The 1977-78 edition of the Washington Capitals was a huge disappointment. In the fourth season of its existence, the team finished with an abysmal 17-49-14 record and totaled 14 fewer points than it had in its third season. The Capitals scored 195 goals, tied for the fewest in the NHL. They gave up 321, just four shy of the highest in the league.
As the long offseason began in the spring of 1978, the Capitals looked to the Amateur Draft as one of several means for significant and immediate improvement. The Caps held the second overall choice in the 1978 draft and owned three of the top 23 picks. Heading into their fifth season, the Capitals were an awful club with an awful lot of work to do. Those draft picks would be crucial if the team hoped to emerge from the mire in which it had wallowed for four years.
Before draft day rolled around, the Caps managed to improve their lot even more.
With 48 points, Washington was among the four worst clubs in the 18-team NHL in ’77-78. Minnesota had 45 points, St. Louis totaled 53 and Cleveland finished with 57. At the end of the season, Cleveland owner Gordon Gund approached Washington owner Abe Pollin and inquired about the possibility of merging the Barons and the Capitals for the 1978-79 season. Pollin politely declined, and Gund turned his attention to Minnesota. That merger was unanimously approved.
The merging clubs were permitted to protect a total of two goaltenders and 10 skaters from their combined rosters. The remaining players would then be made available to the rest of the league for a $30,000 fee, with Washington having the first choice.
According to a Robert Fachet piece in the June 15, 1978 edition of The Washington Post, “In a shattering commentary on the quality of talent that graced the uniforms of those also-rans last year, the Capitals declined to choose anyone. Instead, Washington’s alternate governor, Peter O’Malley used his legal background to advantage. He unearth [sic] a loophole in the merger agreement by which Washington instead was given the 18th pick in the first round, a pick that otherwise would have been voided.”
O’Malley’s contention was that Cleveland’s first round choice was – like the players on the unprotected list – a dispensable asset and the Capitals elected to pay $30,000 for the choice rather than one of the players off the Cleveland/Minnesota unprotected list.
With the sudden addition of a second first-round choice, the Capitals found themselves in the proverbial catbirds’ seat. Washington owned two picks in each of the first three rounds. The Caps now held four of the top 23 choices, six of the first 45 and seven of the top 55. In a draft that was thought to be flush with offensive talent, the Caps were loaded for bear.
In the days leading up to the draft, Washington cut loose two fistfuls of veterans who had been with the club during the lean early years. Defensemen Larry Bolonchuk, Jean Lemieux, Murray Anderson and Bill Mikkelson and forwards Ace Bailey, Gord Brooks, Bill Collins, Tony White, Paul Nicholson, Alex Forsyth and Brian Kinsella were told their contracts would not be renewed. Each of them became an unrestricted free agent, able to cut a deal with any other club in the league. Of the 11 players, only White ever played in the NHL again. He skated in six games with the North Stars in 1979-80.
The process of replacing those players began in earnest a few days prior to the draft when the Caps announced that they had signed their first two European free agents. Center Rolf Edberg, 27, and defenseman Leif Svensson, 26, became the first European born and trained players to wear the Capitals’ colors when they suited up for Washington the following fall.
The signings of Edberg and Svensson came about as a direct result of the spring hiring of Arne Stromberg. Stromberg, who had led the Swedish national club to three world titles in his 11 years as coach, helped discover and develop the likes of Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom. Stromberg was given a position in the Washington front office.
Washington hoped that its bounty of early round draft choices would enable it to make a trade for an established player or two but it was not to be.
Capitals general manager Max McNab was quoted thusly in the June 1, 1978 edition of The Washington Post: “We’ll likely have something to announce prior to the draft (June 15). There are a couple of moves we’re fairly close on, involving our extra draft choices (a second and a third). We don’t want to touch our first round and we don’t want to cut ourselves completely out of any round.”
With the first overall choice, Minnesota was expected to choose Ottawa 67s center Bobby Smith. On draft day, the North Stars played right along and took Smith. As expected, the Caps then chose Ryan Walter, a center from the Seattle Breakers of the Western Hockey League.
As predicted, the draft was heavily weighted with offensive talent. Only eight defensemen and one goaltender were chosen in the first two rounds; the other 27 players were forwards.
Washington chose left wing Tim Coulis with the 18th overall pick and left winger Paul Mulvey with the 20th selection. The Caps finally began to address their backline with the 23rd pick when they chose blueliner Paul MacKinnon.
In the third round, the Caps took center Glen Currie with the 38th pick and defenseman Jay Johnston with the 45th overall choice. Round four brought another Swede – right wing Bengt Gustafsson – into the Washington organization. Gustafsson was taken with the 55th overall pick. The Capitals went on to draft a dozen more players for a total of 19. It was the most players Washington had chosen in the Amateur Draft since it tabbed 25 players in its first-ever draft in 1974. The 19 players chosen in ’78 still stands as the second most ever picked up in a single draft by the Washington franchise.
Predictably, the Capitals were ecstatic over their haul in the wake of the proceedings. (Understand that the next NHL team that immediately admits that it has had a bad draft will be the first NHL team to do so.)
“As far as the franchise is concerned, we got the best couple available,” McNab was quoted as saying in the June 16, 1978 edition of the Washington Post. “Ryan Walter’s attitude and maturity are remarkable and his courage and aggressiveness are unquestioned. Tim Coulis also has a shot at making the club this year. He was rated No. 10 by Central Scouting.”
Caps chief scout Red Sullivan lavished praise on Mulvey.
“He had 43 goals playing on Portland’s No. 1 line and we feel he could be a real steal where we drafted him,” said Sullivan. “He wants to play badly. His skating is a little rough now but that’s true of most of the big guys his age. Peter Mahovlich was that way and look at him skate now.”
Sullivan shared McNab’s enthusiasm over the Walter pick.
“He’s the type of hockey player with the leadership qualities we’ve been looking for,” said Sullivan. “He’s a great player in the dressing room as well as on the ice. He’s the best checker in junior hockey and I mean checking on the NHL level.”
Washington also went across the ocean and chose a pair of European players for the first time in franchise history. The Caps nabbed Gustafsson and also chose Mats Hallin in the seventh round (105th overall). According to the June 16 edition of The Washington Star, NHL scouts considered Gustafsson and Hallin as the best available European talent and claimed that Gustafsson could play for the Caps right away.
Walter turned out to be a great pick. Despite missing the first seven weeks of the season with a knee injury, he finished second in Calder Trophy balloting and went on to become the youngest captain in Caps team history. Walter enjoyed four strong seasons with the Caps before he was dealt to Montreal in the September 1982 swap for Rod Langway.
The Caps had high hopes for both Coulis and Mulvey, hoping that one or both would develop into that rare but highly coveted NHL species, the power forward.
“There’s nobody who can really push these two guys around,” effused McNab on Coulis and Mulvey in the days immediately following the draft.
Neither Coulis nor Mulvey lived up to billing, though. Coulis played in just 47 games in parts of four NHL seasons. He was packaged with defenseman Robert Picard and shipped to Toronto in the 1980 trade that brought colorful netminder Mike Palmateer to Washington.
Mulvey’s NHL career lasted 225 games. He spent three seasons as a useful role player in DC, scoring 15 goals and totaling 34 points as a sophomore in 1979-80. He was later awarded to the Penguins as compensation for the Capitals’ signing of free agent Orest Kindrachuk.
Mulvey’s NHL career ended sadly. While with the Kings in 1981-82, Mulvey was ordered by LA coach Don Perry to incite a bench-clearing brawl with the Vancouver Canucks. Mulvey refused. He was benched for the remainder of the game and waived less than a week later. Just 24 at the time, he would never play in another NHL game. The league fined and suspended Perry after the incident came to light.
MacKinnon played in only 147 NHL games spread over five seasons, all with Washington. A member of the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets in 1978-79, MacKinnon got into 63 games as a rookie but never again played in as many as 40 contests in any NHL campaign.
Currie’s NHL career spanned 326 games and eight seasons. Only once – in 1983-84 – was Currie’s NHL work not interrupted by a trip to the minor leagues.
Johnston played in only eight NHL contests but Gustafsson proved to be an excellent pick. He played in 629 games over nine seasons with Washington, totaling 196 goals and 555 points.
Fifth-rounder Lou Franceschetti carved out a 459-game NHL career for himself. He was a feisty fan favorite in Washington for several years. Wes Jarvis, chosen in the 14th round with the 213th pick, forged a modest 237-game career over nine seasons with four different NHL clubs.
Washington’s ’78 draft and the signings of Edberg and Svensson had hockey hopes very high in DC that summer. In the wake of the Washington Bullets’ NBA championship season, Pollin took out a full-page ad in the June 26, 1978 issue of The Washington Post. The ad was entitled, “My Report to Washington Area Sports Fans” and proclaimed, “I promised you an improved hockey team and here’s what I’ve just done about it.”
The ad went on to highlight four “big steps” the Capitals had made since the close of the 1977-78 regular season. The first one was trumpeted as, “The best draft picks in the entire NHL.” It went on to proclaim, “No other team’s draft even approaches ours for depth and player quality.”
While that claim sounds hyperbolic in retrospect, it really wasn’t all that far off the mark.
Only 29 of the 234 players (12.4 percent) chosen in the 1978 draft went on to enjoy careers of 500 or more games in the NHL. Ninety-two members of the Class of ’78 (39.3 percent) actually made it to the NHL for as much as a single game. Of the 19 players selected by the Caps, two (Walter and Gustafsson) played in more than 500 NHL games, putting Washington right near the league average for that class of player. Ten of Washington’s 19 draft choices eventually reached the NHL, putting the Caps well above the league average in that respect.
Four NHL clubs managed to snare more than two 500-gamers out of the 1978 Draft. Minnesota had the first overall choice and picked up three such players (Smith, Steve Payne and Curt Giles). With the third overall pick, St. Louis plucked four players (Wayne Babych, Jim Nill, Paul MacLean and Risto Siltanen) who went on to play in more than 500 NHL contests. Vancouver, picking fourth in the first round, also grabbed three members (Bill Derlago, Curt Fraser and Stan Smyl) of the 500-game club. The Montreal Canadiens also drafted three 500-gamers. With one of their two first-rounders, the Habs took Dave Hunter, brother of longtime Capital Dale Hunter. Later choices netted Keith Acton and Chris “Knuckles” Nilan for Montreal. Nilan was the 231st player chosen overall.
History shows that the NHL draft is a crapshoot and the 1978 event illustrates this point as well as any. Like virtually every other club in the league, the Caps had a few hits and more than a few misses. Because of the sheer number of early round picks they had and their desperate need for talented players, the ’78 draft must have been mildly disappointing to the Washington brass. There were more lean years to come on the ice, but the Caps’ performance at the 1978 draft was better than most of the rest of the league’s.