Everyone knows that Alex Ovechkin is the greatest player to ever pull on a Caps jersey... but before 2005, the role of Best Cap Ever is a little bit murkier. So who gets our vote?
Who is the best player in franchise history pre-Ovechkin Era?
Peerless: Peter Bondra. Sure, he was the leading all-time goal scorer for the Caps pre-Ovechkin, but what sets him apart in my mind is the number “32.” That is the number of career shorthanded goals he had in 961 games with the Caps, 15 more than Mike Ridley had in 588 games and that Bengt Gustafsson had in 629 games with the Caps. Counting just his time with the Caps, he would be one of only ten players in NHL history to record at least 125 power play goals (137 with the Caps), at least 30 shorthanded goals (32), and at least 70 game-winning goals (73). The difficulty with “best,” though, is that different positions have different roles and responsibilities. So, if I did it by position, it would be Bondra among the forwards, Rod Langway on defense, and Olaf Kolzig in goal. Not exactly out-of-left-field picks there.
Bryan: I consider myself fortunate that my hockey fandom came into being around the prime of Bondra’s career. The numbers don’t lie either (thanks for doing the searching for me Peerless!) but the way he tilted the ice and forced opposing defenders to know where he was at all times immediately puts him at or near the top of this list. Another guy I’ll toss out there is Bondra’s teammate from 1997-2001, Adam Oates. Obviously the whole coaching thing didn’t quite work out here as planned, but as a Hall of Famer and on the list of NHL’s 100 Greatest Players, he is certainly worthy of consideration. He tallied nearly a point a game for six full seasons in Washington, and is still 18th all time in career points (with Ovi just ten behind him heading into this year.)
J.P.: The other difficulty with “best” is are we talking about the guy who amassed the most impressive stats and accolades during his time here, or the guy whose star shone brightest during that time, even if it was more limited? I’m going to take the latter approach (my affection for Bondra and Kolzig is well-documented) and go with Scott Stevens. Most hockey fans - even Caps fans - think of his time in Jersey when Stevens’ name is brought up, and rightly so. But the Stevens that Caps fans had was a more prolific scorer (he had 429 points for the Caps in 601 games, and 430 for the Devils in 956) and a more intimidating presence (as hard as that is to believe). In 1984-85, Stevens scored 21 goals, added 44 assists and racked up 221 penalty minutes… at the age of 20. Three seasons later, he posted the first of back-to-back 60-assist campaigns. In his eight years in D.C. (well, Landover), he finished in the top-10 in Norris voting five times, topping out as runner-up to Ray Bourque in 1987-88.
The Caps let Stevens walk shortly after his 26th birthday (and did alright for themselves in the transaction, all things considered) because they didn’t want to match the offer sheet that he signed with St. Louis that would pay him exactly what Dmitry Orlov makes today… over four seasons. And Caps fans have been wondering “what if?” ever since they let their best player leave.
Becca: Stevens was a phenomenal player, but I don’t think he hit his peak until after he left DC (which speaks to just how good he was, as J.P. outlined his Washington credentials pretty well). And if we’re just going with blueliners, I actually think Calle Johansson was and continues to be pretty underrated even by Caps fans - as was Kevin Hatcher, kind of a Stevens lite.
But who am I kidding, it can only be Peter Bondra. The guy who set all the records that Ovechkin has been knocking down one by one? The only truly great goal-scorer the Caps ever had pre-#8? The kind of player who could put butts in seats and then bring those butts out of them with his moves? There was just no one more exciting or thrilling to watch in DC before he came along, and he had the numbers to go along with the flash.