Thursday, July 25, 2013

Washington Capitals: Draft History in Context, Part IX -- Take Your Positions: Centers

We are almost at the end of it.  Having worked our way from goaltenders to defensemen, and then to wingers, we turn to centers in our look at the draft performance of the Washington Capitals by position over the 2001-2010 period.

Of the 89 players taken in the NHL Entry Draft over the 2001-2010 period, the Caps selected 17 centers.  It has not been quite a font of talent that Caps fans might have hoped for over the years.  Even if you go back in time, to when the NHL Entry Draft was established in 1979, the Caps drafted 40 centers from 1979 through 2000.  Twenty-one never dressed for a single NHL game.  Only ten of them went on to play in at least 100 games in the NHL.  Here they are:
  • Tim Tookey
  • Bobby Carpenter
  • Dean Evason
  • Michal Pivonka
  • Rob Murray
  • Tim Taylor
  • Jason Allison
  • Jan Bulis
  • Kris Beech
  • Brian Sutherby

See many difference-makers there?  Moreover, only Carpenter, Pivonka, Bulis, and Sutherby played in 100 games or more for the Caps.  This is the background we have to begin our look at the 2001-2010 period.

If you thought it would get better during that period, it would not, at least not appreciably.  Despite the fact that the Caps had a long and irregular history of finding talent at the position, they devoted surprisingly few high-round draft picks to the position over this ten-year period.  Only four centers of the 17 were taken in the first two-rounds:

The club did place more emphasis on the position among high-round picks after the 2004-2005 lockout – three first-rounders in a four-year period ending in 2009 – but even here the results are mixed.  Nicklas Backstrom was taken fifth-overall in 2006 and is assembling an impressive resume, even at the young age of 25.  After that, things go downhill quickly.

Anton Gustafsson was taken 21st overall in 2008.  Gustafsson had a pedigree Caps fans would recognize, being the son of former Capital Bengt-Åke Gustafsson, one of the best centers ever to play for the club.  We already chronicled the history of Anton Gustafsson's selection in this series, and it is not pleasant to repeat.  

Marcus Johansson was taken 24th overall in 2009 out of Sweden, and he might have suffered from being compared to his countryman Backstrom, taken only three years earlier and by then established as the Caps’ first-line center.  There might have been some fans who thought Johansson would slide right into the second-line center spot and fill a hole the Caps had dealt with for most of the decade.  Johansson spent another year in Sweden with Farjestads BK Karlstad, then made the jump to the NHL.  It was a successful season for him by the usual measures – he finished tied for fourth in total points among rookie centers, fifth in goals, and tied for sixth in assists.  He did so while playing in only 69 games.

Johansson did not suffer a sophomore slump, at least not so far as his offense was concerned, finishing the 2011-2012 season by improving his goal total (from 13 to 14), his assist total (from 14 to 32), and his total points (from 27 to 46).  However, he gave indications of not being the sturdiest player in terms of his ability to win physical battles.  In the 2013 season, new head coach Adam Oates chose to skate him at left wing alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.  This was a bit of a luxury (or a holding pattern, if you prefer), given that Mike Ribeiro was signed as a free agent to man the second line center spot.  However, with Ribeiro gone to Phoenix, the Caps have their perennial problem at second line center to deal with once more, choosing (for the moment) to employ Brooks Laich at the position rather than Johansson.

Those are the three first round picks over the period.  After that, things go downhill in a hurry through the rounds at the position over the 2001-2010 period.  Of the 14 picks taken after the first round, only Mathieu Perreault – a sixth-round pick in 2006 – has appeared in as many as 100 games.  And after that, only Andrew Joudrey (one game), Travis Morin (three games), and Cody Eakin (78 games) have appeared at all in an NHL game.

Eakin did prove valuable as a trading asset, having enabled the Caps to procure the services of Mike Ribeiro to fill the second line center role for the 2013 season.  Eakin, who might or might not have been a scoring line center with the Caps (he seems more of a third-line pivot), might not have filled that role productively for another few seasons.  In that sense, the pick proved valuable, but that as much a product of trading skill as drafting skill.

Perhaps Evgeny Kuznetsov, drafted in the first round 2010, will be that answer as the second line center.  Then again, being the second line right wing might be his future.  He has been playing on the wing in the Kontinental Hockey League.  If Kuznetsov is that solution as a second line center, he makes the 2001-2010 period of the draft look a lot better in terms of centers.

In the end, though, we have a team that builds through the draft unable to address what has been arguably their most persistent problem over the last decade – a second line center – through that tool.  Mathieu Perreault has shown intermittent flashes of being that solution, but has as yet been unable to hold tightly onto that job.  Marcus Johansson might be that solution someday, but he has not yet been able to hold onto the job, either, and has found a home for the time being as a winger.

If one subscribes to the notion that you draft the best player available when your number is up, it is entirely possible that even though you have a position need, you will pass on a good player at your need position to get the superior player at another position.  In that respect it is not unreasonable to think that the Caps would draft more at one position – say, defensemen and wingers – than they would at their persistent position of need. 

Still, even having drafted 17 players at the position and having so little to show for it in terms of contributions at the NHL level – one full time scoring line center, two centers who have been unable to occupy the position on a steady basis (but who might yet do so), and another who was more valuable as a trading asset -- there has not been much return.  Then there are the 11 players who did not reach the NHL level at all, five of them taken in the first three rounds.

Perhaps the Caps will realize better returns in the picks since 2010.  Filip Forsberg, a 2012 first round pick who might have been a center (although more likely to find a home as a winger), was a trading asset himself, realizing Martin Erat in return from Nashville.  Erat has been a solid pro for 11 seasons and will fill a hole on the wing on a scoring line going into 2012-2013.  But of the 20 players the Caps have drafted since 2010, only Forsberg and Brian Pinho (sixth round pick in 2013) are centers.  The draft, at least over the 2001-2010 period, has offered no lasting solutions to what has been perhaps the most serious roster problem the Caps have had over that period.