Thursday, August 11, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Alexandre Volchkov

If you are a fan of ranking of Presidents in American History, one name always seems to show up at or near the bottom of those lists: James Buchanan.  In an era where every question of a political nature seems to inspire argument and conflict, there seems to be a clear consensus that James Buchanan was just about the worst President in American history.

If you are looking for similar consensus among fans of the Washington Capitals, you might find it in the history of the draft.  If you were to ask yourself, “who was the worst draft pick in the history of the Capitals?” you would probably get a lot of agreement on one player: Alexandre Volchkov.

Buchanan certainly displayed early promise, graduating with honors from Dickinson College, although he also displayed a streak of contrarian behavior, almost expelled from Dickinson for poor behavior before graduating.  His career progress thereafter was steady and conventional.  After a year in the Pennsylvania militia, he was elected under the Federalist Party banner to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where he served one term.  He then began his climb up the ladder at the Federal level, winning election to the United States House of Representatives, where he served as Chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary and was an impeachment manager in proceedings against U.S. District Court judge James Peck (he was impeached but was acquitted by the Senate).

Buchanan left the House in 1831, but less than a year later he was appointed Minster to Russia by President Andrew Jackson, a position he occupied for a little more than a year.  It was not the end of his steady rise through electoral politics.  After returning to the United States and becoming a Democrat (the Federalist Party by this time defunct), he was elected to the Senate to fill a vacancy.  After winning election to his own terms twice, he was appointed to by President James K. Polk to become Secretary of State.  Polk would later nominate Buchanan to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, but Buchanan declined that nomination.  He served as Minster to the Court of St. James under President Franklin Pierce.

It was Buchanan’s last appointed position before the 1956 election.  Not that he was keenly interested in the Democratic nomination for President.  He never formally declared a candidacy.  But he was strongly supported by his home state Pennsylvania delegation.  That support, the lack of support for sitting president Franklin Pierce in his pursuit of re-election, and a multi-candidate field allowed Buchanan to collect the highest vote total in the first nominating ballot.  The Democrats appeared to learn little from the 1952 election, though, and failed to provide a majority to Buchanan.  He did win each of the first 15 ballots, but failed to achieve that majority as Pierce and Stephen Douglas traded off support, and Lewis Cass gained a handful of delegates. Douglas couldn’t put a dent in Buchanan’s lead, either, and withdrew, leaving the nomination to Buchanan on the 17th ballot.

If the Democrats made a mistake nominating Franklin Pierce on the 49th ballot of the 1852 convention, taking 17 ballots to nominate Buchanan was no improvement.  Sure, he won in the general election, but that might have been the worst part.  Except for the fact that in literally his first act as President – delivering his inaugural address – he pledged not to run for a second term.  Except for thinking the whole Kansas-Nebraska territory fight was trivial and would be decided by the Supreme Court anyway.  They did… that would be the Dred Scott Decision, one of the most notorious decisions in Court history.  Except for the Panic of 1857, Buchanan’s response to which was ineffective.  Except for the growing sectional conflict over the slavery question that was pushing the country to civil war.  Except for the first shots in that civil war being fired at Fort Sumter with the lame duck Buchanan about to leave office.  Buchanan was happy to leave the mess to his successor, Abraham Lincoln.

Meanwhile, Alexandre Volchkov was a hockey player of considerable potential.  Arriving in North Amerca after a brief stint with CSKA Moscow in the now defunct International Hockey League, he joined the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League in Canadian juniors.  He was a hit…sort of.  In his first season with the Colts – 1995-1996 – he recorded 36 goals in 47 games and led the team in points (63), but all that scoring was for a club that finished 28-31-7.  The goal scoring did get the attention of the Caps, though, who took him with the fourth overall pick of the 1996 entry draft.  To that point in NHL history, only three Russian-born players had been drafted higher – Alexei Yashin (second overall in 1992), Oleg Tverdovsky (second in 1994), and Andrei Zyuzin (taken two picks before Volchkov in the 1996 drafrt).

Volchkov played another season in the OHL, scoring 29 goals in 56 games with Barrie.  It appeared that his production would outlive the stories about his attitude problems that preceded his selection by the Caps,  but when he turned pro in the 1997-1998 season, his production started drying up.  Skating with the Portland Pirates of the AHL, he went just 2-5-7 in 34 games.  He followed that up by going 4-11-15 in 52 games split between Portland and the Cincinnati Cyclones of the IHL.  He actually got a call-up to the Caps late in the 1998-1999 season but did not appear in a game. 

Volchkov would get his NHL debut early in the 1999-2000 season.  After impressing some in the organization in training camp,  he got his break in Phoenix against the Coyotes.  Perhaps the Caps, who started the 1999-2000 season with a sluggish 2-3-1 record, scoring only 16 goals in the six games, were looking for a spark.  Volchkov skated 11 minutes without recording a point in a 2-2 tie.  Volchkov played in the next two games of the western road trip, in Los Angeles against the Kings and in Anaheim against the Mighty Ducks, but he failed to record a point in either game, both of which the Caps lost by 5-2 scores..  If the Caps were to get a spark, it would not come from Volchkov. 

Less than four months after his short, but unimpressive turn witht eh Caps, Volchkov was traded to the Edmonton Oilers for a fourth-round pick in the 2001 entry draft.  The Caps traded that pick along with defenseman Alexei Tezikov to the Mighty Ducks in March 2001 for defenseman Jason Marshall, who played just five games for the Capitals before moving on as a free agent at the end of the 2000-2001 season.

As for Volchkov, he finished the season with Anaheim’s AHL affiliate in Hamilton, ending his career in North America.  He played in 39 more games in Russia over three seasons before his hockey career came to an end at the age of 26.

James Buchanan had a rather distinguished career before taking office as the 15th President of the United States.  However, in assuming the Nation’s highest office he came into a difficult situation and failed by any reasonable measure to make it better.  In most respects, he left the office – and the Nation – in far worse shape than when he entered it.  That he is widely considered the worst President in American history is not surprising.  

As for Alexandre Volchkov, the Capitals have had 12 top-five overall draft picks in club history.  Only one – Volchkov, taken fourth overall in the 1996 entry draft – failed to appear in at least 350 games in the NHL.  In fact, he failed to appear in five games.  If you consider that the Caps got only five games out of Jason Marshall as a product of Volchkov’s trade to Edmonton, the Caps realized a grand total of eight NHL games over out of a fourth overall draft pick.  That this draft pick should be regarded as the worst in Caps history, often cited among the biggest busts in NHL draft history, is not surprising.  James Buchanan and Alexandre Volchkov, each capable in their own way, but whether because of temperament, character, or disposition, they were ill-suited to occupy a role at the top of their respective professions.  In that respect, these two unfortunates are linked in this walk back in history.