Sunday, June 17, 2012

The 2012 Draft -- Can Good Things Come in Threes?

Unless things change between now and sometime next Saturday, the Washington Capitals will have 11 picks in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Since the NHL went to a seven-round draft format in 2005, the Capitals have never had so many selections in a single draft (twice they had ten picks).

Quantity is nice – more is better than fewer – but the key in the 2012 draft for the Capitals might be in their top end picks. The Caps are one of six teams that will have at least three picks among the top 54 selections (Carolina, Columbus, Montreal, and Tampa Bay have three apiece, and Buffalo has four). They will be the only team with two picks in the top 16 (11th and 16th overall).

Do such things matter? Given the Caps’ history of multiple picks such as these, it could. Here is the history of the Capitals when holding at least three of the top 60 picks (records with Capitals included; goaltenders broken out to illustrate records):

(click pic for larger image)

Starting at the top, 25 players are in this group. By position…

- 11 defensemen
- six centers
- five wingers
- three goaltenders

The Caps have done best in drafting defensemen with these high picks. Volume might be a part of it, but the fact is that Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson are still with the team and in large part form the core of the defense. As a group they have 1,172 games played of the 1,434 total games by defensemen in this draft group.

Conversely, five of the 11 defensemen have not played a game for the Caps. Three of them, however, were traded for other assets. Ross Lupaschuk was part of the package that brought Jaromir Jagr to Washington. Theo Ruth was traded at the deadline to Columbus in 2008 for Sergei Fedorov. Keith Seabrook was dealt to Calgary for future considerations, which will be a seventh round pick in this week’s draft (195th pick overall).

The wingers have not fared too badly, either. That group of five includes the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin – a pair that has played 1,022 games for the Caps (although by next season Ovechkin might be the only one of this pair left with the club). Here, though, the Caps have had more of an all-or-nothing sort of result. In addition to Ovechkin and Semin, the picks include Chris Bourque, Francois Bouchard, and Dmitri Kugryshev, a trio with a total of 13 games played for the Caps, all by Bourque, who was traded to Boston for Zach Hamill this past May 26th. Bouchard was traded earlier this season to the Rangers for Tomas Kundratek, and Kugryshev signed a two-year deal with CSKA Moscow in the KHL. None of those three seem likely to ever add to their totals in a Capitals uniform.

The most productive position, relative to numbers selected, is probably goaltender. The Caps picked only three netminders among top-60 picks, but Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov have been productive. Neuvirth has played in more than 100 regular season games and will be battling Braden Holtby for the number one goaltender position next fall. Varlamov played in 59 regular season games, and was parlayed into a first (11th overall) and second round choice in this draft.

Then there are the centers. If the Caps have had a problem at this position, the solutions have not come at the top of the draft, at least not past the pick of Nicklas Backstrom with the fourth overall pick in 2006. Boyd Gordon did contribute 363 games, but mostly as a third/fourth line defensive specialist with faceoff talents. Kris Beech and Michal Sivek were moved as part of the Jagr deal in 2001, Beech having played in only four games with the Caps before that deal and Sivek none (they played a combined 236 regular season games in their respective careers). Charlie Stephens was drafted in 1999 but was unsigned by the Caps and re-entered the draft in 2001 (selected in the sixth round by Colorado; he played a total of eight NHL regular season games, none since 2003).

Anton Gustafsson was drafted 21st overall in 2008. It was a pick that illustrated the uncertain nature of drafting, even at a high level. Gustafsson was the fifth-ranked European skater in the 2008 draft according to Central Scouting. He was ranked 24th overall by The Hockey News, was ranked 44th overall by the Red Line Report, and was ranked 34th overall by International Scouting Services. The Caps owned the 23rd overall pick in the 2008 draft, but traded it and a second round pick (54th overall) to obtain the 21st pick, with which they took Gustafsson. They moved assets to move up to select a player whose top-side ranking appeared to be in the area in which he was drafted, but who might have been a reach given other rankings.

There is always the difficulty of too much being made of one pick over another after the fact, but with the next pick Edmonton selected Jordan Eberle (who had 34 goals for the Oilers last season). Meanwhile, the Devils parlayed the 23rd overall pick into the 24th overall and a third-round pick in 2009 in a trade with the Minnesota Wild. The Devils took Mattias Tedenby (9-19-28 in 101 games for the Devils so far, although he struggled quite a bit this past season). They would take Alexander Urbom with the 2009 third-round pick they obtained, and he has had eight games of experience with the Devils. Meanwhile, Gustafsson has a grand total of one game of professional hockey in North America (with the Hershey Bears in 2009-2010). His contract with the Capitals was suspended when he left the South Carolina Stingrays in the 2010-2011 season and returned to Sweden.

Looking at these drafts chronologically, they break cleanly in terms of production into the pre-2007 period and post-2006 period. The Caps had four drafts from 1999 to 2006 in which they had at least three picks in the first 60 selections. In three of the four (2002, 2004, and 2006) the Caps ended up with three players in each that could be called significant contributors. And in the fourth – 1999 – the Caps used three of the selections as the basis for what ended up being one of the biggest trades in franchise history when the club obtained Jaromir Jagr and Frantisek Kucera from Pittsburgh for Kris Beech (seventh overall), Michal Sivek (29th), and Ross Lupaschuk (34th) and cash.

In the 2007 and 2008 versions of these drafts, though, the Caps have had rather meager returns for a total of seven picks in the top-60 selections of the two drafts combined. Karl Alzner has to be considered a gem as the fifth overall pick in 2007, but Josh Godfrey (34th overall) never came close to securing a roster spot with the parent roster and is out of the organization (he played in 38 games with Binghamton in the AHL this past season). Theo Ruth was traded to Columbus for Sergei Fedorov in what had to be considered a net plus for the Caps, even if Fedorov played only two seasons with Washington. Ruth played three seasons with the University of Notre Dame and spent the past two seasons with the Springfield Falcons of the AHL.

The 2008 draft would have been a disaster, at least at the top of the board, but for another trade the Capitals made, that being with the Philadelphia Flyers in which defenseman Steve Eminger (himself a member of the “top-60 picks club” in 2002) and a third-round pick (84th overall) was sent to the Flyers for the 27th overall pick. The Capitals used it to select defenseman John Carlson. In addition to Gustafsson (taken six spots ahead of Carlson), the Capitals selected Eric Mestery in the second round (57th overall) and Dmitry Kugryshev one spot later. Mestery’s relationship with the Capitals was terminated in June 2010, and he retired from professional hockey the following August. Kugryshev is playing in the KHL.

In the end, the Capitals are a team whose roster engineering philosophy begins with the draft. In those drafts in which the Caps have had at least three picks in the top-60 selections since 1999, realizing ten players having 100 or more games of NHL experience does not seem especially impressive. More disturbing is that of the last nine such picks (over the 2006-2008 drafts), only two have played in any games for the Caps (Karl Alzner, John Carlson), and three are out of hockey in North America altogether. Four others are in the minors; none have yet to play in their first NHL game.

This could be an especially important draft for the Capitals. Last summer Washington had only four selections, none higher than the fourth round. They had only five in the 2010 draft and only one higher than the third round (and he – Evgeny Kuznetsov – will be spending the next two seasons in the KHL). The question this week is, with the 11th overall pick will the Capitals get an Alexander Semin (12th in 2002) or a Sasha Pokulok (14th in 2005)? With the 16th pick, with they get a Boyd Gordon (17th in 2002) or an Anton Gustafsson (21st in 2008)? At 54, will the Caps get a Dmitry Orlov (55th in 2009) or an Eric Mestery (57th in 2008)?

Having quantity is of greater use if more is done at the top of the draft. And the Caps have to improve on their outcomes from the past two instances in which they have had volume at the top of the draft.