a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Monday, 25 July 2011

07/25/11 53.2 Comparing Rebuilds: Washington and Edmonton

Alexander Something-or-Other

In part three of Comparing Rebuilds, we will look at the Washington Capitals and how they fell and rose again. Are they a good comparison to the Oilers?

The best thing that ever happened to the Washington Capitals was winning the Draft Lottery in 2004. Although the Caps picked first that year, they actually finished third-last in the league. If the draft order had remained the same, Washington might easily have ended up with Cam Barker. The best that Washington could have done with the third pick was to take Andrew Ladd. Ladd is a good player in his own right, but he's no Alexander Ovechkin.

At the time that it was all happening, it seemed like the Washington Capitals were a lot worse for a lot longer than they actually were. After losing in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final to Detroit, the Caps would see two consecutive years of first round exits. Once Pittsburgh went into financial peril, Washington was able to acquire Jaromir Jagr and signed him to a contract worth $77 million over 7 years. What did they get for their troubles? No playoffs the following year and a first round exit at the hands of Tampa Bay the year after that. Unfortunately, it turns out that at the time "having Jagr" = financial trouble for his team; which is small wonder considering his pricetag. In the end the Caps had to agree to pay $4 million of Jagr's salary annually just to be able to trade him to the New York Rangers.

To shed salary, and acknowledging that their attempt to buy a team had failed, Washington also traded Peter Bondra, Robert Lang and Sergei Gonchar in 2003-04. All of these trades caused the team to go down the tubes, and resulted in the lottery position where the Caps managed to win and jump to first overall. The result was Ovechkin.

Of course, this all sounds eerily reminiscent of when the Oilers traded Ryan Smyth mid-season and then dropped directly into the toilet. Interestingly, if the Oilers had won one less game in 2007 they would have finished 5th last and hit the lottery (Chicago had the luxury instead and took Patrick Kane), just like what happened to Washington. Instead the Oilers beat Calgary in game 82 and finished 6th-last, selecting Sam Gagner at the draft. The Caps had three first round picks in 2004, just like the Oilers in 2007. The difference? Washington's 27th and 29th picks overall in 2004 were Jeff Schultz and Mike Green. The Oilers selected Alex Plante and Riley Nash in 2007. Enough said.

However, you might say the Oilers got their Ovechkin in 2010 with Taylor Hall. There are some similarities. After the lockout the Caps continued to struggle in Ovechkin's rookie season. They finished 27th, but played 42 one-goal games that year. The Oilers finished 30th in Hall's rookie year, and played in 31 one-goal games. Washington selected their future number one center in Nicklas Backstrom after their dissappointing finish, while the Oilers hope that they took their future number one in Nugent-Hopkins.

Things didn't get any better with Ovechkin as a sophomore. Backstrom stayed over in Sweden in 2006-07, just as Nugent-Hopkins may stay in Red Deer. Despite 46 more goals from Ovi, the Capitals finished 27th and took Karl Alzner one pick ahead of Gagner in the 2007 draft. The following year they won their (weak) division and made the playoffs on the back of a 65 goal campaign from Ovechkin, and Backstrom's 55 assists and 69 points as a rookie.

Alexander Semin
 In all, the Washington Capitals spent just three straight seasons out of the playoffs (not including the lockout) and selected 1st overall, 4th overall and 5th overall. There was still a draft in 2005 of course, but it can be discounted since none of the players picked by Washington that year amounted to anything. The reason for the quick turnaround can be attributed to mid-late first round picks as much as to their lottery selections in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

Steve Eminger, Alex Semin and Boyd Gordon went 12th, 13th and 17th in 2002 to the Caps. Eric Fehr went 18th in 2003, and then there was the aforementioned Jeff Schultz 27th and Mike Green 29th in the Ovechkin draft. Varlamov and Neuvirth went 23rd and 34th in 2006, future stud John Carlson went 21st in 2008, which was the same year that Washington took Braden Holtby 93rd overall.

Those later picks make up (or did at one time) the core of the re-vamped Capitals. Ovechkin and Backstrom are certainly two huge pieces that came from their lottery picks, but it's safe to say that most of this team wasn't built through the top of the draft.

The Oilers have done alright later in the draft as well, plucking Eberle, Paajarvi, Omark, Petry, Peckham and Dubnyk well outside of the top 5. Only time will tell how integral those players are to the team's future success, but they will have to be key if the Oilers hope to turn it around like Washington and other former bottom-feeders have done.

So far the Oilers have only had two lottery picks and the team (and the fans) don't want another. The Capitals have shown that it isn't necessary to have a multitude of them to build a contender. On the other hand, a team like Pittsburgh that had 5 lottery selections has already won the Stanley Cup.

If the Oilers fall out of playoff contention this year, there will be a special place among some Oilers fans for the Capitals. If Washington can win it all, it will be a good sign for Edmonton.

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