With the 23rd overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, the Washington Capitals will be going to the podium later than any year since 2001, a year in which they did not hold a first-round selection. They’ll be making their latest first selection in the first round since 2000, when they used the 26th overall pick to take center Brian Sutherby.
Truth be told, the Caps and all other NHL teams have a goal of picking 30th in the Entry Draft every year. That distinction this year falls to the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, who just won their fourth NHL championship in 11 seasons.
Although the Wings have picked late in the first round (and every round) in virtually every draft for the better part of the last two decades, Detroit has been able to sustain its success with late-round gems such as Henrik Zetterberg (210th overall in 1999), Pavel Datsyuk (171st overall in 1998) and Tomas Holmstrom (257th overall in 1994).
“They’ve done a terrific job and they clearly have a certain philosophy on what they’re looking for,” says Capitals general manager George McPhee. “They’re looking for guys who are smart puck-possession players. They are looking for guys with skill.
“When they had success in the past, they had skill plus some grit; they had the [Brendan] Shanahans and Joe Kocurs and [Darren] McCartys and [Martin] Lapointes. And when they lost those players, they weren’t winning. The big question for everybody was, ‘Can they win with just a lineup full of skill without the grit?’ They showed that they could this year, although they had [Dallas] Drake in there throwing his weight around and [Niklas] Kronvall can play physical.
“Obviously there is a certain amount of luck involved getting a Datsyuk and a Zetterberg where they did because if they knew they were going to be that good they wouldn’t have taken them there; they would have taken them a lot higher. But they deserve a lot of credit for their success. They’ve been very, very good.”
The Caps returned to the playoffs for the first time in five years in 2008, doing so on the strength of the success of recent high draft choices such as Alex Ovechkin
(first overall in 2004), Mike Green
(29th in 2004), Alexander Semin
(13th in 2002) and Nicklas Backstrom
(fourth in 2006). If the Caps hope to sustain their current level of success consistently over the next several seasons, they’ll have to do so by making do with picks in the latter third of the first round, and by plucking the odd gem out of the late stages of the NHL Entry Draft.
Washington’s draft report card has been much better in recent seasons, but it has been a while since the Caps turned up anything in the way of late-round gold. The last player the Capitals drafted beyond the second round who played as many as 100 games for the team was Richard Zednik (10th round, 249th overall in 1994).
“It took 15 years for [Red Wings owner] Mike Ilitch to win a Cup, and it has taken us some time to evolve,” says McPhee. “But we’re drafting much better these days than we did when I first started in this job. We’ve learned a lot, we’ve changed a lot and upgraded the things we’ve done.
“One thing we’ve done fairly well is draft well in the first round, but we haven’t been doing well enough in the later rounds. We’ve tried to change the way we do things so that we can not only nail the right guys in the first round but find players in the later rounds.”
The 2008 draft class is reputed to be one of the best in recent vintage. Defensemen and small but skilled forwards are particularly plentiful this summer. As many as 14-16 blueliners could hear their names called from the podium during Friday night’s first round. The talent is deep enough that Washington should get a good player with the 23rd pick, and deep enough that several clubs are looking to move up for a crack at one of the truly elite players at the top of this year’s class.
“It’s hard to say whether it will be easier to trade up,” McPhee gauges. “We won’t know until we get there. But there’s no doubt that there are some very, very good defensemen in this draft, more than in any draft we’ve seen, maybe ever. And a lot of them might be able to play right away. They’re that good. I don’t know whether we’ll be able to move up or not. We will if we can, but there has to be a willing [trade] partner there.
“On the other hand, if we can’t, we might just get a guy that we really like right where we are sitting. There are enough good players in this draft that we expect that there will be some good players at 23. We got some good players in [Jeff] Schultz and [Mike] Green at 27 and 29 [in 2004]. We’d like to have that kind of luck again.”
For the last 12 months – and for much longer in the case of many players – scouts have been following this year’s crop of talented teens during their respective regular seasons and at various tournaments around the globe. The games have been watched, the reports have been filed, the players have been ranked and the lists have been made. A hundred or so of the top candidates attended the annual draft combine in Toronto a few weeks back, undergoing psychological testing, intensive interviews from various NHL clubs and enduring rigorous physical testing.
This year, NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau split up the interview and workout portions of the combine to make it less hectic for the league’s general managers and scouting staffs.
“They made some important changes, not only in the tests but in the way they’ve structured things,” says McPhee. “We used to have to interview players at the same time players were working out. That was difficult because you were running up and down the stairs from the interview room back to the workout room. This year they changed it to where you can interview kids for a certain number of days. And then that all stops and the last few days are all workouts, so you can sit in one place and do what you need to do.
“With respect to the tests that they do and the information that’s available, that’s been improved. It’s not where it needs to be, but there is still information there that is very useful.”
McPhee has been on the job for more than a decade now in the District, and a good portion of his scouting staff has been along for most of that ride. As you would expect, the group has improved and has honed its techniques and its style over the years.
“We have a better idea of what we’re looking for now,” states McPhee. “After years of doing this you sense certain things when you’re interviewing players. You see certain body types that you think will play in the league; you see certain body types that won’t be able to play in the league. In certain ways, our subjective opinion of what a guy looks like can be far more valuable than any test scores that you have. Some of those test scores are very important; a lot of them aren’t. But none of those tests really measure your guts or your hockey sense. Those are two important qualities that you have to have that you’re not going to be able to measure in that way.”
There has been a sea change in the type of players that are desirable to NHL clubs in recent years, too. The scales have been tipped to the point where speed and skill are more prized attributes than size and surliness. Smaller players who wouldn’t have gotten a sniff from scouts a few years back are now opening eyes, while some burly behemoths who would have suited up in the league earlier in this decade are now being bypassed.
Diminutive Chicago rookie Patrick Kane carted off the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie last week, so the trend doesn’t figure to reverse itself anytime soon.
“When a player like Kane comes in and plays as well as he does at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds,” observes McPhee, “I think a lot of clubs are going to be more open to taking a smaller player. Some of these guys, as small as they are, they are really dynamic players. They’re very smart, very skilled and very competitive.”
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the playing styles and personnel make-ups of teams that win the Stanley Cup are inevitably scrutinized and mimicked. Detroit won the 2008 Cup with a roster that was liberally laced with European players. But with the absence of an agreement between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation, there now exists a degree of uncertainty as to how long NHL teams will have to sign European-based players after they’re drafted. And with some European leagues – Russia’s Continental League in particular – paying greater salaries than in years past, there is less motivation for some European players to come to North America and play in the NHL. As a result, some talented players from that part of the globe could tumble down a few rungs in the 2008 draft.
“I think clubs will be real careful with the Russian players,” McPhee predicts. “With some of the other European players, some clubs may be comfortable drafting them because they will now get defected status on them, which you hope will extend their rights so you don’t have to sign them within two years or lose them. You can have them for three or fours years and let them develop.
“We’ll see how the draft goes and what it looks like at the end, but I’m guessing that’s how it’s going to go: careful with the Russians, and maybe not so worried about the other guys.”
Washington has accumulated a great deal of young talent over the last five years, and that talent has been coming to the fore at the NHL level since the end of the 2004-05 lockout. The Caps are now in a position where they don’t need instant gratification or help from the draft. Washington merely needs to find two or three NHL players each year at the draft table, whether they come from the first round or the seventh round. The Caps have nine choices in the seven-round draft this year, including four of the top 58 choices.
“It’s a hard process when you’re drafting players this young because there is so much development physically and mentally to be done, but that’s the way our league is,” says McPhee. “The ideal situation is drafting someone who can play in the league and play right away, but that doesn’t happen a lot. I think coaches understand that and managers understand that.”
Players rarely play in the NHL in the same year in which they are drafted, and an NHL team might undergo a coaching change or two in the time it takes between a player being drafted and making his NHL debut. Unlike the NFL where drafted players are older and more physically and mentally developed, NHL coaches are typically not heavily involved in the draft process. Scouts scout, managers manage and coaches coach, doing so with varying degrees of input as to the players that they’re given. There can be a level of disconnect between the players the scouts are touting and the type of players a coach prefers.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau won the 2008 Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach, and he is getting set for his first training camp as an NHL head coach. Boudreau is in town and will be present at the Caps’ draft table this year. Some teams don’t typically include coaches in the draft process; some don’t even have coaches in place for the 2008-09 season as of yet.
“We’re going to have Bruce more a little more involved than some other coaches because he loves this stuff,” says McPhee. “So the disconnect may be less dramatic with our club because he’s going to see who we’re talking to and the process we’re going through. It will be good for him and hopefully good for us. I think it’s healthy in trying to bring our team along to have everyone involved and learning.”
Following is a list of Washington’s choices in the 2008 draft and a roster of notable players taken in previous NHL drafts with the same pick. For the most part, only players whose NHL careers lasted more than 200 games are listed. For Washington’s first choice (23rd overall), all players taken with that pick in this decade are also listed. Previous years' picks did not always fall in the same round as they do in 2008.
1st round, 23rd overall:
1969 – Bert Wilson, NY Rangers; 1971 – Dave Fortier, Toronto; 1972 – Tom Bladon, Philadelphia; 1973 – Wayne Bianchin, Pittsburgh; 1974 – Ron Sedlbauer, Vancouver; 1978 – Paul MacKinnon, Washington; 1980 – Moe Mantha, Winnipeg; 1981 – Claude Loiselle, Detroit; 1983 – Ville Siren, Hartford; 1984 – Craig Billington, New Jersey; 1987 – Ricard Persson, New Jersey; 1989 – Travis Green, NY Islanders; 1990 – Jiri Slegr, Vancouver; 1991 – Ray Whitney, San Jose; 1992 – Grant Marshall, Toronto; 1993 – Todd Bertuzzi, NY Islanders; 1995 – Mikka Elomo, Washington; 1997 – Scott Hannan, San Jose; 1998 – Milan Kraft, Pittsburgh; 1999 – Steve McCarthy, Chicago; 2000 -- Nathan Smith, Vancouver; 2001 – Tim Gleason, Ottawa; 2002 – Ben Eager, Phoenix; 2003 – Ryan Kesler, Vancouver; 2004 – Andrej Meszaros, Ottawa; 2005 – Nicklas Bergfors, New Jersey; 2006 – Simeon Varlamov, Washington; 2007 – Jonathan Blum, Nashville.
2nd round, 54th overall:
1980 – Jim Pavese, St. Louis; 1988 – Zdeno Ciger, New Jersey; 1991 – Chris Osgood, Detroit; 1994 – Chris Murray, Montreal; 2000 – Andreas Lilja, Los Angeles; 2002 – Duncan Keith, Chicago.
2nd round, 57th overall:
1980 – Troy Murray, Chicago; 1982 – Cory Millen, NY Rangers; 1984 – Steven Finn, Quebec; 1986 – Jyrki Lumme, Montreal; 1989 – Wes Walz, Boston; 2001 – Jay McClement, St. Louis; 2002 – Matt Stajan, Toronto.2nd round, 58th overall:
1974 – Pat Ribble, Atlanta; 1991 – Steve Konowalchuk, Washington; 1993 – Ville Peltonen, San Jose; 2002 – Jiri Hudler, Detroit.
3rd round, 84th overall:
1982 – Alan Kerr, NY Islanders; 1997 – Adam Mair, Toronto.4th round, 93rd overall:
1980 – Doug Shedden, Pittsburgh; 1988 – Peter Popovic, Montreal; 1998 – Tommy Westlund, Carolina; 1999 – Branko Radivojevic, Colorado; Stephane Veilleux, Minnesota.
5th round, 144th overall:
1972 – Garry Howatt, NY Islanders; 1984 – Darcy Wakaluk, Buffalo; 1991 – David Oliver, Edmonton; 1995 – Brent Sopel, Vancouver; 1997 – Matt Cooke, Vancouver; 2001 – Cody McCormick, Colorado.
6th round, 174th overall:
1993 – Andrew Brunette, Washington; 1996 – Trevor Letowski, Phoenix.
7th round, 204th overall:
1980 – Dan Frawley, Chicago; 1990 – Espen Knutsen, Hartford; 1992 – Nikolai Khabibulin, Winnipeg; 1996 – Tomas Kaberle, Toronto; 1999 – Tom Kostopoulos, Pittsburgh.