Capitals 2004 draft preview

By Rick Davis

Capitals Top 10 Prospects

1.Maxime Ouellet, G
2.Eric Fehr, RW
3.Jared Aulin, C
4.Tomas Fleishmann, LW
5.Maxime Daigneault, G
6.Rastislav Stana, G
7.Shaone Morrisonn, D
8.Nolan Yonkman, D
9.Jakub Klepis, C
10.Brooks Laich, C

The 2004 NHL Entry Draft marks the seventh one for George McPhee and company, all under majority team owner Ted Leonsis. Barring any trades, the team will be picking first overall, as well as 27th (from Boston) and 29th (from Detroit).

Washington is widely expected to take Alexander Ovechkin first overall in this draft. While some scouts have Evgeni Malkin rated very close or above Ovechkin, Central Scouting, The Hockey News, Red Line Report, McKeens Hockey,, International Scouting Services, and TSN’s Bob McKenzie all have Ovechkin in the top spot. Ovechkin is expected to inject hope and excitement into a Capitals franchise that had a nightmarish season last year.

Team Needs

Washington needs players who can play in the NHL right now. With Bates Battaglia becoming a UFA, the only player who has scored 20 goals in the NHL that is currently on the Capitals roster is Jeff Halpern (who is a RFA, and has only scored over 20 goals once in his career). Kip Miller (UFA) and Brian Willsie (RFA) both saw a lot of time on the top two lines last year, and they will also need new contracts if they are to return. Danius Zubrus and Matt Pettinger (both RFA’s) have not developed their offensive skill to the point the Caps would have liked, but could both see a decent amount of ice time as long as the Caps continue to be patient with them.

One thing Ovechkin would provide would be immediate scoring help. NHL teams almost never draft based solely on need, but with such a gaping hole at forward as the Capitals have and the expected impact Ovechkin is expected to have in the NHL, it would be extremely difficult for Washington to trade him. Hope sells tickets too, and this is something the Caps will consider.

Brendan Witt, Washington’s only truly established defenseman, also qualifies as a restricted free agent. The Caps have several good defensive prospects who could make the jump to the NHL as early as next year – Jakub Cutta, Nolan Yonkman, Shaone Morrisonn, and Steve Eminger as the most likely – but, don’t be surprised if the Caps elect to bring in at least one or two established NHL veterans via trade or free agency.

Since Washington picked up so many prospects in pre-deadline day trades, expect them to look for quality over quantity this draft day. Although they have five draft picks in the first two rounds (and the first pick of the third), they will target specific players and probably try to move up at least once to grab somebody.

Organizational Strengths

The Capitals have perhaps the deepest pool of prospects of any team in the league thanks to recent trades. They received a lot of very good AHL and junior league players in return. There is a core of players that had a fairly good playoff run last year in Portland (AHL) and Washington hopes to keep these players together as they work their way up to the parent club. Having so many high draft choices this year will only serve to boost their depth and hopefully create a solid core for years to come.

As an organization, Washington is extremely deep in quality goaltenders. Maxime Ouellet posted an unbelievable 10 shutouts last season with Portland, and appears ready to make the leap to the NHL. He will probably back up Olaf Kolzig in Washington next year, leaving one of the newly signed Maxime Daigneault or Justin Eddy to take over the reigns with the Pirates. Rastislav Stana, Ouellet’s backup and an AHL all star last season, will be playing in Sweden but the Capitals will retain his NHL rights.

The Capitals have also put themselves in a very good position as far as the CBA and apparent impending strike are concerned. Having dumped most of their huge contracts, Washington won’t be losing nearly as much money as they have been and should be able to sign Ovechkin, should they decide to draft him. If there ends up being no NHL hockey at all in 2004-05, Washington will still have many core players playing in Portland, taking another year of development under their belts and preparing for 2005-06.

Organizational Weaknesses

Believe it or not, the fact that Washington’s NHL squad was ineffective last year did not come as much of a surprise to most of the Capitals’ front office. Defense wins championships and Washington was too handcuffed to tremendous contracts given to star forwards – especially Jaromir Jagr – to be able to pay the veteran defensemen that they were sorely lacking. The poisonous atmosphere that had perpetuated the locker room alienated even the most seasoned fans, and interest in hockey waned inside the beltway.

Washington hockey needs a jump start. Winning the draft lottery was a good start. Alexander Ovechkin should bring with him, along with his buckets of talent, a new season in Capitals hockey. Washington has been drafting tough players who (hopefully), in a few years time, can will the team to win. But, the MCI Center will never be full of fans who want to watch dump-and-chase hockey. Ovechkin should be able to take center stage and have the opportunity to justify all the hype he has been receiving for 3-plus years.

That the Capitals are essentially planning on playing so many young players is also a concern. Olaf Kolzig will need to be amazing for the Caps to have even a decent season next year. Playing Maxime Ouellet risks destroying his confidence by putting him behind four or more inexperienced defensemen. This limits the comfort zone with the idea of trading Kolzig; besides that, Kolzig is a fan favorite and so a team would probably have to overpay to acquire him, unless Ouellet steps up and takes the No. 1 goalie spot away from him early in the year.

Draft Tendencies

Much has been made of Washington’s recent tendency toward WHL players. Since 1999 (1998’s draft was done with much of the last regime’s scouting staff), Washington has picked up about 38 percent WHL players from its drafting. Four of the six players Washington has taken in the first round since 1999 were from the WHL, with Steve Eminger and Alexander Semin in 2002 the only exceptions.

It seems to have gone largely unnoticed that the Caps seem to like to spread out their draft picks, having never drafted from less than four different leagues in each year, even including two years with only six total picks. Dale Hunter’s advice even led to a well-publicized pick in 2000 with the selection of Ryan VanBuskirk in the fourth round.

This has led to some speculation that the Caps’ newest scout, Calle Johansson, will be allowed to take a pick of his own. Adding to this theory is the idea that Calle essentially acquired the 66th pick overall by himself by agreeing to a trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs late last year. Since Calle is scouting for the Caps in Sweden, he would most likely choose a player from that area if he were to select a player.

The last time the Capitals had multiple first round draft picks was 2002, when they selected Steve Eminger, Alexander Semin, and Boyd Gordon. They appeared to be attempting to trade up even farther for Rick Nash, but no deal was ever consummated. Eminger and Gordon were seen as safe picks, but the Caps rolled the dice with Alexander Semin and it seems to be paying off. Given that they have the (in addition to the first), the 27th and 29th picks this year, don’t be surprised to see them roll the dice with one pick and try to play it safe with the other. The Capitals also have the depth in their system of prospects to be able to focus on quality over quantity, and may very well try to trade up once again.

Player most likely to be taken (Hockey’s Future mock draft result): Alexander Ovechkin, F

Seth Keggins contributed to this article.