Twenty-four years ago, the Capitals found themselves in a somewhat unfamiliar position at the NHL’s Entry Draft. With the 17th pick overall in the first round, Washington’s draft position was the latest it had ever been in the first round, aside from trades.
The Caps traded their top pick in 1975 for Philadelphia’s, and wound up with the last pick in the
|Dave Christian |
first round, the 18th overall selection that year. Washington traded away its first-round choice in 1983 to Winnipeg in exchange for forward Dave Christian, a deal that paid instant dividends when Christian finished second on the team in scoring (81 points) in 1983-84, his first season in a Caps sweater. The Caps did not have a pick in the first three rounds of the 1983 draft; the team’s first selection was right wing Tim Berglund with its fourth-round choice (77th overall).
The Caps’ second straight successful season on the ice dropped Washington’s initial pick down to the latter stages of the first round. The 1983-84 Caps went 48-27-5 and racked up what was then a club record 101 points. For most of the first decade of the team’s existence, the Capitals were consistently picking in the top five of the draft.
“With the position we’re in, it’s a tremendous challenge,” head coach Bryan Murray told The Washington Times
on June 8, 1984, a day before the draft was conducted at the Montreal Forum. “We have seen some pretty good players who have a chance to play; some big strong kids who can play.
“Size is a factor for us, and there may be a few left with pretty good size. We have to add some dimension to our hockey club.”
Those comments would prove to be prescient.
The 1984 NHL Entry Draft was the 22nd consecutive draft held in Montreal. The following year, the draft was held in Toronto in keeping with the NHL’s plan to move the location around to other cities in the league, as is done today.
The ’84 draft was the first draft telecast across Canada. The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) provided live national coverage of the draft in both English and French. The 1984 draft was also noteworthy because the league arranged for European Sports Services, a European scouting service based in Finland, to supply teams with a ranked listing of eligible European-born draft prospects.
Washington went in with the 17th overall pick and the Caps had a pick in all 12 rounds except the fifth, which they had previously dealt to Chicago in a deal that brought Ted Bulley and Dave Hutchinson to the District. The Caps picked 13th in the second round, using a pick obtained from Minnesota in the Dennis Maruk deal. Washington had dealt its own second-rounder to Calgary for goaltender Pat Riggin.
Several Caps – including the recently crowned Selke Trophy winner Doug Jarvis – and a throng of fans were on hand live at Capital Centre where the CBC telecast of draft was shown live on the Telscreen. The 1984 draft was memorable for Pittsburgh’s selection of Mario Lemieux with the first overall pick, and also for the petulant Lemieux’s refusal to don a Pittsburgh sweater for the event because he was unhappy with the Pens’ contract offer. (Ten days later, he had signed on the dotted line.)
In the days and hours leading up to the draft, there was some talk of Washington trading up to make a deal with Minnesota if left wing Gary Roberts was still available. The Caps had identified left wing as a position of particular need going into the draft. Minnesota held the 13th pick, but Calgary swooped in and took Roberts with the 12th choice, scotching Washington’s hope of moving up and taking the winger.
For Washington, the draft ended up being one with a great deal of international flavor. When the dust had settled, the Caps came away with five Canadians, two Americans, a Soviet, a Finn, a Swede and a Czech.
“I thought this draft was the best we ever had in terms of overall depth,” said the late Jack Button, longtime director of player personnel and recruitment in the June 11, 1984 edition of The Washington Times.
|Kevin Hatcher |
The Caps chose sizeable (6-foot-3, 185 pounds) defenseman Kevin Hatcher with that first selection, the 17th overall. Hatcher played in 685 games over 10 seasons in a Capitals uniform and played a total of 1,157 regular season contests in the league. He still holds the franchise record for most goals in a season by a defenseman (34 in 1992-93).
“He’s already an imposing boy, and he’s just going to get bigger and bigger,” said Button of Hatcher, noting that the young defenseman’s father and older brother both stand 6-foot-7.
“I’m going to use the standard general manager cliché and say we were surprised that Kevin Hatcher was available when we picked,” said Poile. “I have to stand on my tip-toes to look into his eyes and I like that.”
Hatcher needed a while to grow to his playing weight of 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. He spent almost all of the 1984-85 season playing junior hockey for the North Bay Centennials of the OHL, where he was briefly a teammate of ex-Caps defenseman Joe Reekie. Hatcher was 18 when he debuted for the Caps, and 19 when he made the NHL for good. He made it to the NHL for good without ever having played a single game in the minor leagues, and is the last defenseman drafted by the Caps to hold that distinction.
“It isn’t the same situation as Bobby Carpenter and Scott Stevens,” said Poile in the June 11, 1984 edition of The Washington Post
. “We’re not going to rush Kevin. If he’s a good player for us in the future, I’ll be happy.”
After taking Michigan native Hatcher in the first round, the Caps kept it American when they went for Massachusetts native Steve Leach in the second round (34th overall). Leach is the younger brother of Jay Leach, currently a Capitals assistant coach.
“We had him rated as a first-round pick,” said Button of Leach. “In fact, we wouldn’t have been unhappy if we had picked him with the 17th pick.”
Leach signed a pro contract after two years at the University of New Hampshire. He went on to
|Steve Leach |
play more than 700 NHL games in a 16-year career in the league. Leach scored a career-high 31 goals for the Boston Bruins in 1991-92, the year after the Caps shipped him to Boston for Randy Burridge.
The Caps hit paydirt again in the third round when they tabbed Czech center Michal Pivonka with the 59th overall choice. Pivonka spent the entirety of his 825-game NHL career in Washington and is the club’s all-time career leader with 418 assists.
The choice of Pivonka was a risky pick at the time, because the only way he could play for the Caps would be by defecting from his native Czechoslovakia.
“He’s a world-class player at 18,” said Button of Pivonka. “In fact, I would have taken him before Petr Svoboda.” The Canadiens took Svoboda with the fifth overall pick. Montreal knew what some teams did not: that Svoboda had already defected. Habs GM Serge Savard surprised many and excited Habs fans when he produced Svoboda live on the draft floor.
“You never know if you can get them out,” admitted Button after the Caps chose Pivonka. “But look at Peter Stastny. He got out.”
So did Pivonka.
Two years after he was drafted, Pivonka and his fiancée defected together while on vacation in Yugoslavia. The pair went to Rome, Italy, where the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service granted them temporary refugee status. Washington had already secretly signed the center to a five-year deal, and soon afterwards he was introduced to the local media at a press conference.
Washington’s fourth-round pick was Kris King, a Roger Nielson disciple who played junior hockey in Peterborough. King went on to enjoy an 849-game NHL career, but he never played for the Capitals. Detroit signed him as a free agent on Mar. 1987, at the conclusion of his junior career.
The Caps drafted three more European players after Pivonka in 1984. They chose Finnish center Timo Iljima in the seventh round (143rd overall), Soviet defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov in the 11th round (225th) and Swedish blueliner Per Schedrin in the 12th and final round (246th). The Caps were able to make the Tatarinov selection with the 225th pick, a choice that Philadelphia had to forfeit when Flyers officials called the name of an ineligible player, one who had already been chosen earlier in the proceedings.
“With players like that you give them two or three years to mature and see how they develop,” noted Button of his trio of late-round European selections. “If they can be the type of players we think they can be, money is no consideration. You just go out and grab them.”
|Mikhail Tatarinov |
Tatarinov in particular was a player that Button and the Caps ranked highly. He was the only one of the three late-round Europeans who made it to the NHL. After several seasons with the famed Moscow Dynamo team, Tatarinov made his way to North America and suited up for the Capitals in 1990-91. It was the first of his four seasons in the league.
“He’s a dominating player, ranked first in his class by all,” said Button. “Believe me, there’s a specific reason why we selected him. I can’t reveal it but you can read into it what you want.”
Maybe Button knew he'd be able to get Tatarinov out of the Soviet Union.
Tatarinov holds a historic distinction in NHL history. He joined the Caps at the age of 24, becoming the first player ever allowed to leave the Soviet Union to play in the NHL with his country’s blessing. He thus became the first Soviet player under the age of 30 allowed to play in the NHL without defecting. Button and the Caps negotiated a deal in which they sent several hundred thousand dollars to the Soviets in exchange for their blessing.
The Caps also got some NHL mileage from ninth-round (185th overall) right wing Jim Thomson and 10th round (205th overall) Paul Cavallini. Thomson played in 115 NHL games, including 24 with Washington. Cavallini played 30 games with the Caps before he was shipped to St. Louis for a second-rounder (Wade Bartley) in the 1988 Entry Draft, and he played 71 more games with Washington during a second stint with the Capitals in 1992-93. Cavallini played in 564 regular season NHL games.
With strong choices in each of the first three rounds and some clever late picks, the 1984 draft class stands as one of the best in the Caps’ history. But in the immediate aftermath of the draft, Washington’s bench boss sounded a mite disappointed at his team’s inability to address what he perceived to be one of its chief needs, one that Roberts would have filled nicely.
“We need a goal scorer, not necessarily a [Mike] Bossy or a [Rick] Middleton, but just somebody who can take advantage of the chances,” said Murray in the June 11 Post. “We got so many chances this year that we couldn’t finish off. We know Mike Gartner will get 35 or 40 goals and we think Bobby Carpenter will reach those figures, if he’s healthy. To be a genuine Stanley Cup contender, we need one more.”
Murray was a bit shy of the mark with that comment. Gartner scored 50 goals in 1984-85 and Carpenter netted 53. But he was right about needing another goal scorer. Christian potted 26 and Alan Haworth chipped in with 23. Those four were the only Caps forwards to reach the 20-goal plateau as the Caps went 46-25-9 to match the previous campaign’s 101-point output.
For kicks and posterity, here are the six players drafted after Hatcher who ended up scoring more goals in the NHL than Hatcher’s 227.
Second Round (27) – Scott Mellanby, Philadelphia (364)
Second Round (29) – Stephane Richer, Montreal (421)
Third Round (60) – Ray Sheppard, Buffalo (357)
Sixth Round (117) – Brett Hull, Calgary (741)
Seventh Round (137) – Cliff Ronning, St. Louis (306)
Ninth Round (171) – Luc Robitaille, Los Angeles (668)
Richer and Robitaille were the only left wingers in the bunch.