There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Well...you spend all day at the garage as your car is getting repaired, and you miss all the news. To wit, Anton Gustafsson (the Caps' first round draft pick in 2008) has had enough. Enough of hockey in North America, that is. The 21st overall pick decided that he is not enjoying the sport at this point in his career and has returned to Sweden. The Caps have suspended his contract.
It got us to thinking. The Caps have had some rather successful drafts this past decade. The 2004 draft is likely to be talked about as one of the best in franchise history with the selections of Alex Ovechkin, Jeff Schultz, and Mike Green in the first round. The 2002 draft yielded Alexander Semin and Boyd Gordon in the first round, and even Steve Eminger (the 12th overall pick) played in more than 200 games for the Caps before being traded for a draft pick that would become John Carlson, class of 2008. And speaking of that 2008 class (the one in which Gustafsson was picked), it also yielded goaltender Braden Holtby, who seems to have a career ahead of him that might be more than one would expect from a fourth round draft pick. The 2006 draft provided Nicklas Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov, and Michal Neuvirth, all of whom play critical roles in this year's edition of the Caps.
But like the little girl with the curl, when the Caps have been bad in the draft, they have been horrid this past decade, especially with respect to high round picks. And there seems to be a bit of a pattern to it. In 2001 the Caps selected Nathan Paetsch in the second round (58th overall) and Owen Fussey in the third round (90th overall). Paetsch never played a game for the Caps and in fact went back into the draft pool in 2003, where he was taken in the seventh round by Buffalo. Fussey played in four games for the Caps (all in the godforsaken 2003-2004 season) and has not played professionally since 2008, with Columbia in the ECHL.
The 2003 draft was the "We Coulda Had Getzlaf" draft that Caps fans are fond of recalling (not fondly). While Eric Fehr (1st round/18th overall) is in the process of fashioning himself a career as an efficient goal scorer, he is not in the class of Ryan Getzlaf, taken one spot later by Anaheim. But Fehr was the high point of that draft for the Caps. Steve Werner (3rd round/83rd overall) has yet to dress for an NHL game. He bounced back and forth between the ECHL and AHL before heading off to Europe this season with the Rosenheim Star Bulls. In fact, none of the other five players taken in that draft by the Caps have played in an NHL game.
2005 is the draft that time forgot. Or at least it is the draft that Caps fans want to forget. Defenseman Sasha Pokulok was taken with the 14th overall pick. Injuries derailed his career, but he was seen as a project (or a headscratcher, take your pick) from the time of his selection. Never having played an NHL game (or more than 44 games in any of his four AHL seasons), he is now playing with the DEG Metro Stars in Europe. Defenseman Joe Finley was taken with the 27th overall pick in 2005. After his being drafted, he skated for the University of North Dakota for four years. But injuries and a change in the game at the NHL level has put the brakes on his development. A 6'7, 250 pound defenseman might have been just the ticket for the NHL in, say, 2004. That game was more physical (read: clutch, grab, and abuse), while the current game is more oriented toward speed and skating. Whether Finley can adapt and thrive in this game is the unresolved question. At the moment this resolution is on hold as he skates for Hershey in the AHL. Of the rest of that class, only Tim Kennedy (6th round/181st overall) has played in the NHL, but he didn't do it for Washington. His 79 games of NHL experience came with the Buffalo Sabres. He is currently playing for the Hartford Wolf Pack in the AHL.
In 2007 the Caps selected Karl Alzner in the first round (fifth overall), a player of potential to be a top-four defenseman for years to come. After that? Well...Josh Godfrey was taken in the second round (34th overall) largely on the basis of a cannon of a shot from the point. The word that comes to mind immediately with respect to Godfrey's progress so far is "disappointing." He has not been able to stick with the Hershey Bears in either of his first two pro seasons. He is currently in South Carolina with the Stingrays, and it would be surprising if he was re-upped with the Caps when his current contract expires at the end of this season. Theo Ruth's biggest claim to fame thus far is as the answer to a trivia question, "who was traded by the Caps to obtain Sergei Fedorov?" The second rounder (46th overall pick) is just reaching the AHL this season after completing three years at Notre Dame. Phil DeSimone, taken in the third round by the Caps in 2007 (84th overall) is in his senior season at the University of New Hampshire.
So let's recap the highlights (or lowlights) of the top three rounds since 2001...
Even years: Alexander Semin, Boyd Gordon, Alex Ovechkin, Jeff Schultz, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, John Carlson
Odd years: Nathan Paetsch, Owen Fussey, Steve Werner, Sasha Pokulok, Joe Finley, Josh Godfrey, Theo Ruth
The Caps have had some rather spectacular failures in the first round. Pokulok was a too-clever pick that blew up in their face (perhaps made more memorable as part of the "Sidney Crosby" draft class). Gustafsson's selection is a disappointment in that it seems to be destined to be described as no more than a "legacy" pick (Gustafsson being the son of former Cap Bengt Gustafsson), and the Caps traded up to get it.
And this is where the history of that pick reveals itself to be frustrating. The Caps traded their own first and second round picks to New Jersey to move up two spots to pick Gustafsson in 2008. The Devils turned around and traded that first round pick to the Minnesota Wild for the 24th pick in that draft and a third rounder in 2009. Those picks turned out to be Mattias Tedenby and Alexander Urbom. Urbom played for the Devils against the Caps in the season opener this year, and Tedenby nearly made the Devils out of camp this season (he is skating with the Albany Devils in the AHL). The Caps at the moment have nothing to show for the 21st overall pick they traded to get.
The Caps deserve credit for finding some value in the mid-to-late first round of drafts over much of the last decade. But like the little girl with the curl, when they were good, they were very good indeed. But when they were bad they were horrid.