Assessing The Washington Capitals First Round Picks

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Capitals starting lines versus the New York Islanders (12/1/31) Photo: @Swhyno

With the recent call-up of Jakub Vrana at the beginning of this month, the current Washington Capitals lineup of forwards features ten (count them) first round picks, eight of their own, plus two others who had been first round picks by other teams.  Meanwhile, the Capitals have two first round picks among their defensemen.  This strongly indicates that the Caps have primarily build their current team via the draft.  This article examines the Capitals drafting history, with the first part discussing the first-round picks in their current lineup, the second part focusing on other first round picks made by the team since the 2002 NHL Entry Draft who have contributed to the team, and the last part focusing on “what if” scenarios of drafts during that time frame.

First Rounders in Current Lineup

Alex Ovechkin – Ovechkin was drafted in the First Round of 2004, 1st Pick Overall.  He made his NHL debut on October 4, 2005, in the first game after the lockout year, against the Columbus Blue Jackets, at home.  As the most anticipated pick for the Caps, he started off with a “bang”, so to speak.  He body checked an opponent, which also dislodged part of the glass.  He also had two goals that day, his first one tied the game when they were behind 1-0 while his second goal tied it up when they were behind 2-1.  The Caps won the game 3-2.  As of this writing, he has played 862 NHL games, has 537 goals, 447 assists, and 984 points overall.  He is currently the Caps’ Captain.  Before reporting to the Capitals, he played for the Moscow Dynamo in the Russian Super League.

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Nicklas Backstrom – Backstrom was drafted in the First Round of 2006, 4th Pick Overall.  He made his NHL debut on October 5, 2007 against the Atlanta Thrashers at home.  In his debut, he was winger on a line with Michael Nylander as center and Brooks Laich as the other winger.  The Caps won that game 3-1 and Backstrom had an assist on the first goal of the game, a power play goal that Nylander scored.  Incidentally, Backstrom lived with the Nylander family for much of that first season.  As of this writing, he has played 675 NHL games, has 172 goals, 491 assists, and 663 points overall.  He is currently serving as one of the Alternate Captains for the Caps.  In the year after his draft, he played in the Swedish Elite League.

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Karl Alzner – Alzner was drafted in the First Round of 2007, 5th Pick Overall.  He made his NHL debut on November 26, 2008 against the Atlanta Thrashers at home.  At that time, Karl was called up when a rash of injuries had decimated the defensemen.  He was paired with Milan Jurcina and logged 21:09 in ice time, which was second only to Alex Ovechkin that day.  He remained with the team that season until mid-February when he was returned to the Hershey Bears.  The next year, he was back and forth between the Hershey Bears and the Washington Capitals, including a call-up for the 2009-2010 playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens but returned to Hershey for the remainder of their playoffs.  He finally stayed with the Caps for good at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season.  During that time, he compiled a streak of playing in consecutive games, breaking the team record of 422 that was set by Bobby Carpenter.  The streak is still going on now.  As of this writing, he has played 532 NHL games, has 18 goals, 90 assists, and 108 points overall.

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John Carlson – Carlson was drafted in the First Round of 2008, 27th Pick Overall.  He made his NHL debut on November 20, 2009 against the Montreal Canadiens at home.  John was called up when other Caps’ defensemen were down with injuries.  He was paired with Tom Poti and logged 17:24 in ice time.  He returned to the Bears but was called up again and stayed with the Caps until after their first round playoff loss to Montreal.  After that, he returned to the Hershey Bears as they won the Calder Cup.  He stayed with the Caps for good starting at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season.  During that time, he compiled a streak of playing in consecutive games, but was injured before he could break the team record of 422 that was set by Bobby Carpenter.  As of this writing, he has played 477 NHL games, has 53 goals, 184 assists, and 237 points overall.

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Marcus Johansson – Johansson was drafted in the First Round of 2009, 24th Pick Overall. He made his NHL debut on October 8, 2010 against the Atlanta Thrashers on the road.  He lined up as third line center, with the anticipation that he could develop into a second line center. The game was not a very good game for the Caps as they lost 4-2 in a game most notable for Thrashers’ goalie, Ondrej Pavelec collapsing on the ice and needing to be stretchered off the ice.  Johansson played on the third line and did not get any points.  The following game was their home opener, against the New Jersey Devils.  It was a better game for the Caps, as the Caps won 7-2.  The game was notable for several fights, including when Devil’s enforcer, Pierre LeTourneau-Leblond tried to pick a fight with Johansson during the third period and John Carlson came to Johansson’s defense.  As of this writing, he has played 442 NHL games, has 87 goals, 161 assists, and 248 points overall.  After being drafted and before reporting to the Caps, he continued to play for his Swedish Club, Farjestad, in their top tier division.

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Evgeny Kuznetsov – Kuznetsov was drafted in the First Round of 2010, 26th Pick Overall. He made his NHL debut on March 10, 2014 against the Pittsburgh Penguins at home.  It was a long time between him getting drafted and his appearance in the NHL as he planned to honor his contract with his KHL team, Traktor Chelyabinsk and then extended it.  But when his KHL team was eliminated from the playoff race in 2014, he terminated his contract with Chelyabinsk and finally came over making his debut.  The Caps lost that game 2-0 to Pittsburgh.  He did not score that day but Coach Adam Oates praised his game.  As of this writing, he has played 202 NHL games, has 37 goals, 95 assists, and 132 points overall.

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Tom Wilson – Wilson was drafted in the First Round of 2012, 13th Pick Overall.  He made his NHL debut on May 10, 2013 in the playoff series against the New York Rangers.  His regular season debut was on October 1, 2013 against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks on the road.  While he didn’t skate very many minutes in his NHL playoff debut, he witnessed the Caps winning 2-1 in overtime.  For most of that year, he played for his junior hockey team, the Plymouth Whalers, which ended in the Ontario Hockey League’s Western Final.  When that was over, he joined the Hershey Bears for the last three games of the first round of their playoff series against the Providence Bruins which ended in a loss.  Hence, Wilson was now free to join the Caps, as a replacement for the injured Martin Erat.  His first regular season game with the Caps was a 6-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks where he played just over six minutes and did not score.  As of this writing, he has played 254 NHL games, has 15 goals, 36 assists, and 51 points overall.

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Andre Burakovsky – Burakovsky was drafted in the First Round of 2013, 23th Pick Overall. He made his NHL debut on October 9, 2014 against the Montreal Canadiens at home.  In that game, he scored his first NHL goal, getting an assist from Troy Brouwer.  Alas, the lead did not last as Montreal tied the game in the third period.  The Caps lost the game 2-1, after a five-round shootout.  He is one of the “steals” of that draft and has performed better than many players drafted ahead of him.  After being drafted and before reporting to the Caps, he played for the Erie Otters, a junior hockey team in the Ontario Hockey League, located in Erie, Pennsylvania and most notable for being the team  Connor McDavid also played with that same year.  In fact, Burakovsky and McDavid were linemates. As of this writing, he has played 156 NHL games, has 28 goals, 42 assists, and 70 points overall.

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Jakub Vrana – Vrana was drafted in the First Round of 2014, 13th Pick Overall.  He made his NHL debut on December 1, 2016 against the New York Islanders at home.  He did not score any goals in that game that the Caps eventually lost 3-0.   After being drafted and before reporting to the Caps, he spent time with the Linkopings Hockey Club in Sweden at various levels and joined the Hershey Bears in time for their 2015-2016 playoffs.  He returned to the Bears for the 2015-2016 season and scored 16 goals, despite missing a significant amount of time due to a wrist injury.

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Justin Williams – Williams was drafted in the First Round of 2000 by the Philadelphia Flyers, 28th Pick Overall.  He made his NHL debut against the Vancouver Canucks on October 5.   After playing with the Flyers, he then played with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Los Angeles Kings before signing with the Washington Capitals as a free agent.  As of this writing, he has played 1023 NHL games, has 251 goals, 387 assists, and 638 points overall.

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Brett Connolly – Connolly was drafted in the First Round of 2010 by the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5th Pick Overall. He made his NHL debut on October 7, 2011 against the Carolina Hurricanes.  He stayed with the Lightning through 2014-2015 until he was traded to the Boston Bruins where he remained until signing with the Washington Capitals as a free agent prior to the 2016-2017 season.   As of this writing, he has played 225 NHL games, has 29 goals, 33 assists, and 62 points overall.

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Lars Eller – Eller was drafted in First Round of 2007 by the St Louis Blues, 13th Pick Overall.  He made his NHL debut on November 5, 2009 against the Calgary Flames.  He was traded to the Blues after that season to the Montreal Canadiens where he remained until traded to the Washington Capitals this off-season.  As of this writing, he has played 464 NHL games, has 75 goals, 84 assists, and 159 points overall.

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Other Notable First Rounders

Steve Eminger – Eminger was drafted in the First Round of 2002, 12th Pick Overall.  He played for the Caps from 2002 through the end of the 2008 season, with stints with the Portland Pirates farm team.  He was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers after the 2008 season, along with the 84th pick overall for the Flyer First Round pick (#27 Overall) which was used to pick John Carlson.

Alexander Semin – Semin was drafted in the First Round of 2002, 13th Pick Overall.  He played for the Caps from 2003 through the end of the 2012 season.  He scored 197 goals and had 408 points overall for them before signing as a free agent with the Carolina Hurricanes after the 2011-2012 season.

Boyd Gordon – Gordon was drafted in the First Round of 2002, 17th Pick Overall.  He played for the Caps from 2005 through the end of the 2011 season, with stints with the Portland Pirates and Hershey Bears farm teams.  He left the team in free agency after the 2011 season and signed with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Eric Fehr – Fehr was drafted in the First Round of 2003, 18th Pick Overall.  He played for the Caps from 2003 through the end of the 2011 season, with stints with the Hershey Bears farm team.  He was traded to the Winnipeg Jets after that season but returned to the team in 2013 and stayed with them until the 2015-2016 season.  He left the team in free agency after the 2015 season and signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.  His career was set back by a series of injuries but he was the goal scoring hero for the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, PA and scored a goal in the 2015 Winter Classic in Washington, DC.

Jeff Schultz – Schultz was drafted in the First Round of 2004, 27th Pick Overall.  He played for the Caps from 2006 through 2013, with stints with the Hershey Bears farm team.  His contract was bought out after the 2012-2013 season and he signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings organization.

Mike Green – Green was drafted in the First Round of 2004, 29th Pick Overall.  He played for the Caps from 2005 through 2015, with stints with the Hershey Bears farm team.  He left the team in free agency and signed with the Detroit Red Wings.  During his career with the Caps, he was an amazing offensive defenseman and scored 31 goals during the 2008-2009 season and had two other seasons of scoring close to 20 goals.

Semyon Varlamov – Varlamov was drafted in the First Round of 2006, 23th Pick Overall.  He played for the Caps from 2008 through 2011, with stints with the Hershey Bears farm team.  He was traded after the 2010-2011 season to the Colorado Avalanche for two draft picks, one of which was used to draft Filip Forsberg in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

Filip Forsberg – Forsberg was drafted in the First Round of 2012, 11th Pick Overall.  He never played a game with the Caps but was traded to the Nashville Predators for Martin Erat at the trading deadline in 2013.

Drafting “What Ifs”

Most fans of the Washington Capitals rued the fact that Eric Fehr was picked immediately ahead of Ryan Getzlaf who proved to be a star and a much better player than Fehr. Another “what if” to think about was why didn’t the Caps acquire more picks for the 2003 draft which proved to be a very deep draft.  They had acquired first round picks in trades for both the 2002 and 2014 draft years which were not as deep of drafts, but more than one of their picks from those two drafts did make it to the NHL.

Another “what if” in Caps drafting history involves the method of selection for the 2005 draft.  Since they had drafted Alex Ovechkin the previous year, they did not get as many balls in the lottery selection.  Compounding the matter was the fact they had made the playoffs during the 2001-2002 season, hence they lost another ball. Hence, the Caps could not pick until the 14th pick in a year where the draft was not very deep and ended up drafting Sasha Pokulok who never made it to the NHL.  What would have happened if the Caps had gotten to choose a player sooner and would they have chosen Anze Kopitar, a center picked by the Los Angeles Kings?  Or could they have chosen another player, such as T.J. Oshie instead of Pokulok?

One of the most important “what ifs” was the trade of the First Round of 2012 pick from  Nashville in March of the following year for Martin Erat.  What if they had not traded Forsberg and how would it have affected the Caps’ fortune?

Conclusion

For most of the past decade, the Caps have built their team primarily through the draft and involving a lot of first round picks.  There were a few misses along the way, too, but overall, they have done well.

By:  Diane Doyle

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3 Responses to Assessing The Washington Capitals First Round Picks

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