Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
In this post we will take a look at some of the more memorable drafts in which the Washington Capitals participated. This includes drafts that are remembered, due to events leading up to the draft, including potential drama and speculation, as well as the players that were selected.
The drafts featuring the most intrigue for the Capitals were the 2004 Draft (in which they held the first overall pick) and the 2006 Draft (in which they had the fourth overall pick). Two other drafts are remembered for players who unexpectedly fell to the Caps: the 2010 Draft and the 2012 draft. There were other drafts for the Caps that were memorable due to the players that were selected and their eventual accomplishments. However, this article will focus on the drafts of 2004, 2006, 2010, and 2012.
2004 NHL Entry Draft
The 2004 NHL Entry Draft, which was held at the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina on June 26-27, is probably the most memorable draft in Washington Capitals history. It was the first time the Capitals had the first overall pick since 1976 (which they used to select defenseman Rick Green). It was the last draft to take place before the NHL lockout cancelled the entire 2004-05 season.
The Capitals got off to a terrible start in the 2003-04 season and decided to trade most of their high-priced veterans for draft picks and prospects. Deals included Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander, and Sergei Gonchar. They ultimately finished with just one more standings point than the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had the worst record in the NHL overall. The Capitals were ranked third-to-last, finishing ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks based on tiebreakers. However, the team would win the draft lottery and draft first. The draft class included one of the best available prospects in recent years in Russian winger Alexander Ovechkin, who was considered to be the best prospect since Mario Lemieux.
Photo: Mitchell Layton | Credit: Getty Images
Until the actual pick was made, there was speculation about whether they would actually choose Ovechkin or trade the pick to acquire other assets in hopes of accelerating the rebuild.
Then-Capitals General Manager George McPhee fielded phone calls from at least 15 other teams, including three serious offers. Ultimately, the Caps selected Ovechkin. He wouldn’t play for the Capitals until the 2005-06 season thanks to the lockout, but he ultimately lived up to the hype and then some, and is currently ranking sixth on the All-Time list for Goals Scored and is just one goal behind Marcel Dionne, who is currently fifth.
Ovechkin has played in more games than any other player in Capitals history and has scored more goals and total points for the team and is second in assists.
With the possibility of the Caps’ drafting Ovechkin, one fan group, the Capitals Road Crew, organized a bus trip to Raleigh to watch the NHL draft. They posted a blog entry of the occasion and even filmed their own video of the proceedings.
In addition to drafting Ovechkin, the Caps drafted two other players in the first round, a pair of defensemen from Calgary, Alberta; Jeff Schultz with the 27th overall pick and Mike Green with the 29th overall pick. The latter developed into a productive offensive defenseman and scored 31 goals in 2008-09 and was dubbed as one of the team’s “Young Guns” along with Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom.
Capitals television play-by-play announcer, Joe Beninati, nicknamed him “Game Over Green” in honor of his propensity for scoring game-winning goals in the closing minutes of regulation or in overtime. Green came up with the Capitals during the 2005-06 season, established himself as a regular during the 2007-08 season, and remained with the team through the 2014-15 season when he left in free agency. Schultz was recalled during the 2006-07 season and played for the Capitals through the 2012-13 season.
The Capitals drafted 10 other players that year but none of them ever established a full-time NHL role with Washington or any other NHL team. The most notable of them were forwards Chris Bourque and Andrew Gordon, who starred for the Capitals’ American Hockey League franchise Hershey Bears, and Sami Lepisto, who played defense for the Bears.
2006 NHL Entry Draft
The 2006 NHL Entry Draft was held at General Motors Place in Vancouver, British Columbia, on June 24-25, 2006. In that draft, the Capitals held the fourth overall pick in the draft and were looking to draft a playmaking center to compliment the scoring skills of Ovechkin. They had several other needs they wished to fill, including a goalie to replace longtime goaltender Olaf Kolzig, as well as a defenseman to replace Brendan Witt, who was traded.
In the draft, NHL scouts perceived that the top available players were American-born defenseman Erik Johnson, and several centers. Thus, the Capitals could likely fill their need for a center. The St. Louis Blues, who had the first pick in the draft, planned to draft Johnson. The intriguing question was which center would be available for the Capitals at fourth overall.
NBC Sports produced a “Behind the Scenes” video of George McPhee at the draft. It appeared that among the available prospects, McPhee was most interested in Swedish center, Nicklas Backstrom. Throughout the hours prior to the draft, he would talk, both on the phone and in person, to general managers of the teams slated to pick immediately before and immediately after him, to gauge which players they were interested in.
By the morning of the draft, McPhee had learned that the Penguins, choosing second, were most interested in taking Jordan Staal, while the Blackhawks reported they were most interested in either Jonathan Toews or Phil Kessel. This meant that Backstrom would fall to the Capitals.
The Boston Bruins, slated to choose fifth, offered a trade to try to move up one slot. McPhee asked which player in which Boston was most interested in and Boston General Manager Harry Sinden replied, “The Swede”. McPhee did not agree immediately and said he would talk it over with the team. Ultimately, that trade did not take place. As expected, the Blues took Johnson, the Penguins chose Staal, and Chicago opted for Toews.
The summer of 2006 was unusual in that the NHL Entry Draft was being held in the same city where the NHL Award Ceremony had just taken place. Thus Ovechkin, who was nominated for and ultimately won the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year, was also in Vancouver.
The Capitals thought it would be fitting for Ovechkin to announce their first-round pick, given that their plan was to draft a center who would complement Ovechkin’s scoring skills. Ovechkin was somewhat scared to go up to the podium to announce the pick, however McPhee promised they would walk up to the podium together and that he would write down the name of the player and coached him on what to say. McPhee gave Ovechkin a jersey to wear when making the announcement.
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Ovechkin announced the selection of Nicklas Backstrom and handed him a Caps’ jersey to put on. In Backstrom, the Capitals found their elite center, even though he did not come over to the NHL until the 2007-08 season. Later, Backstrom described the mishaps he had encountered during his travel to Vancouver as the airlines lost his luggage, which left him with not enough clothes.
The choice of Backstrom proved to be an excellent pick. In 1,011 games with the team thus far, he has scored 258 goals and added 722 assists for 980 points overall, and holds the franchise record in assists.
The Capitals met other needs during their draft, as they chose Russian goaltender Semyon Varlamov with the 23rd overall pick, and then chose Czech Michal Neuvirth early in the second-round with the 34th overall selection. Their choices of goalies so close together could be described as drafting an “heir and a spare”.
Both made their NHL debut during the 2008-09 season and are remembered for their playoff performances in 2009 and 2010, with Varlamov taking over for goalie Jose Theodore for the Capitals in the playoffs in each of those postseasons, and Neuvirth being the primary playoff goalie, as the Hershey Bears won two consecutive Calder Cups.
A recent ranking of the draft picks chosen in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft had four Capitals draftees in their Top 30 players, including Backstrom, Varlamov, Neuvirth, and Mathieu Perreault, an undersized center they drafted in the sixth-round. That draft ultimately proved to be top-heavy, but ultimately a shallow draft in which the Caps did a fantastic job of assessing the available talent.
Washington Post: Holding Multiple Draft Picks Capitals May Do Some Dealing
NHL: Capitals Select Nicklas Backstrom Fourth Overall in 2006 Entry Draft
Washington Post: Capitals Draft Sweden’s Backstrom
NHL: A Look Back at the 2006 Entry Draft
UPI: NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver
“Oh, This Is Not Gonna End Well”: Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom Dishes On Losing Luggage Days Before The 2006 NHL Draft
2005-06: The NHL Season That Encouraged Tanking
NBC: NHL Redraft Front Loaded Class Behind Jonathan Toews
2010 NHL Entry Draft
The 2010 NHL Entry Draft took place at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. In the draft, the Capitals chose Russian center Evgeny Kuznetsov in the first-round with the 26th overall pick. At the time, Kuznetsov played for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL. This was a draft where the Capitals targeted Kuznetsov as a potential draftee and nearly traded a prospect in order to move up ten slots in the draft in order to get him. But, likely due to the “Russian factor” (the fact it was perceived to be harder to sign and convince Russians to come play in North America), he fell to the Capitals.
“We think he can play center,” McPhee said of Kuznetsov, who is listed at 6 feet and 172 pounds. “We think he’s a very, very dynamic player. He can skate, he thinks the game well, he moves the puck, he really attacks the net.”
“People are concerned about signing and drafting Russian players, but we just feel that what we’re doing with Ovechkin, that he’ll play in Washington. We can do some things that other teams are afraid to do.”
The Capitals had to wait longer than expected for Kuznetsov to actually join the team as he did not arrive in the NHL until March 2014, after his team in the KHL, Traktor Chelyabinsk, had completed their 2013-14 season.
Kuznetsov struggled during his first full season with the team (2014-15) as he adjusted to the NHL. However, by the end of that year, he was one of the team’s top centers and has been a fixture in the lineup since then, currently serving as the team’s top-line center. He was one of the most valuable players in the Stanley Cup Championship run of 2018. For his career so far, he has played in 520 games, scored 129 goals and has 289 assists.
Other Capitals’ draft picks that made it to the NHL were goalie Philipp Grubauer, who had been the Capitals backup goalie for several seasons, including the 2017-18 Stanley Cup-winning season, and forward Stanislav Galiev.
2012 NHL Entry Draft
The 2012 NHL Entry Draft took place at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In this draft, the Capitals had an additional first-round pick they acquired after trading Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche during the summer of 2011. That pick would turn into the 11th pick in addition to the pick they merited, based on their 2011-12 season finish, which was at 16th overall.
During the draft, the Edmonton Oilers picked Nail Yakupov, first overall, as expected. After the first three picks were off the board, the next seven teams all chose defensemen, so the top-ranked European skater, Filip Forsberg, was still available when it came time for the Capitals to pick with the 11th overall pick. Capitals fans were thrilled at how a player, expected to go much sooner, fell into their lap, as he was expected to be the best offensive player available, outside of consensus first pick in Yakupov.
As it turns out, Forsberg developed into the best player of that draft, since Yakupov did not live up to expectations, and Alex Galchenyuk, who was chosen third overall, struggled in recent years after a promising start.
However, Forsberg never played for the Capitals, as the team traded him at the 2013 trade deadline to the Nashville Predators for Martin Erat, who was on the downside of his career, and prospect Michael Latta. Erat played part of one season before requesting a trade while Latta played a handful of games for the team over three seasons before leaving as a free agent.
The Capitals’ other first-round (the team’s original pick), was 16th overall. They chose a rugged winger from the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) named Tom Wilson. After finishing his 2012-13 junior hockey season, he joined the Hershey Bears for three playoff games and then joined the Capitals for three more playoff games.
He played the 2013-14 season for the Capitals, but was playing fourth-line minutes and was cast in the role of enforcer. Because of NHL rules for Canadian junior players, he could not be sent to the AHL that year and instead had to play with the Capitals or be sent back to juniors.
By the 2015-16 season, his role involved more than just being an enforcer – he added penalty killing to his repertoire. In 2017-18, he finally moved to a first-line role and recorded career-highs in both goals and assists. Wilson scored more than 20 goals in both 2018-19 and 2019-20, despite missing time due to either suspensions or a shortened season thanks to Covid-19.
Wilson scored 13 goals in 47 games during the short 2020-21 season, which also featured a suspension. In his career, he has scored 91 goals and recorded 130 assists. His productivity has generally trended upward in recent years and he finally started producing at a level expected for a first-round pick, and though criticized heavily by many around the league, has become an integral part of the Capitals’ success.
By Diane Doyle
Further Reading on Capitals Draft History
Reviewing All Washington Capitals First Round Draft Picks And How They Turned Out
21st Century Capitals: Look at the Capitals Draft Picks Since 2000
Retrospective on the Last Decade of Draft Picks by the Washington Capitals