Sunday, June 29, 2014

Washington Capitals: The 2014 Draft -- The Morning After

Another NHL draft is in the books, and if the commentary during the televised proceedings yesterday was any indication, all 30 teams will be contending for a Stanley Cup in a few years.  Meanwhile, the cousins and I watched with a keen eye as the Caps drafted five wingers and a goalie, and we have a few comments of our own.

That’s right… five wingers and a goalie.  And they traded up to get that goalie, then traded up again to get a winger with the pick they got in return and… an AHL goalie.

Caps fans are generally of a mind that the team’s needs do not generally involve wingers or goalies, but rather defensemen and centers.  Here are the details…

  • Round 1/13th overall: Jakub Vrana (LW/RW)
  • Round 2/39th overall: Vitek Vanecek (G).  The Caps held the 44th overall pick in the second round but traded it, and the 74th overall pick in the third round, to Buffalo for the 39th overall pick, with which they selected Vanecek.
  • Round 3/89th overall: Nathan Walker (LW).  The Caps traded back into the third round by shipping off their two fourth round spots (104th and 118th overall) to the New York Rangers for the 89th overall pick, with which they selected Walker.
  • Round 4: no pick in this round.
  • Round 5/134th overall: Shane Gersich (LW)
  • Round 6/159th overall: Steven Spinner (C/RW).  The Caps moved up with a trade, but the pick did not appear to be the reason.  Washington moved their sixth round pick (164th overall), one of two seventh round picks (192nd overall), and a seventh round pick in 2015 to Winnipeg for this pick and Eddie Pasquale, a goaltender who played for the St. John’s IceCaps for the past three seasons.
  • Round 7/194th overall: Kevin Elgestal (RW)

So there it is, your 2014 Washington Capitals Draft Class.  Now, to the particulars...  

Washington Capitals fans being the way they are, there will be much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over the next few days, so guys… rend and gnash away.   Let’s start with the top pick, Jakub Vrana.

Fearless:  No rending or gnashing here, cousin.  True, the Capitals expressed a view before the draft that you need to draft your centers.  And, if you look at the Caps’ organization, top to bottom, the only incumbent or prospect top-six center is Nicklas Backstrom, drafted in 2006.  Re-signing Mikhail Grabovski would address that issue in the short term, but the club still has the long term issue of who will be a top-six center 3-5 years down the road.

That said, was there a center available at 13 that the Caps might have reasonably selected ahead of Vrana?  The obvious comparisons are Dylan Larkin, taken two spots later by the Detroit Red Wings, Nick Schmaltz, taken 20th by the Chicago Blackhawks, and Robert Fabbri, taken 21st by the St. Louis Blues.  NHL Central Scouting had all three ranked in the 17-21 range among North American Skaters.  On the other hand, Vrana was ranked fourth among European skaters.  Two of the three ahead of him (William Nylander and Kevin Fiala) had already been selected.

If the club is going to go for the best player available and not for position need, this is what happens.

Cheerless: …

Hey!...Get up!!

Cheerless:  Huh…whut?  Ugh… cheap wine and a Capitals draft ain’t somthin’ you want to put together.  What’re we talkin’ about?

Caps…first round pick…Jakub Vrana…

Cheerless:  Oh…yeah.  What is it with this team and European wingers in early rounds? Since 2010… Evgeny Kuznetsov, Stanislav Galiev, Filip Forsberg, Andre Burakovsky, and now Vrana.  The good is that he has a “very good offensive mind and is hungry from circles down in offensive zone. Good shot and is a player you have to respect because he can score or make a play. Ability to be dangerous quickly. One shot and score capability.”  On the other hand, he “has experienced some bouts of inconsistency in his game and has yet to really develop the defensive awareness that scouts were hoping for…”  Gosh, now who does he sound like?  Maybe another 13th overall draft pick?...

Peerless:  If Caps fans thought that there was going to be a sea change in draft philosophy with the departure of George McPhee, consider this pick pretty solid evidence that it isn’t happening, at least not to start.  Go back through the Caps’ "first" first round picks dating from the selection of Alex Ovechkin in 2004: Ovechkin, Sasha Pokulok, Nicklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner, Anton Gustafsson, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Filip Forsberg, Andre Burakovsky, and now Vrana.  The progression has been toward drafting skilled European forwards with that first pick available.  One would like to think (or, more precisely, hope) that the recent picks – Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Vrana – will develop into top-six wingers.  But the history before that in “first” first round picks is checkered, especially past the lottery picks.  There are, of course, no certainties in the draft, even in the first round.  There are no guarantees, either, but this pick is not outside what we have come to know about drafting by the Caps over the last decade.  The takeaway here might not be the player as much as the process and whether it reflects a business-as-usual approach or a new direction.

Next up…goalies.  Guys, the Caps got two goalies out of this draft, one drafted and the other obtained in a trade that swapped picks.  Any thoughts?

Cheerless: Same ol’, same ol’… 2001, pick a goalie (the late Robert Mueller, may he rest in peace).  2002, pick two goalies (Maxime Daigneault, Robert Gherson).  2004, another goalie (Justin Mrazek).  2005...yup, another goalie (Daren Machesney). 2006, two more goalies (Semyon Varlamov, Michael Neuvirth).  2007…another goalie (Dan Dunn).  2008…goalie (Braden Holtby).  2010…a goalie (Philipp Grubauer).  2011…goalie (Steffen Soberg).  2012…again, a goalie (Sergei Kostenko). 

This year, Vitek Vanecek.  And, they used two picks to move up five spots to get him.  The eighth-ranked European goalie by NHL Central Scouting.  Not one of the seven ahead of him was taken earlier.  The first of the seven ranked ahead of Vanecek was taken 61st overall, 100 spots later, give or take (22, actually).  How about some comparisons.  Last year’s eighth-ranked CSS goaltender was Rene Svoboda.  He was not drafted.  In 2012 it was Igor Ustinsky…undrafted.  2011: Nicklas Lundstrom… fifth round by St. Louis.  2010: Pavel Francouz…undrafted.  2009: Benjamin Conz…undrafted.  Why Vanecek, why burn a draft pick to move up five spots, and did the Caps think that any of Ottawa, New Jersey, Nashville, or Arizona were going to pick him?  None of them picked a goaltender as it turned out, the Caps being the last of four teams to pick a goalie in the span of six spots.  They really loved this guy.

Fearless:  Let’s go back a few years, to Draft Day 2010.  The Caps held the 116th overall pick in the fourth round.  They saw a goalie they wanted, so they packaged that pick and the 146th pick (fifth round) and sent them to the Toronto Maple Leafs to move up… four spots.  They used that pick on Philipp Grubauer, who Caps fans seem to like these days, four years later.  Was Montreal, New Jersey, or Vancouver salivating over Grubauer in 2010?  And, if your memory is cloudy, Grubauer was the 15th ranked North American goalie in that draft (he was playing for Windsor in the OHL). 

Peerless:  The “how” and the “who” are two entirely distinct issues here.  The latter first.  Clearly the Caps saw something in Vitek Vanecek, but what?  Or, perhaps more precisely, “when?”  Let’s start with the fact that he was the eighth-ranked European goalie.  He actually dropped a spot from the Central Scouting mid-term rankings.  Central Scouting is but one scouting source, but it does speak to a lack of volatility in his ranking, that he was not a highly ranked goalie who had a bad second half of the year.  On the other hand, no goalie in the 2014 World U-18 tournament faced more shots than did Vanecek (194 in seven games), and no goalie played more minutes (437).  His overall statistics were not noteworthy (2.74 GAA, .897 save percentage), but he was sturdy enough to help the Czechs to a silver medal. 

As to the “how,” that is the curious part.  First, let’s not make too much out of burning that third round pick in the package to move up and get Vanecek.  Remember, this was not thought to be a particularly deep draft, so a third rounder in 2014 might not have the value of a 2013 third rounder (74th overall pick: John Hayden) or a 2015 third rounder, for that matter.  That said, burning a draft pick for a goalie, even if the Caps have a recent history of this, appears odd.  Look at the goalies for this year’s Stanley Cup semi-finalsts.  Jonathan Quick was a third rounder (72nd overall) in 2005.  Henrik Lundqvist was a seventh rounder in 2000.  Carey Price was a first rounder – a fifth overall pick in 2005, as a matter of fact – but Corey Crawford was a second round pick in 2003.  Looking at it from another perspective, one can find capable goalies in most any year in or after the second round:

  • 2001: Peter Budaj (63rd overall), Craig Anderson (73rd), and Mike Smith (161st)
  • 2002: Josh Harding (38th)
  • 2003: Crawford (52nd), Jimmy Howard (64th), Jaroslav Halak (271st), and Brian Elliott (291st)
  • 2004: Pekka Rinne (258th)
  • 2005: Quick (72nd) and Ben Bishop (85th)
  • 2006: Steve Mason (69th), James Reimer (99th), and Chad Johnson (125th)
  • 2007: none…a really bad year for goalies; none drafted have played as many as a dozen NHL games
  • 2008: Braden Holtby (93rd)
  • 2009: Robin Lehner (46th), Darcy Kuemper, 161st, and for that matter, Eddie Pasquale (117th), the guy the Caps obtained in a later trade on draft day that involved swapping picks

Goalies can be found in the draft.  Maybe Vanacek is the one who makes this list a few years from now, maybe not.  But goalies can be found without expending draft picks.  That said, we get the Caps taking a goalie.  They do this every year (more “same of the same”).  It is the trading up and burning a pick to do it that is confounding.  Perhaps Vanecek is the next Michal Neuvirth (taken 34th in 2006, 159 NHL games, including playoffs).  Or maybe he is the next Jeff Frazee (taken 38th by New Jersey in 2005, one NHL game played).  We won’t know for a while.  Keep in mind, Philipp Grubauer was drafted in 2010, and only now, with the 2014-2015 season approaching, are we thinking of him as the full-time starter with the Hershey Bears and possibly a back-up in Washington.

What did you guys think about the rest of the draft?

Fearless:  Well, it seems every pick has a story.  Nathan Walker, born in Wales, raised in Australia, played in the Czech Republic, took a turn in the Caps’ development camp in 2013, signed with Hershey last season. His is quite a journey.  Shane Gersich has a pretty good pedigree, what with the Broten brothers being uncles  Steven Spinner is a high-schooler, but his selection might the understory of that pick.  The Caps got a backup for Grubauer in Hershey as part of the trade for the pick that netted Spinner.  It seems only Kevin Elgestal lacks a story line as the Caps’ last pick in the 2014 draft.

Cheerless:  zzzzzzzzzzz…

Peerless:  Guess yesterday was just too much for him.  Actually, Fearless, you missed a story line with young Mr. Elgestal.  When he was taken with the 194th pick, the Caps continued a curious avoidance of drafting Canadians.  Going back over their last 19 picks dating back to the selection of Thomas DiPauli (USA) with the 100th overall pick in 2012, the Caps drafted only three Canadians – Jaynen Rissling (2012), Madison Bowey (2013), and Tyler Lewington (2013).  In the meantime, the Caps have taken nine Americans among those 19 picks:

  • Thomas DiPauli
  • Austin Wuthrich
  • Connor Carrick
  • Riley Barber
  • Zach Sanford
  • Blake Heinrich
  • Brian Pinho
  • Shane Gersich
  • Steven Spinner

The Caps have not taken more than two Canadians in any draft since 2009 (four).  We don’t want to make too much of that other than being just one of the trivial story lines that attach to the draft.

In the end…

This draft looks like any other of those since the 2004-2005 lockout for the Caps.  Of the 67 draft picks taken from 2005 through last year, the Caps selected:

  • 15 centers, three of whom would be moved to wing (Filip Forsberg, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov), five of whom were taken in the first round (Forsberg, Johansson, Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Anton Gustafsson)
  • 20 wingers, two of whom were taken in the first round (Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson)
  • 24 defensemen, four of whom were taken in the first round (two of whom are cornerstones – John Carlson and Karl Alzner – two of whom are not…Sasha Pokulok and Joe Finley)
  • 8 goaltenders, one of whom was taken in the first round (Semyon Varlamov)

This year, five forwards (no pure centers) and a goalie.  Although the team seems to have the idea that you need to draft your centers, for the nine drafts preceding this one the Caps have not found an answer to their hole at center except for a lottery pick in 2006 (Backstrom).  In those same nine drafts they have not addressed persistent lack of depth on defense, either.  It would seem that 2014 is no different.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you consider that none of the players drafted this past weekend are likely to contribute to the big club for years to come, if at all.  However, not having done so in previous drafts reduces the Caps to having to fill such deficiencies years later through trades or free agent signings.  That has not worked, either.  The holes remain from positions not being adequately addressed in drafts past.

Yesterday was not about filling holes in the here and now, in 2014.  It was about what this team might look like in 2019, although it still looks like it has a hole in the middle.  It did serve as a reminder that there are those holes that need filling now and that there is a lot of work to be done over the next three months to opening night of the 2014-2015 season.  For the future, we are left with hope that actions taken yesterday bear fruit five years from now.