First-round draft choices in the NFL and NBA are expected to be instant starters, or, at worst, immediate contributors. And most fans have watched them play in college so Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and Wizards point guard John Wall didn’t burst onto the Washington sports scene sight unseen.
Major League Baseball player development is a slower process, but Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were all with the big club less than two years after being drafted in the first round by the Nationals.
The NHL draft is a whole different animal. Alex Ovechkin jumping directly from the top of the draft to the NHL (albeit after a lockout season in between) is an uncommon occurrence.
And only the most ardent hockey fans have heard of any of the players whom the Caps might select with the 11th and 16th overall picks in the draft that starts tonight and continues tomorrow.
What’s more, those players won’t be expected to skate in Washington any time soon. Not one of the nine players whom the Caps took in the 2010 and 2011 drafts has come close to making the roster since and likely won’t this season either. Only six of Washington’s 25 selections in the 2007-09 drafts – defensemen Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, forwards Cody Eakin and Marcus Johansson and goalie Braden Holtby – have yet to play for the big club.
Imagine how bad off the Redskins would be if only six of their last 34 draft picks had been good enough to play for them.
However, the Caps are far from atypical in NHL player development. Washington, Colorado and Nashville were the only teams that had three of their 2009 draft picks (Eakin, Johansson and Orlov) play in at least 30 games for them last season. Washington was the only team that had two rookies under 21 who were drafted below the first round in 2009 (Eakin and Orlov) meet that same 30-game criteria in 2011-12.
Fortunately for Caps fans, Washington remains a fairly deep and young team, especially with three of last season’s oldest players, goalie Tomas Vokoun and forwards Mike Knuble and Jeff Halpern, not returning. Of the 22 remaining veterans of the 2012 playoffs, only six have turned 30: forwards Keith AuCoin, Jason Chimera, Matt Hendricks and Joel Ward; and defensemen John Erskine and Roman Hamrlik, with the latter the only one over 33.
That makes the draft less than immediately critical for Caps general manager George McPhee, but he’s still excited about having his first top 15 selection since he chose Alzner fifth in 2007. And this is the first draft in which Washington has had a pair of top 20 selection since McPhee chose defenseman Steve Eminger 12th and forwards Alexander Semin 13th and Boyd Gordon 17th in 2002.
If McPhee does as well with the 11th choice as his predecessor, David Poile, did the only other time that Washington had that pick, Caps fans will be pleased. Defenseman Brendan Witt (1993) gave the franchise nine and a half solid seasons before being traded to Nashville in 2006. Two of the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings’ top scorers were also 11th overall selections, Jeff Carter in 2003 and Anze Kopitar in 2005. So was Jarome Iginla (1995), who’s third among active players in goals and fifth in points.
Defensemen usually comprise about a third of an NHL roster. Washington has used 18 of its 47 first-round picks (two of whom, Mike Gartner and Scott Stevens, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame) on blue-liners. But since this draft is deep in defensemen, expect McPhee to use at least one of those two first-rounders on a defenseman and the other on a forward. Washington has only picked two goalies in the first round: Olie Kolzig, the top netminder in franchise history, and Semyon Varlomov. And since Holtby is just 22 and Michal Neuvirth is only 24, the Caps should be pretty set at that position for years to come.
Just don’t expect to see the two players McPhee poses with tonight wearing a Caps jersey again for some time to come.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin