When you watch Alex Ovechkin rip around the ice, it’s easy to think the Washington Capitals just fell into their role as a league superpower.
The Caps would be the first to tell you they’re lucky to have Ovechkin, especially given the circumstances under which they drafted him. Washington actually had the third-worst record in the 2003-04 season, but won the draft lottery and jumped up two spots to take Ovie at No. 1.
That will make your day – and franchise – in a hurry.
The Caps also benefited from being bad when they took Nicklas Backstrom fourth overall in 2006. The 22-year-old Swede has become an absolute superstar and figures to be one of the NHL’s most prolific point-producers for the next decade.
But for all the benefits of a few high draft picks, Caps GM George McPhee has made some shrewd moves that are paying off in a big way. Washington was a terrible team during the ’03-04 season, which ended with them selecting Ovechkin. But before calling the Russian phenom’s name, McPhee made two terrific deals at the trade deadline. First, he sent longtime Capitals sniper Peter Bondra to Ottawa for big center Brooks Laich, who was just 20 years old at the time. Then he flipped Robert Lang to the Detroit Red Wings for 19-year-old Tomas Fleischmann and the Wings’ first round pick in 2004.
Laich has become a great leader in Washington, playing a hard-nosed two-way game and showing above-average offensive upside. Fleischmann took a while to hit his stride, but he put up 23 goals in 69 games this season and seems to be on a career path similar to fellow Czech Tomas Plekanec.
McPhee also used that first-rounder from Detroit to select Mike Green 29th overall in 2004. Taking Ovie with the top pick was a no-brainer, but grabbing Green – who didn’t really put up big numbers as a junior player – late in the first round shows Washington’s scouting staff was on the ball.
Good fortune has definitely been a factor in the construction of the Caps, but Washington wouldn’t be the team it is without some crafty under-the-radar moves along the way.
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Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesdays.
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