Washington Capitals reaping rewards for diligent drafting in 2006

By Patrick Harbolick
Photo: The 2006 draft produced several NHL quality starters for the Washington Capitals including goaltender Michal Neuvirth. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Capitals had a busy 2006 NHL Entry Draft, with 10 selections, including two first round picks and two second-rounders. General Manager George McPhee used the draft to fill out his organizational depth, selecting three centers, a right winger, three left wingers, a defenseman, and two goaltenders. Some of his picks haven’t turned out that well, but he selected several building blocks for the future, including center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. Along with sixth-round pick Mathieu Perreault, the first three players the Capitals selected have already spent significant time at the NHL level and are impacting the current Capitals’ roster right now.

Nicklas Backstrom, C, Brynas IF (SEL) – 1st round, 4th overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games: 301

Franchise left winger Alexander Ovechkin strolled confidently up to the podium on draft day and tabbed Nicklas Backstrom with the fourth overall pick. Full of limitless promise, immense hockey sense, and exceptional playmaking skills, he appeared to be the franchise first-line center to complement Ovechkin. And so far, he’s lived up to his billing. After the draft, he spent the next season in Sweden, honing his game. In 2007-08, he made the jump to the NHL and hasn’t looked back since. In first professional season, he notched 69 points, runner-up to Patrick Kane in both rookie point-scoring and voting for the Calder Trophy. He was also named to NHL All-Rookie team.

In the 2008-09 season, he was given more offensive responsibility and responded well, improving on his goal (22), assist (66), and point (88) totals. This was his first season playing almost exclusively with Ovechkin, helping the talented Russian capture the Rocket Richard, Lester B. Pearson, and Hart trophies. After the 2009 playoffs, Backstrom was given the Viking Award, annually awarded to the best Swedish-born player playing in the NHL.

Backstrom really arrived in the 2009-10 season, again improving upon his goal (33), assist (68), and point totals (101), along with posting an impressive career-best plus-37. He finished the season fourth in league scoring, trailing only Henrik Sedin (112), Sidney Crosby (109), and teammate Alexander Ovechkin (109). He also had a magnificent showing at the 2010 Winter Olympics, leading Team Sweden in scoring with six points in four games, en route to a disappointing quarter-final loss to Slovakia.

Now in his fourth NHL season, Backstrom has a consecutive games streak of 301 and counting. His offensive totals have dipped as the Capitals have struggled to adjust to a more defensively oriented system; however, he’s shown flashes of his elite-level talent and his dedication to the game has never wavered.

He may be the best offensive talent to come out of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and the Capitals have found their first-line center of the present and foreseeable future. Promptly after the conclusion of the 2009-10 season, Backstrom signed a 10-year/$67 million deal with the Capitals, ensuring he’ll be passing to Ovechkin in the slot for many years to come.

Semyon Varlamov, G, Yaroslavl (Rus2) – 1st round, 23rd overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games: 53

Ovechkin also announced the selection of his countryman Semyon Varlamov on draft day, making Varlamov only the second goaltender the Capitals have selected in the first round in franchise history. After spending the next two seasons in Russia, he transitioned to the NHL game as the starter with the Hershey Bears (AHL) and received a few starts as the Capitals’ goaltenders struggled with injuries during the 2008-09 season. Varlamov won his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens, 2-1, making 32 saves en route to being named the first star of the game. He finished the 2008-09 season with a record of 4-0-1, a goals against average of 2.37, and a save percentage of .918 at the NHL level. For Hershey, he posted a record of 19-7-1, a goals against average of 2.40, and a save percentage of .916. He replaced Jose Theodore in Game 1 of the NHL playoffs in the opening series against the New York Rangers, and didn’t relinquish the job until being lifted in favor of Theodore during a blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the second round.

Varlamov started the 2009-2010 season backing up Theodore, but appeared to be taking hold of the starting job before suffering a groin injury that limited him to 26 games. He posted a record of 15-4-6 to go along with a 2.55 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. He even garnered some consideration for the Calder Trophy before the groin issues shortened his campaign. In the 2010 playoffs, he again replaced Theodore in Game 1 against Montreal and started the rest of the games in the disappointing first-round loss to the Canadiens in seven games.

With Theodore being let go after the conclusion of the 2009-10 season, Varlamov and fellow rookie Michal Neuvirth were expected to compete for the starting role in the 2010-11 season. Varlamov was expected to be the de facto starter after training camp, but an injury held him out of the first several games at the start of the season. He’s battled groin and lower-body injuries this season, but when he’s been healthy, he’s been dynamite. The Capitals have struggled with the changes to the system this season, but Varlamov has kept them in games with a stellar 2.13 goals against average and .928 save percentage.

On the whole, Varlamov’s future still remains clouded. He’s struggled with groin injuries throughout his young career and he’ll be a restricted free agent after the 2010-11 season. With Neuvirth also vying for the starting role, it remains to be seen if they will continue to split starts or if one will be moved to pave the way for the other to take the goaltending reins.

Michal Neuvirth, G, Sparta (Cze Jr.) – 2nd round, 34th overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games: 51

The Capitals selected Michal Neuvirth in the second round, the first time they’ve taken two goaltenders in the draft since 2002. He was tabbed with the 34th overall pick after a successful season in the Czech Junior League for Sparta. In t
he 2006-07, season he started 41 games for the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL, posting a fantastic 26-8-4 record, a solid 2.32 goals against average, and a sterling .932 save percentage. The Whalers lost in the semi-final of the 2007 Memorial Cup, but Neuvirth sparkled in the playoffs, notching a 14-4 record, a 2.45 goals against average, and a .932 save percentage.
Neuvirth began the 2007-08 OHL season with Plymouth, but was traded to Windsor and later to Oshawa. The constant movement may have affected his game, as his goals against average and save percentage dipped to 3.12 and .911, respectively. He played better in the OHL playoffs; however, Oshawa didn’t advance to the 2008 Memorial Cup.

The 2008-09 season marked Neuvirth’s professional debut, as he split time with the South Carolina Stingrays (ECHL), Hershey Bears, and Washington Capitals. He was named to the ECHL all-star team, played several games for the Bears, and even made his NHL debut, a 5-1 win against Tampa Bay. He returned to Hershey for the Calder Cup playoffs, where he truly shined. He posted a 16-6 record and set an AHL record with 1.92 goals against average throughout the playoffs. He was awarded Jack A. Butterfield trophy as Playoff MVP as the Bears went on the capture the Calder Cup.

Neuvirth opened the 2009-10 season with the Bears, notching a 15-6 record over the course of the season, along with a 2.24 goals against average and a .919 save percentage. Injuries to Varlamov led to an extended stay with the Capitals, in which he posted a 9-4 record, a solid 2.75 goals against average, and a .914 save percentage. Once again, he returned to Hershey for the Calder Cup playoffs, playing great en route to winning a second consecutive Calder Cup.

Battling with Varlamov for the starring role in net, Neuvirth opened the 2010-11 season after Varlamov missed some time with an injury. By many accounts, he was their best player to start the season. Unfortunately, some injuries have limited his time in goal, but he’s managed to win 16 games so far and keep the Capitals in games in which their offense has sputtered.

Before the 2010-11 season got underway, Neuvirth signed a two year contract extension with the Capitals. It was a curious move, considering it hadn’t really been determined if Varlamov or Neuvirth would seize the starting role. For now, Neuvirth looks to be in the Capitals’ plans, although it’s been suggested either of the young goaltenders could be moved eventually.

Francois Bouchard, RW, Baie-Comeau (QMJHL) – 2nd round, 35th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games: 0

Bouchard was tabbed by the Capitals in the second round after breaking the 100-point mark in the 2005-06 QMJHL season. The following season, he led the QMJHL in scoring with an outstanding 125 points in 68 games. After another season in the ‘Q’, Bouchard made his professional debut with the Bears, playing four games with them in during the 2007-08 season. In 2008-09, he joined the team full-time, posting 35 points in 64 games. He also played in 11 playoff games for Hershey, adding three points and helping the team win the Calder Cup. For the 2009-10 season, Bouchard saw an increase in his minutes and offensive responsibility. He rose to the challenge, notching 52 points and a plus-21 in 77 games. In the playoffs, he posted 10 points in 21 games as the Bears went on to win their second consecutive Calder Cup in 2010.

Unfortunately, Bouchard has had an up-and-down season thus far in 2010-11. He’s struggled with bouts of inconsistency, putting up only 16 points in 44 games. The Capitals expected more out of him during training camp, but he failed to wow the Capitals’ brass. He’s an offensively minded guy on a team flush with forward talent. A restricted free agent after this season, it remains to be seen if he’ll even be re-signed, let alone make the NHL roster.

Keith Seabrook, D, Burnaby (BCHL) – 2nd round, 52nd overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games: 0

Keith Seabrook had a solid offensive season for Burnaby of the BCHL in 2005-06, posting 53 points in 77 combine regular and postseason games. The Capitals salivated at his offensive talent, taking him in the second round. He spent a year at the University of Denver, but left after one season to join the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. He was dominant in the 2008-09 season, notching 19 goals and 51 assists in 82 combined regular and postseason games. He was traded to Calgary following the 2008-09 season, and he’s been a mainstay on the Abbotsford Heat (AHL) blue line since.

He’s acquitted himself well thus far this season, posting 18 points in 43 games. His future with Calgary is uncertain, but he may receive injury call-ups as he rounds out his overall game and tries to stick at the NHL level.

Oskar Osala, LW, Mississauga (OHL) – 4th round, 97th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games: 3

Oskar Osala was drafted out of Mississauga (OHL) after posting 43 points in 68 games. The Capitals believed he had the right mix of offensive touch and physicality to become a good power forward, if given time to develop. After another solid season for Mississauga, he returned home to Finland to play in the SM-liiga. Following his season overseas, he signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Capitals and joined the Bears for the 2008-09 season. He notched 37 points in 75 games, contributing to the Calder Cup win for the Bears in 2009. In the 2009-10 season, he improved his points total to 42 points, despite playing fewer games. He was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes at the trade deadline in a package deal to land Joe Corvo.

After a strong showing in Carolina’s training camp, he played a game for them before being sent down to the Charlotte Checkers (AHL) for the 2010-11 season. He’s played great for the Checkers, on-pace to surpass his career-best totals, with 41 points in only 52 games played so far. With proper development, don’t be too surprised to see him in a Hurricanes jersey in the near future.

Luke Lynes, LW, Brampton (OHL) – 4th round, 122nd overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games: 0

During the 2005-06 OHL season, Luke Lynes put up 62 points in 65 games for Brampton. The Capitals selected him the fourth round, and he went on to post nearly a point-per-game in his next two seasons in the OHL. After a few stints in the minor leagues (including the ECHL and the Central Hockey League), Lynes went on to the play for the hockey team
at the University of New Brunswick during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.

It appears his hockey career is over now, or at least his NHL career certainly is.

Maxime Lacroix, LW, Quebec (QMJHL) – 5th round, 127th overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games: 0

After a solid season in the QMJHL for the Quebec Remparts, the Capitals drafted Maxime Lacroix in the fifth round, hoping he could contribute as a defensive forward down the line. After two more seasons with Quebec, he played professionally with the Bears and the Stingrays, spending most of the 2008-09 season with the Stingrays. He put up 64 points in 63 ECHL contests, maybe showing he had what it takes to play at the AHL level. He was let go, and signed with the Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL) for the 2009-10 season. He split time with the Bulldogs and Cincinnati Cyclones (ECHL). Following the 2009-2010 season, he was brought back into the fold by the Bears and he’s split time playing for South Carolina and Hershey this season.

Lacroix has bounced around a bit at the minor league level, and he doesn’t seem to factor into the long term plans of the Capitals.

Brent Gwidt, C, Lakeland High School (USHSW) – 6th round, 157th overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games: 0

In the 2005 high school season, Gwidt sniped a spectacular 41 goals in only 21 games for Lakeland (Wisconsin). The Capitals took a flier on him in the sixth round, hoping his offensive game would translate to higher levels some day. He was drafted in the first round by the Indiana Ice (USHL), and played three seasons for them, in which he posted 63 points in 171 games. He joined the University of Nebraska-Omaha for the 2009-10 season, in which he notched 5 points in 30 games. In his second season with the UNO Mavericks, he’s matched last season’s point total in 26 games so far.

His offensive game hasn’t translated beyond the high school level and is no longer in the Capitals’ long term plans.

Mathieu Perreault, C, Acadie-Bathurst (QMJHL) – 6th round, 177th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games: 49

Being selected in the sixth round doesn’t bode well for a prospect, but Mathieu Perreault has defied the odds by making it to the NHL. He was drafted after putting up 52 points in 62 games with Acadie-Bathurst (QMHJL). He followed up his decent rookie campaign with two spectacular seasons, topping 100 points in consecutive seasons from 2006-07 to 2007-08. He joined the Hershey Bears full-time in 2008-09, notching 58 points in 98 combined regular and postseason games as the Bears went on to win the Calder Cup. Going into the 2009-10 season, he was expected to play a more significant role with the Bears and that he did, posting 50 points in just 56 games. He was called up to the Capitals due to several injuries among forwards and got into 21 games of NHL action, scoring four goals and adding five assists along the way. He was returned to the Bears for the Calder Cup playoffs, where he scored 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 21 games as the Bears won their second consecutive championship.

Perreault has spent the majority of the 2010-11 season with the Capitals, suiting up for 28 games in which he’s added 12 points. He’s also seen time with Hershey, notching 25 points in 18 games. His small stature has made his path to the NHL a long, arduous one but he’s continued to battle to find the consistency that young players often struggle to achieve. Perreault is a restricted free agent after this season, and the energy and scoring he provides are assets in his favor. Down the road, however, he may not establish himself as an NHL player if he can’t find the game-to-game consistency demanded of him by his coaches. Regardless, the odds of making the NHL as a sixth-rounder are slim, and Perreault has beaten those odds, rewarding McPhee’s faith in him.