When the 11th pick of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft came around, the Washington Capitals were faced with a choice. Two highly skilled Europeans were on the board. Russian Mikhail Grigorenko, a big forward playing for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, was (because of his team affiliation) ranked third among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
Also on the board was Filip Forsberg of Sweden, a 6’2, 180, forward called by the NHL director of European Scouting, “a leader who shows by example…[comparable] to Corey Perry a little bit.”
However, both had their issues. With Grigorenko it was a disappointing playoff for Quebec in which the Remparts blew a 3-0 lead in games against the Halifax Mooseheads. Grigorenko finished the post season 3-7-10 in 11 games overall. It caused his stock to drop from being considered almost on a par with eventual first overall draft pick Nail Yakupov to dropping through the teens on some prognosticators’ amateur rankings.
For Forsberg it might have been level of competition. As a 17-year old he played in ten games for Leksands IF, then played the 2011-2012 season there. But Leksands was a member of HockeyAllsvenskan, the second tier league in Sweden below Elitserien. It did not, however, prevent him from being ranked as the top European forward in the NHL Central Scouting final rankings in 2012.
Both players had their plusses, and both had their question marks. When it came time for the Capitals to make a choice, whether they ever considered Grigorenko, they decided upon Forsberg. “Unanimous,” in fact.
But this is where things get a bit murky. In a sense, Forsberg fell into the Capitals’ lap. Washington was very deliberate when their number came up on the draft board, finally making the pick after some gentle prodding from the Commissioner.
Capitals General Manager George McPhee alluded to the delay after the selection:
“We didn’t expect Forsberg to be there at all. In most mock drafts that we had done and where our scouts had him was way up high. Sometimes that happens, a good player falls because everybody’s sort of zoned in on a certain guy and people were going after defensemen and drafted a lot of good defensemen. So we focused on mostly defensemen. So when we got there, we thought, ‘Geez, we’ve got to switch gears here a little bit. This guy’s a really good player. Let’s take him.’”
The Caps were not the only team high on Forsberg. TSN analyst Craig Button, who ranked Forsberg third in his amateur rankings, said of him that…
“Filip is a blend of high end skill and indomitable will. Skill that allows him to produce offensively and a will that makes it very challenging for opponents to stop him. He's a very strong skater with power in his stride and combined with speed, he's capable of opening up ice for himself and backing up defenders. Possessing very good agility, he uses this to maneuver in the tight areas around the net and make himself dangerous. His shot is hard and accurate and he can score from 35-40 feet. His release is outstanding which doesn't allow goalies to get an accurate read on it. He can shoot off the pass as well as being able to shoot in stride. He recognizes opportunities and he has a hunger to score. He's not one-dimensional though and is capable of making plays and creating offensive chances with his passing. He gets involved in the physical game and while he may not be punishing, he's assertive in establishing his presence and gaining valuable space for himself. With a playmaking center, he could be a prolific scorer in the NHL.”
Fast forward almost ten months. Filip Forsberg, that player with the indomitable will who could be a prolific scorer in the NHL, the one the Caps were not expecting to fall to them, the player that the Capitals “unanimously” agreed should be taken with the 11th overall pick in the draft, was traded for Martin Erat -- a 31-year old player in his 11th season who has never recorded 25 goals and has never recorded 60 points – and a prospect, Michael Latta.
If you subscribe to the notion that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, then swapping out a prospect with skill but an unknown future for a veteran with a body of consistent work can make sense. But we have this question scratching away at our brain… “Did something happen in the last ten months that caused the Capitals to sour on Forsberg?” Or was it something else?
This season, Forsberg once more played for Leksands in HockeyAllsvenskan and almost doubled his production from the 2011-2012 season (15-18-33 in 38 games compared to 8-9-17 in 43 games in 2011-2012). He was 3-2-5 in six games in the World Junior Championships (U-20) and was 6-7-13 in 14 total games of international competition this season, both records representing improvement over his production in the previous season.
It is tempting to make something out of this notion that Forsberg was playing in Sweden’s second tier league, but this has the hint of backfilling to serve a narrative. In skating with Leskands this season, Forsberg was still young (he will not turn 19 until mid-August). But perhaps he suffers in comparison to a fellow Swede who, when he was 18, skated with Brynäs IF in the Elitserien, the Swedish Elite League and the highest level of competition in that country. Nicklas Backstrom skated 46 games with Brynäs IF in 2005-2006, was then drafted by the Capitals, then spent the next season in Sweden before joining the Caps for the 2007-2008 season as a 19 year old (he turned 20 in November 2007).
It is entirely possible, if not likely, that Forsberg was going to spend another year in Sweden testing his mettle in the Elitserien before coming to North America. That would have made two post-draft seasons in Sweden compared to the one that Backstrom served. If that was the plan, perhaps the Capitals were not prepared to wait another season for Forsberg. Perhaps it served as a signal to the Caps that his development arc was too shallow. Perhaps ten months after the draft they had buyer’s remorse.
We are never going to have a definitive answer as to why the Caps felt an 11th-overall pick became expendable ten months after the fact. There are just so many questions that can be asked for which no answers are forthcoming. But we keep coming back to that scene in Pittsburgh last June when the Caps were huddled in discussions at their table when their number came up. We keep coming back to that moment when the Commissioner reminded the Caps that they were on the clock. Were the Caps – a team that was “focused on mostly defensemen” – taken off guard when eight defensemen went in the first ten picks, and a skill forward popped up on their screen? It is easy to make too much of an extemporaneous quote after the draft, but the statement, “Geez, we’ve got to switch gears here a little bit. This guy’s a really good player. Let’s take him,” sounds more than a bit as if the Caps were not entiely prepared for this possibility or eventuality.
And it begs the question, given the swiftness with which Forsberg was hailed as a future core player when drafted to his being dealt for a good, if not extraordinary player, was this as thoughtful a pick as one might expect, given the stakes? The clumsiness with which it was executed in real time suggests an “oops” component to it. And over the next ten months, perhaps the Caps came to regret it, for whatever reason. Whatever destiny awaits Martin Erat or Michael Latta as members of the Washington Capitals, there are some of us who are going to wonder about the mystery of Filip Forsberg’s fall out of favor over the last ten months and what it says about the process that led to his selection in the first place.