You could certainly argue the Washington Capitals have risen to the upper reaches of the NHL using the tried-and-true method of building a contender – by being so bad for such a long period of time that they couldn’t help but have a number of potential NHL superstars fall in their lap.
On the surface it looks like a fair comment. After all, the revival of NHL hockey in Washington has had an enormous amount to do with the fact the Capitals got Alex Ovechkin first overall in 2004 and Nicklas Backstrom with the fourth overall pick two drafts later.
But to attribute all the Capitals success to just that would ignore the tremendous work GM George McPhee has done rebuilding this team, particularly what he did during the 2003-04 season that fell off the rails. By making some very difficult decisions that resulted in some terrific moves, McPhee essentially set the future course of the franchise that season.
Of course, he had some help in this. The Capitals were bleeding money that season and couldn’t afford to keep high-priced help in the lineup, particularly if they weren’t contributing to a winning atmosphere. McPhee was forced to make the moves he made, but they still took guts and the support of a patient and understanding owner, in this case Ted Leonsis.
And it’s a lesson for other teams that sometimes taking a long-term approach and sticking to a plan can reap enormous rewards.
Let’s deal with Ovechkin first, because that’s where the luck comes in. In 2003-04, the Capitals finished with 59 points, which was third worst in the league behind the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins (the Caps had three more wins, but the same number of points as the Hawks). But they won the draft lottery that year, which vaulted them into first place and meant a difference between getting Ovechkin and Cam Barker.
With speculation from a number of corners that McPhee might trade the pick because the Capitals might not be able to afford Ovechkin, McPhee realized he had a future superstar on his hands and saw the dawn of a salary cap on the horizon and kept the pick.
But it was the other work he did in that miserable season that has been just as responsible for the Capitals being where they are now.
Midway through that season, McPhee came to the realization that the Jaromir Jagr experiment was a very expensive disaster and as good a player as he was, Jagr wasn’t going to be inspired to produce anything significant with the Capitals. So, McPhee swallowed hard and traded one of the greatest players in league history to the New York Rangers for Anson Carter, whom he later flipped to the Los Angeles Kings for Jared Aulin. Not only that, the Capitals assumed $20 million of the $44 million remaining on Jagr’s deal.
It was that trade that set the table for McPhee to essentially overhaul his roster and start over. And in the space of three weeks, he made trade deadline deals that were all home runs, clearing out future cap space and easing the team’s financial burden.
First, he traded the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and arguably its most popular player ever in Peter Bondra to the Ottawa Senators for a prospect by the name of Brooks Laich. It certainly took some time – he rewarded the Capitals by scoring one goal in 22 games for their minor league team the rest of that season – but Laich has turned into one of the Capitals’ most versatile forwards with the potential to be a consistent 20-goal, 50-point player who can win draws and play both ends of the ice.
Then McPhee moved Robert Lang to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for another prospect, Tomas Fleischmann, and a first round pick that turned out to be second-last of the round. That pick turned into defenseman Mike Green, one of the most dynamic offensive defensemen in the league. And like Laich, Fleischmann took his time, but has developed into a very good player.
But McPhee wasn’t done yet. On deadline day, he shipped defenseman Sergei Gonchar to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Shaone Morrisonn and a first-rounder that turned out to be 27th overall. That pick was used to take Jeff Schultz – and now Morrisonn and Schultz are key contributors to the Capitals defense corps.
Did all the trades McPhee make that year work out? Not really. The Capitals probably would have been better off in the long term if they had kept Mike Grier instead of trading him to Buffalo for Jakub Klepis and they lost a heart-and-soul player in Steve Konowalchuk when they dealt him to Colorado for Bates Battaglia.
But the fact is, on the trades that mattered, McPhee knocked them all out of the park and his scouting staff completed the fine work by getting quality NHL players with the draft picks he acquired.
And all the dominos fell when the Capitals made the decision to deal one of the greatest players in NHL history for almost nothing.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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