Friday, July 26, 2013

Washington Capitals: Draft History in Context, Part X -- At the End of the Day

So here we are.  Ten years’ worth of draft picks, 89 players selected in all, for A (Karl Alzner) to Z… well, Y (Mikhail Yunkov), from first (Nathan Paetsch, taken 58th overall in 2001) to last (Samuel Carrier, taken 176th overall in 2010).  Here is what we have.  Of the 89 picks…
  • 30 have played in at least one NHL game, 59 have not
  • Three players – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom – have recorded at least 100 goals, six of those who appeared in at least one NHL game are without a goal
  • Seven players have at least 100 points in their respective careers; four did not record a point
  • All of the players without points are skaters; all three goalies drafted in this span of time have at least one point
  • All three goalies have records better than .500 and have an aggregate regular season win-loss record of 159-108-33
  • The 20 players appearing in at least one NHL game have an aggregate plus/minus of plus-491; only seven are “minus” players.

And yet…

What do the Caps have to show for all of this drafting?  Let us look at the club right now.  What does the depth chart look like, and where do drafted players fit in?

A 23-man roster carrying 13 forwards, eight defensemen, and two goaltenders would have 12 of those roster spots occupied by players drafted by the Caps.  You could add Erat as a proxy for Filip Forsberg (taken 11th overall in 2012).  Thirteen of 23 roster spots occupied by draft picks looks good. 

However, there are holes.  Brooks Laich is a fellow who gives an honest effort, chips in at both ends, and can play a variety of roles.  “Second line center” might not be among them.  That he is being installed in that role is at least in part a product of the fact that the Caps have not been able to fill it through draft.  If one needs evidence of that, it is there at left wing on the first line, where Marcus Johansson – himself having been a potential solution to that problem – currently resides.

The third line has two draftees occupying it, but they come to those positions by circuitous routes.  Mathieu Perreault, a study in determination, has been a player in search of a position over the last few years.  He has been reasonably productive in the offensive end, but he has had occasional problems with consistency and in the defensive end, leading to the occasional tension with his coach in how – and when – he was used.

Eric Fehr is in his second incarnation with the Caps.  Drafted as a scoring winger, injuries stunted his development, and he eventually departed via trade to Winnipeg after six seasons.  He returned as a bargain-priced free agent who was pleasant surprise last season.  The 13 minutes and change he averaged per night last season was a career high.  Perhaps he will be a late bloomer (he will be only 28 years old on opening night), but for the moment he is a scoring-winger-turned-third-liner.

The defense is solid on top – a product of the draft.  Mike Green, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson all are likely to enjoy long and productive careers, worthy of the positions in which they were selected in the draft.  Dmitry Orlov could be a top-four blueliner, although he will have to come back from injuries last season that stopped his development in its tracks.  Still, that he would have that level of potential as a second-round pick is a plus from a drafting standpoint.

After that, though, the draft is an iffy proposition as a source of prospects on the back end.  Among the 2001-2010 picks, especially those since the 2004-2005 lockout, Patrick Wey among the draftees would seem to have the best chance to make a dent in an NHL roster.

The Caps have been most successful in drafting goalies over the 2001-2010 period, and that is entirely a product of the post 2004-2005 lockout experience.  Semyon Varlamov played adequately, sometimes spectacularly, when he was healthy.  Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby have provided solid minutes, and Holtby has played ahead of his development curve since he turned pro.

However, the problems that persist for the Capitals – a second-line center, a defenseman to complete the top-four, a scoring line winger to slide in as a successor to Alexander Semin – persist still.  Since the Caps drafted Nicklas Backstrom in 2006, no drafted center through 2010 has really come close to filling the second line center role.  Since Karl Alzner was drafted in 2007, the Caps did well to draft John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, but no other drafted defenseman through the 2010 draft has yet played in an NHL game.  Since Alex Ovechkin was drafted in 2004, no drafted winger has played in more than 13 games in a Capitals uniform (Chris Bourque), and the Caps have only 27 total games played in a Caps uniform from the 19 wingers drafted after Ovechkin.

We noted those three players – Backstrom, Alzner, and Ovechkin – for a reason.  All were top-five draft picks, lottery picks earned when the Caps tore their club down to the foundation and embarked on a rebuild after The Great Jagr Experiment in 2001-2004.  The Caps used their top five picks wisely, selecting a prodigy on the wing and players that can make a club strong down the middle at center and defenseman.  In that sense, the Caps “rebuilt” through the draft.

But did they “build” through the draft?  We have maintained that the heavy lifting was not in drafting an Alex Ovechkin, that the critical task would be in building around him.  Backstrom was a fourth-overall pick in 2006, and Alzner was a fifth-overall pick in 2007.  But since Ovechkin was drafted, the Caps have had two of their subsequent 11 first round draft picks never dress for an NHL game (Sasha Pokulok, Anton Gustafsson), another who never dressed in a Caps sweater (Joe Finley), and another who is expected to be an impact player (Evgeny Kuznetsov), but who has as yet not skated a game in North America.  Another – Semyon Varlamov – was traded for another first round pick (Filip Forsberg in 2012) who then became Martin Erat when Forsberg was traded.  Erat has had a solid pro career, but the jury remains out on how productive he will be as a Capital.

The second round is especially disappointing since the Ovechkin selection.  Of the nine skaters taken in the second round from 2004-2010, seven have not appeared in an NHL game.  The best that can be said for the second round, at least until Orlov develops more, is that it served to get a return in trade – Sergei Fedorov for second-round pick Theo Ruth (a 2007 pick) in 2008.  Only eight clubs have had fewer second round draft picks over the 2001-2010 period dress for 100 or more NHL games.  The only Capital to do that since Ovechkin was drafted is a goalie – Michal Neuvirth.

It does not really get a lot better after that.  One third round pick over the 2001-2010 period to dress in at least 100 NHL games and he – Sami Lepisto (66th overall in 2006) – dressed for only 14 games as a Cap.  It goes on and on after that as well.  Three players taken in the fourth through ninth rounds over a ten year period with 100 or more games of NHL experience out of 52 players selected, and only one of them – Mathieu Perreault – has played any of those games in a Caps sweater.

In the end, the Caps “rebuilt” through the draft, but it would be a stretch to say they “built” from the draft.  They tore down their team, got top five picks in the bargain when they finished low in the standings, and drafted cornerstone players.  But after they put those cornerstones in place, their success has been uneven, especially once past the first round, putting considerable pressure on the club not to miss at the top of the draft.  Since the Caps cashed in the picks they earned from getting rid of the aging and dead wood, the draft has not yielded as many productive players as one might have hoped, certainly not for a club whose governing strategy of roster management is “build through the draft.”