Theme: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
-- George Eliot
The first round of the 2004 entry draft had its share of players who have had an impact or who have had productive starts to their careers. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Andrew Ladd, Travis Zajac. And that is from the first 20 picks.
That brings us to the 21st pick in that draft – Wojtek Wolski. The Brampton Battalion forward was taken by the Colorado Avalanche on the heels of two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League in which he posted 54 goals and 127 points in 130 games. And being a first round pick did not diminish his production, which improved to 29-44-73 in 67 games with Brampton in 2004-2005 and 47-81-128 in 56 games with the Battalion in 2005-2006. He earned a cup of coffee with the Avalanche in 2005-2006 in which he went 2-4-6 in nine games.
It was all preparation for a rookie season in 2006-2007 in which Wolski finished fourth among rookies in points, fifth in goals, fifth in assists, tied for fifth in power play goals, and tied for 11th in game-winning goals. It was not quite good enough to win nomination as a finalist for the Calder Trophy to be awarded to the league’s top rookie, perhaps because he did not have the best rookie numbers on his own team. Paul Stastny ranked higher in each of those statistical categories and captured one of the nominations as a Calder finalist (Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin won the award).
It was the beginning of a “not quite good enough” phase of Wolski’s career. He put up decent numbers with the Avalanche over the next two seasons, recording 32 goals and 90 points in 155 games. But ranking fourth in points in 2007-2008 and third in 2008-2009 might not have seemed like enough improvement, especially for a player who was getting a reputation for a lack of physical play and low power play production (6-10-16 in those 145 games). In 2009-2010 Wolski picked up the pace of his overall production – 17-30-47 in 62 games, a pace that put him on track for career highs in goals and points. But his power play production did not improve (2-7-9), and Colorado seemed to be tiring of waiting for him to improve. He was traded to Phoenix at the 2010 trading deadline for forwards Peter Mueller and 2008 Hobey Baker Award winner Kevin Porter.
The 2009-2010 season marked the first of three seasons in which Wolski would finish a season with a team different from the one with which he started. In 2010-2011 Wolski played 36 games with the Coyotes, but was dealt to the New York Rangers for Michal Roszival at mid-season. Wolski did not impress in New York, putting up middling numbers (6-13-19 in 37 games to close the 2010-2011 season, then no goals in six games to open the 2011-2012 season followed by a substantial number of games missed to healthy scratches and a groin injury). He was traded to Florida in February for Michael Vernace and a 2013 third round draft pick. After 22 regular season games in Florida in which he recorded a scoring line of 4-5-9 in 22 games and a total of 21 minutes of playoff action without a point, he was a free agent. On July 11th that free agent became a Washington Capital, hoping to fulfill the promise of a former first round pick.
Despite all the moving around, Wolski has averaged 18 goals per 82 games over his career. Even if you look at his post-Colorado career he is averaging 15 goals per 82 games. And as to the matter of his iffy power play production (18 power play goals in 424 career games), he played with some teams that seemed to have bigger problems on the power play than Wolski. After his rookie season he played on only one team that finished in the top-half of the power play rankings, that when he started the 2009-2010 season for a Colorado team that finished 15th (Florida finished last season seventh, but Wolski was only seventh among forwards in average power play ice time over his 22 games played with the Panthers). It also might interest you to know that Wolski has more goals scored (95 in 424 games) than 2004 draft classmates Travis Zajac (91/423), Blake Wheeler (74/324), or Lauri Korpikoski (47/300), all drafted ahead of him.
Sounds like that 2004 class might not be so great there, cuz. I mean, Alexandre Picard, Lauri Tukonen, and Kyle Chipchura were drafted ahead of Wolski, too, and that trio of forwards has a combined 13 goals among them (all by Chipchura) in 288 NHL games. Here is your fun fact for Wolski. In 424 career games he has a total of 266 hits recorded. Troy Brouwer had 247 in 82 games last season for the Caps. And here’s another one…based on last season, sit him on Thursdays (1-0-1, minus-5 in eight games) and put him on the top line on Saturdays (2-3-5, plus-3 in six games). Okay…small sample size.
The Big Question… Is Wojtek Wolski a contender or a pretender to be a top-six winger with the Caps?
Let’s face it. If you are paying a former first round draft choice $600,000 on a one-year deal, you’re hoping for, not expecting big things. This what is called a low-risk signing. But if Wolski can score goals at something approaching his career pace per 82 games (18) and perhaps chip in a couple of extra goals with some power play time under the tutelage of Adam Oates, that just about replaces Alexander Semin’s production last season (21 goals) at less than a tenth of the cost. And if he doesn’t, well, you still have the $6.1 million you’re not paying Semin this season (net of the $6.7 million cap hit last year) to do other things. What is unnerving about Wolski is the idea that he has been traded as many times as he has in so few seasons and that he has gone from a team’s “topline to its fourth line to a healthy scratch to a salary dump.” This is not the sort of career arc that one should feel comfortable thinking is that of a potential top-six forward.
In the end…
Wolski can speak for himself… "I still have a lot of life left in me. I'm at a point in my career where I'm at a crossroads, and I've got to make it work." He should get an opportunity in Washington, where dependable scoring wingers are at a premium after Alex Ovechkin. But of those wingers not named “Ovechkin,” Wolski might bring the most uncertainty. He could be a 20-goal scorer for this team as a second line left wing who gets some time on the second power play unit. He also could be a fourth liner who gets ten minutes a night, scores half a dozen goals, and finds himself in the press box when the games matter most. That, dear reader, is a decent working description of “crossroads.” It is an opportunity to be what he could have been as a first round draft pick.
Projection: 63 games, 12-15-27, minus-2