When the NHL meets in virtual space for the 58th Entry Draft on October 6th, fans of the Washington Capitals will have to wait a little while before knowing who the team selects in the first round. The Caps pick 24th which, while the highest they will have selected (barring any trades) since 2015, when they took goalie Ilya Samsonov with the 22nd overall pick, it will be a territory with which they have become familiar in the last decade plus. Only three times since 2008 have they drafted higher than the 20’s in the first round out of ten first round picks (2014, when they took Jakub Vrana with the 13th overall pick, and 2012, when they took Filip Forsberg with the 12th overall pick and Tom Wilson with the 16th overall pick).
In a draft history spanning more than four decades, the Caps have had the 24th overall pick twice. Looking back on those picks, taken 30 years apart (Errol Rausse in 1979 and Marcus Johansson in 2009), we see just how imprecise and fickle the whole matter of drafting can be, even (and perhaps especially) in the first round. Let us take a look back at those picks.
Unless you are a Caps fan of long standing, you might never have heard of Errol Rausse. In 1979, though, the left winger entered the draft among the most prolific scorers available. In two seasons with the Seattle Breakers leading up to the 1979 draft, he posted 127 goals in 143 games, at the time the most goals scored in any iteration of the franchise’s history (including previous incarnations as the Vancouver Nats and Kamloops Chiefs). The 13 first goals of games he scored for the Breakers in 1978-1979 remain the second-most in Western Hockey League history (tied with four others), trailing only Shane Harper, who had 15 for the Everett Silvertips in 2009-2010.
Rausse became a pro the following season, spending 53 games with the Hershey Bears in the AHL (14-17-31) and 24 with the Caps, with whom he posted six goals and eight points in 24 games. That third of a season in his rookie year would, unfortunately, be the high point of his Caps career. He just could not crack the lineup to any consistent degree. In 1980-1981, Rausse dressed for only five games with the Caps (one goal, two points), and in 1981-1982 he skated in only two games for the Caps without registering a point. He would be a valuable element of the Hershey Bears in those two seasons, posting 37 goals and 89 points in 116 games, but that would be where his pro career stalled. Rausse spent one more year in Hershey without a call-up to the big club, posting his best numbers in four AHL seasons (25-35-60 in 79 games). After the 1982-1983 season, Rausse moved to Europe with SG Cortina in Italy before spending his last ten seasons with HC Alleghe.
Rausse was an example of a first round pick who was not as successful as hoped for. Only two players among the first 45 players taken in the 1979 draft played in fewer NHL games than Rausse (31) – defenseman Mike Perovich, taken 23rd overall by the Atlanta Flames (no NHL games), and winger Doug Morrison, taken 36th overall by the Boston Bruins (23 NHL games). Perovich was the only skater in that group to record fewer points (none, not having played an NHL game) than Rausse (10, tied with Morrison).
As the 2009 Entry Draft approached, Marcus Johansson was not flying especially high on the big hockey draft rankings’ radar. International Scouting Services did not have him ranked in their top-30 prospects for 2009. Central Scouting had Johansson as the eighth-ranked European skater. TSN had Johansson as its 33rd-ranked amateur player. It was not much a surprise, in hindsight, that Johansson would get lost the noise of potential late first-round/early second-round picks. He had a history of concussions and a relatively thin resume going into the draft (5-5-10 in 45 games with Farjestads BK Karlstad in Sweden and two goals in six games representing Sweden in the world juniors championship tournament in his draft year).
Johansson was taken with the 24th overall pick by the Caps, the sixth Swede taken in that draft (after Victor Hedman (second), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (sixth), Magnus Paajarvi (tenth), David Rundblad (17th), and Jacob Josefson (20th)). In a draft loaded with defensemen in the first round, Johansson was the 14th forward taken.
He would spend another year in Sweden, doubling his production with Farjestads BK Karlstad from the previous season (10-10-20 in 42 games) and posting a goal and six points in five games of the world juniors championship. It would be the following season, 2010-2011, that he would move to North America and turn pro. He made the jump to the big club, posting 13 goals and 27 points in a 69-game rookie season in the NHL. It was a solid, if unspectacular first season for Johansson (13th among rookies in goals (13), tied for 16th in points (27), 11th among forwards in total ice time logged (1,016 minutes).
What Johansson did was improve, though. Excluding the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, he never failed to post at least 40 points in a season over the 2011-2012 through 2016-2017 period, and was twice a 20-goal scorer (20 in 2014-2015 and 24 in 2016-2017).
When Johansson departed Washington in free agency after the 2016-2017 season he was one of 26 players in team history to post at least 100 goals (102) and at least 250 points (290). He was one of 27 players to dress for at least 500 games for the Caps in his career (501). Johansson was one of 19 players in Caps history at the time of his departure to record at least 20 game-winning goals (20), and he was (and remains) the only player in team history to play in at least 500 games and compile fewer than 100 penalty minutes (62).
Considering his 24th overall draft pick status in 2009, Marcus Johansson was a player who has out-performed his draft spot over his career, ranking 12th NHL games played (648), 15th in goals scored (129), ninth in assists (235), and tied for eighth in points (364, with Ekman-Larsson). Since he came into the league in 2010-2011, only two players in the NHL having played in at least 500 games have fewer penalty minutes per game than Johansson (0.09) – Ryan O’Reilly and Jason Pominville (both with 0.07 minutes per game). He also ranks seventh in that group of 278 players in net penalties per 60 minutes (0.55).
Errol Rausse and Marcus Johansson, taken at the same position in the draft, had quite different careers with the Capitals. The differences speak to the uncertainties that come with taking teenagers whose careers at that moment are almost entirely “potential” and largely devoid of “accomplishment” on big stages. It is something to keep in mind as the NHL prepares for its annual, if delayed ritual of the Entry Draft.