A Closer Look At The Resurgence Of The (Mysterious) Washington Capitals Scouting Department

Photo: Hockey Skills Training

NHL scouts are possibly the least understood department to the outside hockey world. They move in the cover of darkness, only to briefly emerge at a remote amateur rink for a game on the outskirts of a prairie town in Saskatchewan. As soon as the game concludes, their invisibility cloak is immediately reinstated.

I kid (somewhat) but the work that professional scouts do is extremely vital and directly linked to the success (or lack of success) of any team. (Part of the reason they are in the witness protection program). How good they are at their jobs could be the difference between a Stanley Cup winner and “better luck next year”.

RECENT STRUGGLES IN THE DISTRICT?

The Washington Capitals have done fairly well in recent decades with amateur scouting and drafting of their youngest players. However, there was a recent blip on the radar that led some to doubt the prowess within Caps Nation.

Whether there was an actual downturn or whiff in consecutive drafts is part of the focus of this post. However, it must be noted that the assessment involves dynamic (moving) parts, which makes it a challenge to identify trends. The best approach is to first get a big picture sense of how things have transpired over the past five-to seven years. Let’s take a quick look.

2016 and 2017 NHL Entry Drafts – Missed Opportunities

The Capitals had two very underwhelming drafts in 2016 and 2017, although the 2017 draft was void of selections in the first three rounds. Regardless, a two-year stoppage in feeding the prospect pipeline is going to be felt by any organization.

It’s possible none of the selections will ever see consistent playing time in the NHL. There is fading hope for Lucas Johansen, but possibly more hope for Axel Jonsson-Fjallby finding a stable home at the NHL level.

RE-EMERGENCE AND RESURGENCE

It’s always difficult to identify and specify where distinct changes in trends occur, and assessing NHL draft picks amplifies that difficulty. It’s a moving target, as players have good and bad seasons. But again, the goal of this task was to get a big picture sense of how the Capitals scouting has done over the past five -to-seven drafts.

2018 NHL Entry Draft – Tables Turning?

With the exception of Martin Fehervary, the 2018 NHL Entry Draft could also be considered a semi-bust. However, Alex Alexeyev and Mitchell Gibson still have time to turn into something, and there’s a decent chance they both see consistent time in the NHL. Thus, the final assessment of this draft class is still TBD. The remainder of the picks have been full misses to this point.

I think we can agree the 2018 draft wasn’t as poor as the 2016 and 2017 drafts, So we might be seeing tables begin to turn here.

2019 NHL Entry Draft – Improving

Beginning in 2018 we start to see a discernible improvement in the selections made. Again, some of this could be considered conjecture or a matter of personal opinion, but I think it’s clear we see additional quality in the 2019 draft.

It needs to be pointed out that with the exception of Connor McMichael, a bulk of the NHL games for each of the draft selections (above) was based out of necessity due to Capitals injuries during the 2021-22 season. There is still much to prove here.

2020 NHL Entry Draft  – Solid

One could also argue the Capitals had a pretty solid draft in 2020, but in all reality, it’s just too soon to make any hard judgements.

The following table is provided for reference more than anything else, so that you can get a sense of where things might be heading.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding each and every draft pick. I myself have to continuously remind myself to take off the rose-colored glasses. Having said that, I genuinely feel the Capitals have shown a recent uptick in their quality of draft selections, but time will ultimately tell.

So, what led to the possible resurgence? It’s likely the result of several changes made by the team in recent years.

IN BROOKS WE TRUST

Danny Brooks first came to the Capitals in the 2016-17 season as an amateur and European scout, but also had his hands in the collegiate ranks. Players we know he had involvement in selecting or signing include Martin Fehervary, Joe Snively, Bobby Nardella and Clay Stevenson, just to name a few.

[Capitals Scout Danny Brooks meets with HV71’s Linus Sandin following a game on 12/17/19 in Sweden]

It should be noted that players like Snively and Stevenson had multiple free agent offers but decided on Washington. Reading between the lines (and we have to), Brooks has proven he can find the talent, and talk the highly recruited into coming to the District.

Brooks has rapidly made a name for himself and as a result, quickly climbed atop the Capitals scouting ladder. This season he was named Director of Player Recruitment. (of course there was no official announcement for fear of blowing his cover. I had to compare past scouting directories to discover any promotions, hirings or firings).

Regardless, having followed Brooks’ work for the past five or so seasons, I can honestly say the Capitals have a keeper and my gut says he’s a big part of the Capitals recent draft selection success.

WHERE WE SIT TODAY

The following scouting department roster is from the Capitals 2021-22 season, and does not include any potential off-season changes that may have been made (that we wouldn’t hear about until the new media guide is published).

SCOUT ROLE STARTED
Danny Brooks Director of Player Recruitment 2016
Steve Bowman Head Amateur Scout 1997
Jason Fitzsimmons Pro Scout/Minor League Operations 2007
Darrell Baumgartner Amateur Scout 2009
Matt Bradley Pro Scout 2015
Alan Haworth Scout 2009
Phil Horner Scout 2010
Peter Ihnacak Scout 2016
Matti Lamberg Scout 2020
Evan Marble Scout 2021
Martin Pouliot Scout 2006
Karl Stewart Scout 2019
Brian Sutherby Scout 2015
A.J. Toews Scout 2009
Mats Weiderstal Scout 2008
Rich Alger Scout 2019
Jeremy Browning Scout 2020
Ali Laaouan Scout 2021

Note: While this post primarily focuses on scouting for drafting, it should be reiterated that there are various scouting positions contained within the Capitals scouting department. This includes pro scouting, which is primarily responsible for trade assessments and veteran player acquisition.

CHANGES OVER PAST FIVE SEASONS

The key to any successful organization is it’s ability to adapt, identify true weaknesses and develop strategies for addressing those weaknesses. Reviewing the recent changes can also shed light on possible issues in the past.

The Capitals’ most recent significant re-working of the scouting staff was made in the summer of 2019, part out of necessity as several draft picks fell far short of their projected marks. Ed McColgan retired and the team parted ways with Terry Richardson (WHL). They also hired Karl Stewart.

The Capitals hired Matti Lamberg in 2020. Lamberg hails from Finland, a rising power house in the hockey world. The Capitals had to have someone on the daily beat in Finland, so this was a good hire.

Ali Laaouan and Evan Marble were hired in 2021, with both scouts located in Canada. Laaouan has spent his entire career scouting the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). It’s assumed Laaouan will continue doing what he does, scouting the QMJHL.

Marble was a scout in the Western Hockey League before being hired to be a pro scout by the Florida Panthers for two years, starting in 2018. It’s assumed his focus will be back in the WHL.

EPILOGUE

I’ve been researching the Capitals scouting department for a number of seasons now, all with the intention of shedding a little more light on this key (but less understood) component to the Capitals organization. It’s been a challenge to say they least.

As a credentialed member of the Capitals media, I submitted a formal request to interview a Capitals scout back early in February, but was told “Per team policy, we don’t make scouts or anyone within our analytics department available for interviews.” That probably makes sense, as you don’t want your scouts potentially revealing anything proprietary.

Scouting departments can be a challenging thing to understand, but I think it’s clear the Capitals have made improvements to the scouting department, and the draft selections are starting to reflect that.

By Jon Sorensen

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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12 Responses to A Closer Look At The Resurgence Of The (Mysterious) Washington Capitals Scouting Department

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this synopsis. I agree that they hit a low spot a few years back, and that the last few drafts have had a better feel to them.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think they basically whiffed on a few picks out west (WHL).

  3. Anonymous says:

    Danny Brooks for president.

  4. GR+in+430 says:

    Jon:

    I don’t think 2016 is as bad as you are portraying it. I think the lack of playing time in the NHL for 3 of those picks has more to do with the Caps preferring to play older players, particularly in bottom-six positions. Malenstyn, Pilon and AJF have all played reasonably well in their brief opportunities at the NHL level — they did not seem overwhelmed or out of place to me. If Johansen and AJF — or even Malenstyn — win roster spots this year, that draft will have contributed about as many NHL assets as most drafts — just a few years later and without the star quality that a lot of folks want, but that rarely happens when you pick late in rounds.

    Regarding 2017, it goes back to that old lottery commercial: You can’t win if you don’t play, and they really just opted out of that draft. It is hard to pin that directly on the scouts, though they surely had some input to management’s thinking. Note that only ~35 players from that draft have played at least the equivalent of a full NHL season in the bigs, and while there are some great players (Makar, for one), the pool was shallow enough that there are only a couple of really good players (Robertson in Dallas being one) who would have been available when the Caps would have picked at #27. So you can argue that the Caps are too quick to trade picks for rentals, but given the crapshoot nature of NHL drafting late in rounds, it’s hard to say that the scouts blew it in 2017.

    OTOH, I do agree with you that they have had better drafts (luck?) recently, so here’s hoping those kids at least get a chance to show they can play before being traded at the deadline for a 33-year-old, never-really-was-that-great, 3rd-pair defenseman…

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Fair points, GR. I would counter that if they were good enough, they would be playing, like Fehervary. I don’t see any prospects making the roster this season other than McMichael, AJF and possibly Snively. There just isn’t any room, and that goes back to your point about experience over youth. MacLellan opted to go outside the organization to fill the needs on the roster. That’s not a good message if you are an edge prospect.

  5. novafyre says:

    Great article and dogged research, thanks.

  6. DWGie26 says:

    I think Caps went with names (Sutter and Clark) as conservative moves. the last couple of years they have been swinging a bit more and it looks like it will pay off with Lapierre and CMM. Book is still way out on Miro but i really liked this years draft. I think the recent drafting will make a rebuild smoother. Will probably have to fetch high end talent in FA though. Just a function of where they have drafted.

  7. Norm says:

    Are the Caps aiming less for size than a few years ago?

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