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Restocking Risks and Rewards

Mar 22, 2024; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Washington Capitals center Hendrix Lapierre (29) skates with the puck past Carolina Hurricanes left wing Jake Guentzel (59) during the third period at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s a downside to spending a decade-and-a-half as one of the League’s winningest teams, it’s that the opportunities to restock high-end talent through the draft are more difficult. Drafting a generational winger and franchise center with top-five picks isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s certainly going to have a better hit rate than drafting their successors with late-round selections.

To wit, the Caps only drafted higher than 20th three times from 2008 through 2022 (11th and 16th in 2012 and 13th in 2014), and they made the most out of those picks, selecting Filip Forsberg, Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana, respectively. But even for a team that drafts exceptionally well in the first round, restocking truly elite talent through the draft is tough when you’re picking so late… and so sometimes you take risks.

Evgeny Kuznetsov was one such risk, as he and his clear top-10 talent slid down the draft board all the way to 26 due to “the Russian Factor” (i.e. questions about when or if he’d even come over to North America when the KHL was, at the time, considered a real option for Russian players). The Caps, of course, had a 6’4″ Muscovite mitigating factor on their side, but the risk was still there and Kuznetsov’s arrival was one of those “I’ll believe it when I see it” situations that worked out massively in the Caps’ favor.

The club arguably hadn’t taken many big swings since that selection (though taking a Russian goalie in the mid-first was certainly a curious move even at the time), and the Caps’ cupboard got pretty empty as they won Presidents’ Trophies and the Stanley Cup and formerly cheap talent moved on and out, and those who remained tried (and continue to try) to stave off Father Time.

With the Caps still playing well enough to draft late but the sun setting on their days as a true contender, Brian MacLellan has had his eye on the future and how to restock from that position… so sometimes you take risks. Two such risks are paying off now – Hendrix Lapierre and Ivan Miroshnichenko, both of whom had lottery-pick talent, but health concerns. For Lapierre, it was accumulated concussions and/or a neck injury (and the pandemic heightened the risk, as it limited his opportunity to show where he was in his recovery); for Miro (sorry, not typing that one out again), it was a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma that sidelined his progression.

Lapierre was the “[b]iggest wildcard in the draft. Without medical issues, he’s a top 10 player, but in a draft this deep he comes with some risk.” Sportsnet ranked him 18th among draft prospects in 2020; the Caps selected him at 22.

Miro had “the tools and track record of a projected top line winger, but given his diagnosis he is being placed several tiers below that due to the significant uncertainty in his future projection.” The Athletic had him at 13th; the Caps grabbed him at 20.

From the Caps’ drafting record, it’s pretty clear that in both cases they could have made more conservative picks – maybe a(nother) defenseman from the WHL with third-pair upside but a reasonably good chance of getting a handful of NHL games, or a NCAA forward who might someday play on their third line. But those aren’t ordinarily the players that get a team back into consistent playoff contention (and, importantly, provide offense on the cheap for a few years, allowing the team to spend elsewhere throughout the lineup).

It’s too early, of course, to render judgment on either of these picks, though both have been key contributors to the Caps’ post-deadline resurgence as they more or less replaced the departed Kuznetsov and Anthony Mantha (both 20-something overall picks in their own right). But both players are showing the type of skill that had them as highly-rated prospects before the draft and none of the health concerns that scared off other teams. One or both may turn out to be the kind of high-end talent not often found… unless you’re willing to take some risks.

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