Saturday, August 01, 2009

It's An Ovie-ful Life: Part II

In Part I of this fantasy (ok, nightmare), we took a look at what happened as a result of two rounds of ping-pong ball sessions, the Caps missing out on the top pick in 2004 and the chance to pick Alex Ovechkin, and missing out on the 2005 pick and with it, Sidney Crosby. The Caps, in our tale, end up selecting Cam Barker and Gilbert Brule with their top draft picks in 2004 and 2005. It is there where we pick up the story…

The first year out of the lockout is a chance for hockey to reintroduce itself to fans with a lot of pent up emotion over what transpired over the past 12 months and a lot of pent up desire to see live NHL hockey once more. New rules and exciting new players in Alex Ovechkin (in Pittsburgh?) and Sidney Crosby (with the Rangers?) lend an air of anticipation to the opening of the season.

But not in Washington.

The Caps open their season against the Columbus Blue Jackets with a roster that has the possibility of being historically bad. First round draft picks of the past two years – Cam Barker and Gilbert Brule – are still toiling for their junior clubs. Meanwhile, the Caps are icing a top line on opening night of Dainius Zubrus, Andrew Cassels, and Jeff Friesen, a trio that combined had a total of 36 goals in the season before the lockout. Not that anyone cared – the Verizon Center stands were barely half-full for an opening night. The Columbus Blue Jackets – a team coming off a 62-point season in the season before the lockout – would shut out the Caps on their own ice to open the season.

Amazingly, it would get worse from there. The Caps would struggle mightily to score goals and would give them up in bushels. And, they would say “good-bye” to an icon. Olaf Kolzig, who in the real world of things would re-sign with the Capitals on February 11, 2006, was instead traded to the Colorado Avalanche (the careful reader will note that Colorado did trade for a goaltender late in the 2005-2006 season: Jose Theodore). The Capitals, with a prospect pool of goalies that included Daren Machesney and Maxime Daigneualt (Maxime Ouellet having been traded late in 2005 to Vancouver), the Caps took 23-year old rookie goaltender Peter Budaj in return. It would not be the only trade the Caps would make as they tried to position themselves for draft picks and prospects. Jeff Halpern and Dainius Zubrus were sent off for mid-round draft picks.

The Caps limped home with a 21-49-12 record, worst in the league and their worst season since 1977-1978. In their last home game – Fan Appreciation Day against the Atlanta Thrashers – the “official” attendance was 14,000. Perhaps two-thirds of that number made it to the rink. It was, to say the least, a dismal season, one made worse in the knowledge that Alex Ovechkin would lead the Penguins to two romps in a Penguin-fan dominated Verizon Center (the only sellouts of the season) and score four goals in one of the games. And meanwhile, in New York, Sidney Crosby was finishing third in scoring, winning the Calder Trophy, and leading the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Final before falling to the Ottawa Senators.

If there was a silver lining in this thunder cloud, it was that the Capitals won the lottery and with it the rights to pick first in the 2006 entry draft. The 2006 draft class had a group of five skaters that stood above the rest of the class. Erik Johnson (generally thought to be at the head of the 2006 class), Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel, Jordan Staal, and Nicklas Backstrom comprised the group. The Capitals flirted with the idea of selecting Staal, the brother of Carolina’s Eric, but selected Johnson.

In free agency, the Capitals had to be a player to be able to reach the salary floor for the 2006-2007 season. The trouble was that the 2006 free agent class was generally a comparatively weak one. The Capitals signed Jason Arnott from Dallas to a five-year, $25 million contract, outbidding the Nashville Predators in the process, in addition to a few minor signings.

The 2006-2007 season was not so much about Arnott and his big contract, but the players the Caps were developing – Cam Barker, Gilbert Brule, and Erik Johnson being the important elements. Barker would split time roughly equally between Washington and the Hershey Bears. Brule would the entire year in Washington, but would struggle to make a positive impression, finishing the year with less than 20 points. Johnson would spend his year at the University of Minnesota, where the Gophers would make it all the way to the NCAA Western Regional before falling to North Dakota.

Johnson had a much better year than the Caps had, although the Caps did improve on the previous season. With a 25-47-10 record and 60 points, they would tie the Flyers for last in the league. Where the Caps would again struggle was at the gate. They would finish 29th in the league in attendance, but even this was deceptive. On most nights Verizon Center was barely half full, if that, and often those crowds were predominantly followers of the visiting teams. Despite the “cost certainty” of the collective bargaining agreement and circuit breakers to keep small market and struggling teams afloat, red ink was gushing across the Caps’ balance sheets as if coming out of a fire hose.

There were youngsters coming through the system, and the temptation was to bring them along faster than a more successful team might have. The question was coming into focus – could the Caps afford to be patient? Without a stable gate, with a singular lack of success on the ice, without a marquee presence, the team and the league were growing concerned over the prospects for hockey in Washington in the long term. That is where we will pick it up in Part III.