Predicting which teenage hockey players will develop into NHLers is and always has been a tricky task. Hundreds of scouts log thousands of miles each year and scour highlight reel after highlight reel just to find a handful of players who maybe, one day, might make the NHL - and the odds are against them.
As the NHL prepares for yet another draft to kick off this weekend, let’s look at the five best draft picks in Caps’ history:
5. Braden Holtby. While goaltenders are notoriously tricky to draft, the Capitals have made a name for themselves over the past two decades for their ability to uncover netminding gold time and time again. Holtby was one of those precious nuggets dug out of the fourth round back in 2008. Nine goalies were chosen ahead of Holtby that year, and yet he has gone on to play more games than any of them (with only two, Jacob Markstrom and Jake Allen, even coming close) - to say nothing of winning a Vezina, tying the NHL record for wins in a season and, oh yeah, helping orchestrate a Stanley Cup win. Not bad.
4. Michal Pivonka. Taken in the third round of the 1984 draft, Pivonka spent his entire 13-year career as a Cap and set the franchise’s assists record that stood for a couple of decades... that is, until some guy named Nicklas Backstrom came along and absolutely demolished it. But what makes the Pivonka pick special, aside from the fact that he turned out to be an excellent hockey player, is the extra level of uncertainty surrounding it. Living behind the Iron Curtain in then-Czechoslovakia, the process of drafting Pivonka involved clandestine meetings in eight different countries and his eventual defection to the United States. (You can read more about his amazing story here and here.)
3. Mike Green. Green was one of many first-round picks the Caps began accumulating during their rebuild of the early 2000s, taken 29th overall in 2004. The speedy offensive defenseman put together several Norris-caliber seasons in his time with the Caps (although he was ahead of his time in that regard and was never fully appreciated by much of the hockey world during his prime). He’s still the only defenseman to crack the 30-goal mark in the 21st century, his 31-goal campaign in 2008-09 - in only 68 games played - was the first 30+ goal season by a blueliner since his Caps’ predecessor Kevin Hatcher accomplished the feat in 1992-93.
2. Alex Ovechkin. There’s no need to go through the many sparkling lines on Ovechkin’s resume (as fun as that always is) - we all know what he’s accomplished since being drafted first overall back in 2004. And while it’s hard to be more of a sure thing than he was when the Caps made that fateful selection, it’s also pretty safe to say that he’s not only met but far exceeded all expectations, making history seemingly every night and bringing a long-awaited championship to DC.
1. Peter Bondra. Ovechkin may be the best player the Caps have ever drafted, but the best draft pick they ever made - the culmination of great scouting, development, and luck - was the selection of Peter Bondra at 156th overall back in 1990. He is one of just 24 players in NHL history to be picked 150th or later and go on to play at least 1000 games - and of that group, only Luc Robitaille (668) finished with more career goals than Bondra’s 503. While most of Bondra’s many franchise records have since fallen, the fact that he as an eighth-round pick was able to set and hold those records for so long is a testament to the value he brought.
As noted above, Bondra is a member of an elite group of late-round surprises, players who turned a selection in the mid- to high-100s (and beyond) into a long and solid career. He’s not the only late pick that’s had success for the Caps, though - here are a few other hidden gems:
- Richard Zednik, Another native of Slovakia, Zednik was selected in the 10th round back in 1994 (249th overall) and went on to play 745 games in the NHL - 289 with the Caps, with stops in Montreal, Florida and a brief foray with the Islanders before retiring in 2009.
- Ken Klee. Klee was the epitome of a stay-at-home defenseman back when that term carried a bit more weight. Selected 177th overall in 1990 (shortly after Bondra, an impressive year for late-round Caps picks), Klee would go on to bolster the Caps’ blueline for nine seasons, playing 570 of his 934 career games in DC.
- Gaetan Duchesne. An eighth-round pick of the Caps back in 1981 (152nd overall), the late Duchesne played 1028 games in the NHL. The best and longest stretch of his career was spent with the team that drafted him, though, with 451 of his 1028 games - and 225 of his 433 career points - in the red, white and blue.
- Dmitri Khristich. The first Russian to wear #8 for the Caps took a slightly different path than the most famous #8, selected by Washington in the sixth round of the 1988 draft (120th overall). Khristich would go on to play just over 800 games in the NHL, with two tours of duty - the first five seasons of his NHL career and the final two - in DC, racking up exactly 300 points in 419 games as a Cap.
- Andrew Brunette. While most of his career was spent elsewhere, Brunette started his career as a Capital, drafted at 174th overall in 1993 and going on to play three seasons in DC before the Predators made him their pick in the 1998 expansion draft. Of all of the late-round picks made by the Caps over the years, Brunette’s career was the longest, as he racked up 1110 games over 16 seasons in the NHL.
With the Caps not selecting anyone in the first round of the draft and their first pick slated for #55 - for now, at least - they’ll certainly be looking for more of these diamonds in the rough this weekend.