In 2002-03, the Washington Capitals finished second to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division and would ultimately lose to Tampa Bay in the first round of the post season. The expectation for the Caps entering the 2003-04 season was that they would make the playoffs and possibly contend for the Stanley Cup. However, after winning their opener, they did not win again for the rest of October, until winning the last game for the month.
With the team being a relatively veteran team that was not performing well, the Caps’ management figured it was time for the team to rebuild. This was a team whose four highest scoring forwards from the previous year were all over 30 years old; i.e. Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Peter Bondra, and Michael Nylander. Their Captain, Steve Konowalchuk, turned 30 the previous season. Their best defenseman from an offensive standpoint, Sergei Gonchar, would turn 30 near the end of the 2003-04 season.
To facilitate the rebuild, the Capitals believed it was time to trade veteran assets for draft picks and prospects. Even before October ended, the Caps traded Konowalchuk to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for winger Bates Battaglia and the rights to forward, Jonas Johansson, who the Avalanche had picked 28th overall in the 2002 draft.
As the Caps continued to lose, more veteran players got traded, including Jagr, Bondra, Lang, Gonchar, Nylander, and Mike Grier, generally for picks and prospects. They also traded Anson Carter who they had acquired in exchange for Jagr earlier in the year.
Prospects on Hand – End of 2003-04 Season
When the 2003-04 season ended, the Capitals had several young prospects that were either on their team, in their farm system, or still playing in juniors. They had three first rounders from the 2002 NHL draft who had spent time with the Capitals that season. They were: defenseman Steve Eminger, chosen with the #12 overall pick, who divided his season between the Caps and their top minor league affiliate at the time, the Portland Pirates; winger Alexander Semin, chosen with the #13 overall pick, who spent the season with the Caps and scored 10 goals; and center Boyd Gordon, chosen with the 17th overall pick, who also had divided his time between Washington and Portland.
They also had their first-round pick and 18th pick overall from the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Eric Fehr, who scored more than 50 goals for his Canadian junior team, the Brandon Wheat Kings. The expectation was for him to develop into a scoring power forward.
There were also the prospects acquired from their in-season trades. The forward prospects acquired were: Tomas Fleischmann, a former second round pick acquired from the Detroit Red Wings in the Robert Lang deal; Brooks Laich, a former 6th round pick acquired from the Ottawa Senators in the Peter Bondra deal; Jonas Johansson, a former first round pick acquired from the Colorado Avalanche in the Steve Konowalchuk deal; Jakub Klepis, acquired in the Mike Grier deal; and Jared Aulin, acquired in the Anson Carter deal. They also acquired defenseman prospect, Shaone Morrisonn, from Boston in the Sergei Gonchar trade. The Capitals also acquired several draft picks, some which would be utilized in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
2004 NHL Entry Draft
The Capitals ended up with just 59 points, just one point more than the worst team in the league, the Pittsburgh Penguins. They had the same number of points as the Chicago Blackhawks but were considered to have finished “ahead” of Chicago, due to tie breakers. Hence, the Caps were third to last. Still, they were bad enough to participate in the lottery for the #1 pick overall in the 2004 NHL Entry draft, where the top prize was a young Russian who was expected to be a generational player on the order of a Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux – Alexander Ovechkin
The Capitals won the lottery and got to pick first in the draft for the first time since 1976, when they had picked defenseman, Rick Green.
As expected, they chose Ovechkin in the draft. They also drafted two other players in the first round, thanks to draft picks they had acquired in trades made during the 2003-04 season. They were a pair of defensemen from Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Jeff Schultz who was drafted with the 27th pick overall (obtained from Boston in the Sergei Gonchar deal) and Mike Green who was drafted with the 29th pick overall (obtained from Detroit in the Robert Lang deal). They also drafted forward, Chris Bourque, son of Hall of Famer, Ray Bourque in the second round, defenseman, Sami Lepisto in the fourth round, and Andrew Gordon in the seventh round.
2005 NHL Entry Draft
Since the NHL owners and players no longer had a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the owners locked the players out of training camp, and ultimately, there was no season. As a result, the draft rules were different from normal. Because the Capitals had the overall first pick the year before and having made the playoffs in 2002-03, the Caps had two lottery balls taken away from them and did not get to pick in the lottery until the 14th pick. They chose defenseman, Sasha Pokuluk with that pick. They also had one other first rounder in the draft, pick #27 from the Colorado Avalanche, and used that To select defenseman, Joe Finley.
2005-06 Season – First Season After Lockout
Alex Ovechkin lived up to the hype during his rookie year, scoring two goals in his first game and ending up with 52 goals, 54 assists, and 106 points overall for the year. The team was still bad, as they had the second worst record in the Eastern Conference and fourth worst overall, going 29-41-12. As a result, the Capitals were awarded the fourth pick in the NHL Entry Draft. Their objective was to get a franchise center who could pair-up with Ovechkin, and chose center Nicklas Backstrom from Sweden with the pick. They also drafted two goalies, one late in the first round, Semyon Varlamov, and one early in the second round, Michal Neuvirth.
Evaluation of the Rebuild
Four years after the decision to rebuild, the Capitals returned to the playoffs in 2007-08 thanks to a late season run. The surge was aided by the promotion of Hershey Bears’ head coach, Bruce Boudreau, and the maturation of prospects that had joined the team.
This was the beginning of the era known as the “Young Guns” Era. The Caps improved in the 2008-09 season, compiling the second-best regular season in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the second round of the playoffs, before being eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In 2009-10, they won the Presidents’ Trophy but, unfortunately, were ‘Halaked’ in the first round of the playoffs, by the Montreal Canadiens.
In 2010-11, they achieved the best record in the Conference for the regular season but were unable to advance past Round 2 of the playoffs. The Capitals had built a very good, competitive team, but one that continually disappointed in the playoffs.
Many of the forwards acquired in this rebuild and the years immediately prior played important roles for the teams. Ovechkin became the franchise player and Backstrom became the franchise center, but they were not the only ones. Other forwards playing important roles included:
- Alexander Semin who perennially scored between 25 and 40 goals per year,
- Brooks Laich, who perennially scored around 20 goals for year,
- Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr, and Boyd Gordon.
The theme among the aforementioned forwards was injuries. Semin had groin and wrist issues which ultimately led to surgery in his post-Caps days and he was not the same afterwards. Laich injured his groin playing overseas in the 2012-13 lockout and was never the same player. Fleischmann had issues with blood clotting and has been out of the NHL since 2016. Fehr has had a variety of injuries which prevented him from being as good of a player as expected. Boyd Gordon dealt with a back injury, among other things.
In general, the prospects populated the top six and spilled over onto the third line, but were supplemented by veteran acquisitions which included Viktor Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov, and Mike Knuble. There were other prospect forwards that did not work out, such as Jakub Klepis, Jonas Johansson, and Chris Bourque.
On defense, the best of the prospects was Mike Green, who provided a great deal of offense, especially after Bruce Boudreau was promoted to Head Coach. Other defensive prospects who played important roles for the Caps were Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz. Morrisonn was generally Green’s main defensive partner during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons. But during the 2009-10 season, Green’s main defensive partner, instead, was Jeff Schultz. Morrisonn left the team after the 2009-10 season. Schultz, himself fell out of favor when Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau as head coach during the 2011-12 season and his contract was bought out. Most of the remaining prospects on defense that were drafted as part of the rebuild did not work out, including Steve Eminger, Sami Lepisto, Sasha Pokuluk, and Joe Finley.
This rebuild illustrated the fact that it was much easier to evaluate young forwards than to evaluate young defensemen. The Caps were able to identify forwards that fit in their top 6, with some overlap into the top 9. Identifying defensemen was much harder, as witnessed by the number of busts in their draft of that position. The “Young Gun” era Caps were perceived as a team that was relatively weak in defense.
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How Individual Prospects in the Rebuild Fared
The prospects in the rebuild are each discussed below.
Alexander Semin: Semin played with the Caps for nearly the entire 2003-04 season but did not return to the NHL immediately after the lockout of 2004-05 due to having to serve another year of military service to Russia. He could fulfill it by playing professional hockey in the Russian Super League (forerunner to KHL). He returned for the 2005-06 season. While he started the year on the third line, he got off to a hot start that year and was moved up to the “Top 6”. He ended up with 38 goals and 35 assists and ranked second, only to Ovechkin in those offensive categories. He was one of the “Young Guns” along with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green. He remained with the team through the 2011-2012 season until he left in free agency and, throughout his tenure with the Caps, would generally rank second on the Caps in goals scored. While he tended to miss time with nagging injuries and there would sometimes be concern about his work ethic, all in all, he was the offensive prospect who fared the best, outside of Ovechkin and Backstrom and outperformed his draft slot of being an early middle of the first-round pick. During his tenure with the Caps, he had scored 197 goals and had 211 assists for 408 points overall.
Boyd Gordon: Gordon played for the Caps in portions of the 2003-04 and 2005-06 seasons for the Caps but did not stay with them for “good” until the 2006-07 season. He remained with them through the 2010-11 season. He had 27 goals and 58 assists in 363 games during his Caps career. He generally served as their fourth line center and was a great faceoff specialist. It was an important role, to be sure, but generally, the hope for a #17th pick overall is to become more than a fourth-line specialist. Gordon was also hampered with injuries during his tenure with the Caps
Steve Eminger: Eminger was the first of the Caps prospects drafted in the 2002 NHL Entry draft to play in the NHL, as he played 17 games with the Capitals during the 2002-03 season. Semin and Gordon did not appear in any NHL games until the 2003-04 season. Eminger divided his time between the Caps and their affiliate in Portland during the 2003-04 season, spent 2004-05 with Portland due to the lockout, but finally arrived in the NHL for good in the 2006-07 season. However, he spent much of the 2007-08 season as a healthy scratch and was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers with a third-round pick in exchange for their first-round pick. The Caps used that first-round pick to select defenseman John Carlson who eventually became a fixture on the Capitals’ blue line. Eminger, meanwhile, played for a variety of NHL teams until the 2012-13 season. Overall, Eminger did not live up to the lofty expectations for a #12 overall pick.
Eric Fehr: Given that he had performed so well during his last two years of Junior hockey, scoring 50 or more goals, expectations were high for Eric Fehr when he started his professional career. For the first three seasons of his career, he primarily played with the Caps’ AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, but played in a few games for the Caps during the 2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08 seasons. The 2008-09 season was his first full season in the NHL. He played with the Caps until the 2010-11 season when he was traded to the Winnipeg Jets in a salary dumping deal. He returned to the Capitals for the 2012-13 season after the “Lockout of 2012-13” and remained with them until the 2014-15 season. His story falls into the category of “what might have been” as he had been dogged by injuries throughout his whole career, both on the Caps and with other teams, including the herniated disc, multiple shoulder injuries that required surgery, and a finger injury. One wonders how much better his career would have gone without all the injuries and surgeries. He had 87 goals and 87 assists in 419 games with the Caps. His best season was the 2009-10 season when he scored 21 goals and had 18 assists.
Jonas Johansson: Johansson played just one game for the Capitals which was during the 2005-06 season. He started the following season, 2006-07 with the Hershey Bears in the AHL but was lent to the Grand Rapids Griffins during the latter part of that season. After that, he returned to Sweden to continue his hockey career.
Brooks Laich: Brooks Laich played only a handful of NHL prior to the “Lockout of 2004-05” but he spent nearly the entire 2005-06 season in the NHL. For most of his first two years in the NHL, he was perceived to be a grinder. But during the 2007-08 season, under the tenure of his former coach from the Hershey Bears, Bruce Boudreau, he developed into a perennial 20 goals per year scorer. He was generally stationed on either the second or third line, as a winger, but occasionally played center, as well. He played on both the power play and the penalty kill and was considered to be a “Swiss Army Knife” type player, due to his versatility. Unfortunately, during the “Lockout of 2012-13”, he injured his groin in a game in the Swiss League. His productivity declined precipitously, as a result. The Caps traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade deadline deal in 2016. During his tenure with the Caps, he scored 113 goals and had 191 assists.
Tomas Fleischmann: Fleischmann played for the Caps during portions of the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons but did not play his first full season with them until 2007-08. He was a productive goal scorer for them during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons and would spend time on either the second or third line. However, he had problems with his health while with the Caps. During the 2008-09 season, he missed time with pneumonia. He had developed blood clots in his leg, when flying back to the Czech Republic after the 2008-09 season and was forced to miss the first month of the 2009-10 season. The blood clots were caused by deep vein thrombosis. He stayed with the team until he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche during the 2010-11 season. He played in 283 games with the Caps and scored 60 goals and had 78 assists.
Jakub Klepis: Klepis played for the Caps during portions of the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. After being assigned to the Hershey Bears during 2007-08, he left the team to play hockey in the Czech League and then played a few years in the KHL before returning to the Czech League.
Shaone Morrisonn: Morrisonn became a regular in the Caps lineup starting in the 2005-06 season. During the 2007-08 season, he generally became Mike Green’s defensive partner on the team’s top pairing. He was establishing his reputation as a tough, stay-at-home defender. During the 2009-10 season, Morrisonn fell out of favor and was no longer Green’s defensive partner. He left the team after the 2009-10 season and signed with the Buffalo Sabres.
Mike Green: Green came up to the Caps briefly during the 2005-06 season and played with them for most of the 2006-07 seasons. His first full season with the Caps was 2007-08. That year, he established himself as an offensive defenseman, scoring 18 goals and having 38 assists. Caps broadcaster, Joe Beninati, nicknamed him “Game Over Green” in honor of him scoring game-winning goals in the closing minutes of regulation or in Overtime games. He was dubbed as one of the “Young Guns” along with Ovechkin, Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom. In 2008-09, he had one of the most amazing offensive years for a defenseman scoring 31 goals and having 42 assists. He had an eight-game streak where he scored at least one goal, setting a record for most consecutive games scored in by a defenseman. In 2009-10, he scored 19 goals and had 57 assists as the team won the Presidents’ Trophy. Unfortunately, his career with the Caps was marred by injuries, to both the groin and the shoulder, especially the former, and he never again approached his career highs. He left the team in free agency after the 2014-15 season, signing a contract with the Detroit Red Wings. He played in 575 games for the Caps and had 113 goals and 360 assists.
Jeff Schultz: Schultz came up to the Capitals during the 2006-07 season and played for them through the 2012-13 season. He was basically a defensive defenseman. He led the league in Plus/Minus during the 2009-10 season, but his game seemed to deteriorate during the 2011-12 season, not helped by all the changes in defensive systems between coaches. He did well under Coach Boudreau’s zone defense but not quite as well when Boudreau switched to a “trap” type system and became worse under the coaching systems of Dale Hunter and Adam Oates. The Caps bought out his contract after the 2012-13 season and he signed with the Los Angeles Kings. He played in 399 games for the Caps and had 11 goals and 64 assists.
Chris Bourque: Bourque played in a handful of games for the Caps during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons but primarily played with their AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. He was waived before the 2009-10 season and claimed by the Pittsburgh Penguins but returned to the Caps organization before the season ended. He has spent most of his professional hockey career with the Hershey Bears and is one of the leading goal scorers in their history.
Sami Lepisto: Lepisto played in a handful of games for the Caps during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons but primarily played with their AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. He signed with the Phoenix Coyotes as a free agent before the 2009-10 season and played with them for two seasons. His last NHL season was the 2011-12 season and he has played in the KHL since then.
Andrew Gordon: Gordon came up to the Caps for 12 games total in the 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11 seasons before signing with the Anaheim Ducks as a free agent. He bounced between the NHL and the AHL until 2014-15 when he left North America to play in the Swedish Hockey League. He was an integral part of the Hershey Bears’ championships of 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Sasha Pokuluk: Pokuluk dealt with concussions and never made it to the NHL.
Joe Finley: Finley dealt with some serious injuries and did not play any games for the Caps. He played a handful of NHL games during his career.
Nicklas Backstrom: Backstrom began his career with the Caps during the 2007-08 season and is currently one of the top two centers with the Caps. After playing a variety of roles in his early days with the Caps, head coach Bruce Boudreau eventually installed him as first-line center, a role he has served for the Caps ever since. As of this writing, he has scored 211 goals and has 598 assists. Backstrom keeps accumulating career milestones.
Semyon Varlamov: Varlamov played in his first game with the Caps in the month of December during the 2008-09 season. The story of his call-up from the Hershey Bears was a memorable story in itself, as the Bears were in the midst of a road trip deep in the heart of Texas when the Caps needed his services. He played in six games for the Caps during the 2008-09 season and, most famously, played in goal for most of the playoffs for the Caps after regular goalie, Jose Theodore, had a bad game in the playoff opener. He remained with the Caps through the 2010-11 season until he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for draft picks. During his tenure with the Caps, he had injury issues, primarily to the groin, which limited his playing time. Due to his injury issues, Michal Neuvirth was the team’s primary goalie during the 2010-11 season and played in all the playoff games, too.
Michal Neuvirth: Neuvirth played in his first game with the Caps in the month of February during the 2008-09 season. Most famously, he was in goal when the Cap’s AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, won Calder Cups during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. He spent the entire 2010-11 season with the Caps and was their goalie in both rounds of the playoffs that season. He remained with the Caps until the 2013-14 season when he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline. Similar to Varlamov, his tenure with the Caps was marked by injury issues which led to Braden Holtby taking over the Caps’ #1 goaltending job for the remainder of the 2011-12 season and the playoffs.
By Diane Doyle