Reporting David Elfin
There’s not as much excitement at Kettler IcePlex about this year’s NHL draft as there was last year when Washington had two picks in the top 16. After all, barring a trade, 22 players will be off the board before the Caps make their first selection on Sunday.
Drafting Alex Ovechkin with the first selection in 2004, Nicklas Backstrom fourth overall in 2006 and Karl Alzner at No. 5 in 2007 didn’t take much astuteness. Scouting is more critical the deeper a team gets into a draft.
This is the fourth time in six years that Caps general manager George McPhee will be choosing in the bottom third of the first round. Anton (son of longtime Cap Bengt) Gustafsson, the 21st selection in 2008, never played in an NHL game, but fellow Swedish center Marcus Johansson, the 24th pick in 2009, is now a regular on Washington’s second line. And the Caps hope that Russian center Evgeny Kuznetsov will arrive in Washington after this coming February’s Winter Olympics.
One failure, one reasonable success and one unknown isn’t a superb track record, but McPhee did draft All-Star defenseman Mike Green 29th in 2004 – two picks after former regular Jeff Schultz – and selected blue line mainstay John Carlson 27th in 2008. Semyon Varlamov, Washington’s No. 1 goalie in 2010, was the 23rd selection in 2006, but defenseman Joe Finley, the 27th choice in 2005, never skated a shift for the Caps.
“We’d like to think we’ve drafted really well over the years, but you’re not going to hit on every pick,” McPhee said. “We drafted Johansson [24th] and one year later he’s in our lineup. That doesn’t happen very often. That’s what you’re trying to find.”
McPhee found trades that he wanted to make at the past two drafts, acquiring right wing Troy Brouwer from Chicago for a first-round choice in 2011 – “a heck of a move for us,” McPhee said — and center Mike Ribeiro from Dallas for minor-league forward Cody Eakin and a second-rounder in 2012. The GM certainly didn’t rule out the possibility of a deal getting done for a third straight year.
“We’re not really married to any [draft] position,” explained McPhee, who wants to accommodate Schultz’s trade request but was evasive about his plans for Ribeiro and fellow free agent-to-be forward Matt Hendricks. “[It’s about] how far you want to move up and what it’s going to take to do it, but I’m open to it. You’d think there’d be more [trade] activity than most years [in the wake of the new collective bargaining agreement that went into effect in January after a four-month lockout]. People are more open [to making trades] because you only have so much [salary cap] flexibility.”
That’s especially true with the cap having been reduced $6 million from last season, a fact that figures to make retaining assists ace Ribeiro tough.
Of those two players that the Caps selected among the top 16 last June, Swedish center Filip Forsberg went to Nashville in the trade deadline deal that brought left wing Martin Erat and gritty prospect Michael Latta to Washington. Last year’s other first-rounder, 19-year-old right wing Tom Wilson, played in three of the seven games of the Caps’ loss to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, becoming the first Washington draft pick to reach the NHL during the year he was drafted since defenseman Steve Eminger a decade earlier. Wilson was also the 14th Caps draft pick to skate for Washington last season joining Alzner, Backstrom, Carlson, Green, Johansson, Ovechkin, Schultz, goalies Philipp Grubauer, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, wingers Eric Fehr and Mathieu Perreault and defenseman Dmitry Orlov.
If the Caps don’t deal Ribeiro or Hendricks or make another trade at the draft, don’t look for them to be as active as they were the past two summers.
Washington signed Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik, Tomas Vokoun and Joel Ward during the first two days after the market opened in 2011 and added lesser free agents Joey Crabb, Jack Hillen and Wojtek Wolski last July, but McPhee forecast fewer fireworks in the wake of Washington’s rally from a slow start to the Southeast Division title under rookie coach Adam Oates last season.
“I don’t expect to be real active in free agency,” McPhee declared. “I like our team. We made a lot of our moves during the season [acquiring Erat and left wing Aaron Volpatti, promoting defenseman Steve Oleksy, and signing Fehr, Hillen, Holtby, Neuvirth, Volpatti and defenseman John Erskine to contract extensions] so we wouldn’t have to go out and sign free agents.”
In other words, once the Ribeiro and Hendricks situations are resolved, it figures to be a very slow summer on the Caps’ front.
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin