The NHL Draft is a stressful time for all GMs in the league. You never know how your selections will work out. Their task is to select junior-level kids based on their scouts’ word and hope to god they turn out to be a usable NHL player. Some could be the next Crosby, while others could be Rick DiPietro 2.0.
Teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves a star player in Auston Matthews. It’s an unpredictable event, but it’s also one of the most exciting moments for a team. There are, however, those teams that blow their chance. There are the teams that pass over someone who goes on to have his jersey hanging from the rafters in some lucky team’s building. Those teams whose scouts let them down so colossally that they missed out on a generational talent and instead, picked someone who played six games in the NHL and racked up zero points and was a -3.
Every team has draft regrets. Today we’re gonna look at the Washington Capitals and try to correct some of the mistakes they made with their first-round selections in previous drafts. There are obviously some picks that weren’t mistakes (and I’ll be sure to mention them) but throughout the years, there have been a number of selections that could’ve been put to better use. Reminder that this is a personal list of the players I feel would’ve benefitted the Caps greater than the players they selected.
First-round picks can be a gamble. Time to see if the Caps made the right call going all-in on these prospects.
Our countdown begins with the 12th overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
20. DUNCAN KEITH (2002)
Original Pick: Steve Eminger, 12th Overall
Washington was able to snag three first round picks in 2002, but Steve Eminger was selected with their first one. Eminger spent 17 games with the Caps before being sent back down to the OHL where he’d win a Memorial Cup with the Kitchener Rangers. That’s just about where his career success ends.
Eminger, along with a pick, was traded to Philadelphia for their 27th overall pick who turned out to be John Carlson. Needless to say, this was the right move by the Capitals. After just 12 games with Philly, Eminger was traded to Tampa Bay. After bouncing around a few more times, he’s found himself as an unrestricted free agent.
Duncan Keith has won three Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe trophy, the Norris trophy, and was listed as one of the 100 greatest players of all time. To be fair though, more than just Washington missed out on Keith’s abilities. He went 54th overall.
19. BRENT BURNS (2003)
Original Pick: Eric Fehr, 18th Overall
Let’s clear this out of the way immediately: the 2003 NHL Draft was potentially the deepest draft in NHL history. It spat our star players with every pick. Realistically, the Caps could’ve picked anyone in this first round and not been disappointed. But Eric Fehr? Easily one of the most disappointing moves they ever made.
He was serviceable with his time in Washington, and even went on to win a cup with their rivals, Pittsburgh, in 2016. His career now, however, looks like a downward spiral.
Brent Burns on the other hand, had the best season of his career — a 30-goal season by a defenseman is rare. This sasquatch-looking back-ender is a shoe-in for the Norris, and a serious candidate for the Hart.
18. MIKE GREEN (2004)
Original Pick: Mike Green, 29th Overall
The 2004 NHL Draft was very different from the 2003 Draft. Aside from the amazing top-two picks (we’ll get to that), this draft wasn’t all that deep.
This was actually a good choice by the Caps to snag offensive D-man Mike Green with the 29th selection. Much like the previously mentioned Brent Burns, Green was a top-tier offensive defenseman. He put up some pretty insane numbers, including a 31-goal, 73-point, 68-game season in 2008-2009, and followed it up with a 76-point, 75-game season in 2009-2010.
Washington gave him up at the right time — just when he was beginning to become too expensive for his production. He’s had mild success in Detroit, but you can look back positively on the Caps’ selection of Mike Green.
17. DAVID KREJCI (2004)
Original Pick: Jeff Schultz, 27th Overall
I’ll answer the question you’re all asking yourselves; who is Jeff Schultz? Jeff Schultz is a defenseman currently playing for the San Diego Gulls of the AHL. Prior to that, he was a defenseman for the Washington Capitals. His greatest claims to fame are going 119-consecutive playoff minutes without getting scored on, and his franchise-record +50 rating he had in the 2009-10 season.
David Krejci was selected in the second round (so other teams passed him over as well) and he’s proven to be a valuable asset to the Boston Bruins. He helped them on their way to the 2011 Stanley Cup, as well as the 2013 Stanly Cup finals. Krejci was just the third player from the 2004 Draft to reach 500 points; the first two were Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. Pretty good company to be in.
16. ALEX OVECHKIN (2004)
Original Pick: Alex Ovechkin, 1st Overall
Yeah…they made the right call here.
I mean let’s be honest, a monkey could’ve made this pick for them it was that obvious. Ovechkin has been an absolute force since he stepped onto NHL ice and scored two goals in his debut. He added 50 more goals and 56 assists to that season and concluded it with a Calder Trophy win over Sidney Crosby.
He’s had seven 50-goal seasons (one of those being a 65-goal season) and has won just about every trophy a forward can win aside from the Selke. He was named one of the 100 greatest players of all time. He’s been a human highlight reel for his entire career, beginning with an insane on-the-back goal simply dubbed, “The Goal” that has been seen millions of times on TV and on the internet.
15. JAMES NEAL (2005)
Original Pick: Joseph Finley, 27th Overall
Joe Finley didn’t play in an NHL game until 2011 and it wasn’t with the Capitals. He doesn’t play in the NHL anymore. We’re done talking about him.
James Neal, on the other hand, has had multiple 30-goal seasons and plenty of 20-goal seasons, proving that he’s a consistent goal-scorer. He’s proven himself in this league and is a Stanley Cup champion. Neal went 33rd overall, and it’s pretty insulting that average Joe went in the first round and players like James Neal and Jonathan Quick were picked in later rounds.
14. TUUKKA RASK (2005)
Original Pick: Sasha Pokulok, 14th Overall
This guy’s Wikipedia page doesn’t even have a picture of him. Also, no mention of him stepping foot on NHL ice.
Tuukka Rask has consistently been one of the best goalies in the NHL. He’s been in Vezina conversations regularly, has won a Vezina, and is a huge part of the Bruins’ return to postseason hockey this year. He was starting when they went to the finals against Chicago in 2013, which ultimately resulted in a loss, but a bad goalie can’t make it that far.
As much as Washington messed up by not selecting Rask (who went 21st overall), it’s safe to say the Leafs messed up in a big way by trading him for Andrew Raycroft.
13. SEMYON VARLAMOV (2006)
Original Pick: Semyon Varlamov, 27th Overall
Although nobody involved with the Capitals, whether they’re a fan or a player, can be upset that they have Braden Holtby, Semyon Varlamov is a pretty damn good goalie too.
Washington drafted Varlamov and Neuvirth in the same year, and Neuvirth eventually took Varlamov’s job. During his time, however, Varlamov was more than a serviceable goalie. Washington actually had a pretty dangerous young goaltending tangent, but Neuvirth was Jose Theodore’s eventual successor.
12. NICKLAS BACKSTROM (2006)
Original Pick: Nicklas Backstrom, 4th Overall
I think it’s safe to say the Capitals’ management hit a grand slam during this first round. Nicklas Backstrom has flown under the radar for his entire career but those who do watch the Capitals regularly will tell you just how outrageous that is.
Backstrom has over 500 assists during his career, and I don’t think Ovechkin would be the elite goal-scoring machine he is if they didn’t pick Nick. He’s been considered the best playmaker in the NHL and did little to prove those who say that wrong with his fifth 60-assist season; the most by any player since he joined the league.
11. KEVIN SHATTENKIRK (2007)
Original Pick: Karl Alzner, 5th Overall
Although Karl Alzner wasn’t a bad pick by any means, Kevin Shattenkirk would’ve been the better selection back in 2007 as opposed to waiting 10 years and trading for him.
Shattenkirk has shown that he fits into the style that the Capitals play. He’s an offensive-minded defenseman and he’s one of the best in the league. That’s why he was such a hot pickup at the Trade Deadline. With multiple 40-point seasons and the fact that he’s an absolute beast on the power play, you have to think that had he been in Washington, where that’s THEIR game, he could’ve had Mike Green-like numbers.
10. ROMAN JOSI (2008)
Original Pick: John Carlson, 27th Overall
Again, John Carlson wasn’t a bad pick for the back-end. Roman Josi just clearly would’ve been the better selection.
Although Josi spent the first part of his career living in Shea Weber’s shadow, he began to shine on his own. With the trade that sent Weber to Montreal and made Josi the number-one guy, he’s taken the opportunity and run with it. Putting up more than one 50-point season from the blue line isn’t easy, but Josi’s done it twice and came up one point shy of doing it this past season.
9. JORDAN EBERLE (2008)
Original Pick: Anton Gustafsson, 21st Overall
This is yet another first-round pick of the Capitals that never wore their jersey in a regular season game. He headed east to play overseas.
Jordan Eberle, although he hasn’t done anything amazing in his career, hasn’t been too bad either. He’s had a 30-goal season, and multiple 20-goal seasons to show that he’s a consistent offensive-contributor for the Edmonton Oilers. He helped the Oilers return to the playoffs this season with 20 goals and 51 points, and he also laced up for every game this season.
8. MARCUS JOHANSSON (2009)
Original Pick: Marcus Johnasson, 24h Overall
I’ll be honest, when I was getting ready to write this selection for the 2009 draft, I thought there’d be a better choice than Marcus Johansson for the Capitals to select. I was wrong.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Johansson, he’s actually bit underrated, but it seems like I’m just agreeing with every Capitals decision which isn’t the case. This was just a weaker draft class than usual and Johansson’s one of the few gems.
Johansson plays very similar to Nick Backstrom so he’s a good fit in D.C. Although he doesn’t put up crazy numbers, he’s been a 20-goal man twice in his career, including this season which was his best season to date.
7. Evgeny Kuznetsov (2010)
Original Pick: Evgeny Kuznetsov, 26th Overall
This doesn’t help my case I made in the last section, I know, but come on. It’s Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Kuzy is arguably one of the best players in the league when the puck is on his stick. His sophomore season was outstanding, wherein he collected 77 points (which led the Capitals), played in his first All-Star game, and racked up enough higlight-reel plays for an entire career.
6. TOMAS HERTL (2012)
Original Pick: Tom Wilson, 16th Overall
This one’s tough. I like the way Wilson plays and forechecks hard but at the end of the day, Tomas Hertl is the better player.
He’s been a mainstay in the Sharks’ lineup since he was drafted and has chipped in by netting a 20-goal season early in his career. He is perhaps most well-known for his 4-goal game and his between-the-legs goal that essentially gassed Marty Biron from the NHL. Aside from that though, Hertl is a hard worker and a solid 2nd or 3rd liner on any team. He was a big part in the Shark’s run to the finals last year, accounting for 11 points in 20 postseason games.
5. FILIP FORSBERG (2012)
Original Pick: Filip Forsberg, 11th Overall
This is the pick that every Capitals fan wants to forget.
Filip Forsberg never really got a chance to show what he could do with the Capitals before he was sent off in a trade that involved sending Martin Erat and Michael Latta the Caps’ way. This is widely regarded as one of the worst trades not only in Caps history, but in NHL history. Martin Erat put in one goal for the caps — an empty-netter. Michael Latta was a 4th-line grinder who is now mostly an AHL forward for the Rockford IceHogs. Forsberg, on the other hand, just put his second-consecutive 30-goal season behind him.
4. ANDRE BURAKOVSKY (2013)
Original Pick: Andre Burakovsky, 23rd Overall
It’s gonna get tougher to say that the Capitals should’ve picked different players around these top picks because most players haven’t had a chance to develop yet. With that in mind, I still feel Andre Burakovsky, who was picked later in the first round of a weak draft class, was the right choice here.
He’s been apart of the lineup for the better part of three seasons and is putting up decent number for a young, developing kid who primarily plays on the 3rd and 4th line. Playing with veterans has helped him become a true professional in this league.
3. DYLAN LARKIN
Original Pick: Jakub Vrana, 13th Overall
Although Vrana has hardly had a chance to truly show what he can do, Dylan Larkin has done exactly that. He jumped into the league and took control of the Babcock-less Red Wings and finished 3rd on the team in points with 23 goals.
Larkin is one of the fastest players in the league without a doubt, and he uses his speed well. His speed would be a welcome asset to the Capitals’ roster and it’d only strengthen their first-ranked defence. He’s emerged as one of the league’s best young talents and proven the 14 teams that selected before the Red Wings wrong by letting him slip into the 15th position.
2. ILYA SAMSONOV (2015)
Original Pick: Ilya Samsonov, 22nd Overall
Although it might take quite awhile until someone removes Holtby from the Verizon Center crease, if anyone will do it it’ll be Ilya Samsonov.
Samsonov played in the KHL this past season where he was the backbone of the Magnitogorsk Metallurg. Posting a 2.13 GAA and a .936 save percentage, Samsonov was one of the best goaltenders in the league. With him in net, his club was 15-3-5 which look like Braden Holtby-like numbers. Some might question why the Caps would draft a goalie if they have one of the best in the league playing for them in his prime, but depth is never a bad thing.
1. ALEX DEBRINCAT (2016)
Original Pick: Lucas Johansen, 26th Overall
Although nobody knows or can tell how Lucas Johansen will pan out, everyone knows Alex DeBrincat’s junior numbers have been nothing short of outstanding.
He’s put up 100+ points in all three of his OHL seasons with the Erie Otters, shattering records in the process. I mean, you know the kid is good when there’s a big fuss about leaving him off of the Team USA World Junior roster. Not the Olympic roster, just the World Juniors.
This is another steal from Chicago that looks like he’ll turn into the next Brandon Saad, or Artemi Panarin who just steps in and becomes an immediate impact in the big league. Lucas Johansen could have the same result, but for now it’s looking like maybe Alex DeBrincat should’ve been selected with the 26th pick, as opposed to the 39th.