. He’d only play 62 games total in the majors over that span, which included his temporary retirement.

The real tragedy for Don Ashby came while driving on May 30, 1981. He and his wife Terry were struck in a head-on collision. Ashby died hours later, at the age of 26.