There was a time when Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were not the experienced, well-rounded leaders that led the Capitals to the team’s first championship this past spring, but young players with a thirst for the Stanley Cup and part of a core group of players that was dubbed the “Young Guns” era by pundits and fans alike, with a core group of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green. Those days are long gone, but another franchise has what could be described as the next version of the Caps’ Young Guns era.
In many ways, the current edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs draws parallels to the Capitals’ “Young Gun” era. Both teams are offensive powerhouses, with at least three offensive stars, that are also perceived to be weak defensively. In other ways, the Leafs are also showing the “road not taken” on some of the important personnel decisions.
There are many parallels among the players and the roles they play. Here is a more detailed examination of Leafs’ players and their equivalent from the Caps from nearly a decade ago.
Current Maple Leaf Player Young Gun Era Caps Player
Auston Matthews Alex Ovechkin
William Nylander Alexander Semin
Mitch Marner Nicklas Backstrom
Morgan Rielly Mike Green
Connor Brown Brooks Laich
Kasperi Kapanen Tomas Fleischmann
Auston Matthews vs Alex Ovechkin – Both are franchise players and were consensus first overall picks in their draft year, with Ovechkin the first pick of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft and Matthews the first pick of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Interestingly and coincidentally enough, they both have September 17 birthdays and missed the age cutoff for the previous year’s draft
William Nylander vs Alexander Semin – Both are considered as the “red-headed stepchildren” among the team’s three young stars, relatively speaking. Nylander is considered to be behind Matthews and Marner among Toronto’s stars. Semin was behind Ovechkin and Backstrom in the “Young Guns” era. Being slightly older than the other team’s stars contributed to the perception. Both have had contract issues, which upset fans of both teams and caused their luster to dim somewhat. Nylander was involved in a lengthy contract holdout who didn’t sign with the Leafs until November 30, missing the first two months of the season as a result. Semin did not immediately return to the NHL when the lockout of 2004-05 was over, but remained in Russia an additional year to complete his military obligation. Playing hockey professionally in Russia counts as military service, dating back to the days of the Soviet Union. Both team’s fans had suggested using them as trade bait to use in order to acquire a good defenseman. Granted, Semin took a different approach to contracts than Nylander did. Semin signed a two-year, bridge deal extension in the final season of his original contract and continued to sign one-year contracts until leaving the team in 2012, unlike Nylander, who signed a long-term deal after his protracted holdout.
Mitch Marner vs Nicklas Backstrom – Both are considered to be complementary stars to the teams’ number 1 star, both on and off the ice. Marner is a winger who complements Matthews, the center. Backstrom is the center who dishes passes to Ovechkin, the elite winger. Marner and Matthews are friends off the ice as well, as are Backstrom and Ovechkin.
Caveat: some observers have reversed the perceived comparisons of Marner and Nylander, with Nylander being comparable to Backstrom and Marner to Semin. Nylander is Swedish, as is Backstrom, and at one point, Backstrom lived with William Nylander’s family. Prior to this season, Nylander and Matthews were on the same line and their skills have complemented each other well. Both Marner and Nylander have had periods of being relegated to a lower line than their skills warranted, due to perceived deficiencies in defense.
Morgan Rielly vs Mike Green – Both are defensemen who have relatively high offensive production. Rielly already has 13 goals and 31 assists in less than a full season, while Green was known for his offensive productivity, which included years in which he scored 18 goals, 31 goals, and 19 goals. This year, Rielly is second on the Leafs in overall points.
Connor Brown vs. Brooks Laich – Both are forwards who were sixth-round picks and were considered grinders, with both scoring more than 20 goals in a season. That said, Brown has topped 20 goals just once in his young career and is currently struggling in 2018-19.
Kasperi Kapanen vs. Tomas Fleischmann – Both Kapanen and Fleischmann are European forwards who were early draft picks acquired during their respective team’s rebuild. Fleischmann was a second-round pick acquired in exchange for center Robert Lang (who was the league leader in goals at the time of the trade), while Kapanen was a late first-round pick acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins involving Phil Kessel. Both are perceived to be skilled forwards, that rank/ranked behind the team’s top three stars in the team’ pecking order.
Differences in Decisions
While there are some similarities in players and roles, the Leafs have made different decisions in other respects than the Young Gun Caps did. Differences include: 1) Head Coaching hires; 2) Player acquisitions
Head Coaching Hires: When the Caps started the 2003-04 season poorly, they replaced then-Head Coach Bruce Cassidy with Glen Hanlon, who had no NHL Head Coaching experience prior to his hiring; Hanlon had experience as an assistant coach with both the Capitals and the Vancouver Canucks and had been head coach of what was then the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Portland Pirates. When Hanlon himself got fired during the 2007-08 season, he was replaced with Bruce Boudreau, the Head Coach of the Caps’ current AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, with no previous NHL Head Coaching experience. The Caps were fortunate in that Boudreau proved to be an excellent coach, at least during the regular season, although he was unable to get them past the second round of the playoffs.
In contrast, the Maple Leafs took a different approach to hiring head coaches than the Caps did. The Maple Leafs hired Mike Babcock, a head coach with proven success, who led the Detroit Red Wings to a Stanley Cup Championship in 2008 and a Stanley Cup Final appearance the following spring, and whose 2002-03 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (now the Anaheim Ducks) made a trip to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final.
Player Acquisitions: The Leafs acquired their young stars – Nylander, Marner, and Matthews – as first-round picks in three consecutive years, acquiring Nylander in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Marner in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, and Matthews as the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. It took the Caps a longer time to acquire their three young stars – Semin, Ovechkin, and Backstrom – drafting Semin in 2002, Ovechkin in 2004, and Backstrom in 2006. The Caps drafted other players in the 2002 and 2004 drafts and a single player from their 2003 draft who would become key components of the Young Guns era. The 2005 draft, however, was a total bust for the Caps.
When the Caps decided to rebuild, they traded nearly all of their productive forwards at the time (Peter Bondra, Robert Lang, Jaromir Jagr, and Michael Nylander) and two of their top defensemen (Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt). This meant they had a leadership void with the young players they had drafted and acquired in trades. To bridge the leadership gap, they signed veterans Viktor Kozlov in free agency, traded for former Stanley Cup champion Sergei Fedorov, and later traded for veteran forward Mike Knuble. Additionally, they signed Michael Nylander, a veteran center, to play as the team’s top center, in addition to mentoring Backstrom.
The Leafs, in comparison, also traded most of their core, which included former captain Dion Phaneuf and productive winger Kessel. With much of their veteran core and leadership gone, the team signed longtime San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau before the 2017-18 season to provide leadership to the young core, and prior to the 2018-19 season, they signed marquee star John Tavares, to add not only a veteran presence, but provide a complimentary piece to the team’s offensive core.
The Caps started their rebuild during the 2003-04 season and did not return to the playoffs until 2008. They continued to build through the lockout of 2004-05 and the following two seasons before becoming a perennial contender. After being a poor team for many years, the Leafs hired Lou Lamoriello, the longtime General Manager of the New Jersey Devils, and fired General Manager Dave Nonis and interim Head Coach, Peter Horacek, at the end of the 2014-15 season. At the same time, they hired Mike Babcock to be Head Coach. They traded Kessel at the beginning of the 2015-16 season and traded Phaneuf during the season. Toronto finished with the worst record in the NHL and won the draft lottery and the right to draft Matthews. With numerous rookies on their roster in 2016-17, including Matthews, Marner, and Nylander, the Leafs ended up making the playoffs that season, albeit as second wild card. They finished more solidly in the playoff picture in 2018 and are well on their way to making the playoffs for 2019.
The Leafs returned to contention just one year after their rebuild, given that their first-round picks for 2014 through 2016 yielded star players and that they hired a pedigreed Head Coach in Babcock. It was a much faster rise than for the Caps, whose rebuild process included one draft year, 2005, in which no player drafted advanced to the NHL and had hired inexperienced Head Coaches. Like the Young Gun Era Caps, the Leafs are perceived to be relatively weak on defense. The Leafs have one challenge that the Young Gun Era Caps did not have to deal with in that there is one other really strong team in their division, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2017-18 and are well on their way to repeating that accomplishment for 2018-19. The Caps dominated the now-defunct Southeast Division during a period in which there was no other strong, contending team in the division and were, thus, able to finish in first place in the Division for four consecutive seasons. During one of those years, the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy and had the best record in the Conference.
During the Caps’ Young Gun era, the Caps had trouble filling the role of second-line Center. While Nicklas Backstrom was able to grow into the role of the team’s first-line center during his rookie year, the team was shallow in center depth after him on the depth chart. Nylander, acquired in free agency before the 2007-08 season, sustained an injury that year and needed rotator cuff surgery and was out for the season. He returned the following year but was not as effective. Fedorov was acquired in a trade at the 2008 trade deadline and filled the role of second-line center for the remainder of that season and for the following year, but was nearly 40-years old and returned to Russia after the 2008-09 season. The Caps signed veteran Brendan Morrison in the summer of 2009, but he was no longer up to the task. They also tried Fleischmann, normally a winger, as center, for the latter part of the 2009-10 season. In contrast, the Maple Leafs signed Tavares, a proven center, who turned 28 in September.
In summary, while the current Leafs greatly parallel the Capitals of the Young Gun era, they were able to build a good team faster than the Caps did since they were able to avoid the Caps’ worst mistakes, with regards to hiring a more experienced head coach from the outset, more adequately filling the role of second-line center, and avoiding a failed draft year.
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By Diane Doyle