Washington Capitals: 5 Biggest Draft Fails During George McPhee's Tenure
As far as McPhee is concerned, his record with draft picks has been pretty good. Since McPhee joined the Caps in 1997 and became their general manager, he has undoubtedly made some picks that have transformed the team into perennial powers in the Eastern Conference.
Alexander Semin in 2002.
Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green in 2004.
Nicklas Backstrom in 2006.
John Carlson in 2008.
But, like any GM in the NHL, McPhee has made some bad decisions, too. Every team in the NHL has their share of draft busts, and the Caps are no exception. Some players felt to be can't-miss prospects fail badly. Other picks not expected to do much blossom into elite players.
The draft is quite often a crapshoot. Sometimes you win—sometimes not so much.
With the 2013 NHL draft fast approaching, it is time to reflect on some of McPhee's less-than-wise draft decisions.
Here then are the five biggest draft fails of McPhee's tenure with the Washington Capitals.
5. Chris Bourque
When you are the son of a legend, expectations are going to be quite high.
For Chris Bourque, to say he did not quite live up to expectations would be an understatement.
Bourque was drafted No. 33 overall by the Caps in the 2004 NHL draft. Being the son of the legendary Ray Bourque, great things were expected of the young center when George McPhee drafted him.
In the AHL, and particularly with the Hershey Bears, Bourque has been a solid producer. In his AHL career, Bourque has played in 398 games, with 132 goals, 263 assists, 395 points and a plus-50 rating.
If only his NHL numbers were anywhere near that good.
Pretty much all hope in Bourque vanished when the Caps traded him to Boston for Zach Hamill—another prospect who failed to live up to expectations—back on May 26, 2012.
Bourque's selection in 2004, the same draft in which Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green were selected, shows just how really fickle the draft can be. It also shows how a team can strike it rich and strike out all in the same draft.
It is hard to say why Bourque was not more successful. Were expectations too high? Almost certainly.
Bourque's playing style also was not a good fit for the way the Caps played during the relevant time frame. Bourque has usually played a more physical and checking style of game than the finesse heavy style of play synonymous with the Caps in previous seasons.
Perhaps Bourque will still pan out in Boston, where his father made such a name for himself. As for his lack of success in Washington though, Bourque has to be considered a draft failure for McPhee.
4. Anton Gustafsson
The story of Anton Gustafsson's failure with the Washington Capitals is a sad one.
The son of one of the Caps' most beloved players of all time, Bengt Gustafsson, was drafted with the 21st overall pick in the 2008 NHL draft.
It seemed like the perfect fit for the Caps. The younger Gustafsson would surely duplicate what his father did in Washington—wouldn't he?
In a word, no. Not even remotely close.
Bengt Gustafsson ranks sixth all time for the Caps in points and goals scored, and he ranks fifth all time in assists.
His son, however, just never panned out at all and, in 2011, the Caps placed him on unconditional waivers.
The Washington Times ran a good article on what went wrong with Gustafsson at the time he was waived.
As The Washington Times reported, Gustafsson's failure to succeed in the NHL was partly due to injuries and also due to his perhaps coming to North America before he was really ready for it. In fact, Gustafsson played in just one game for the Hershey Bears before returning to Europe.
Even in Europe, Gustafsson has not done a whole lot. He has played in 138 games in Europe and has only 23 goals in his entire career.
It is an example of how the style of play in the NHL is so very different from the style of play in Europe and success in one league does not always translate into success in the other.
In the case of Gustafsson, he really has not enjoyed success at any level, which is a real head-scratcher when one considers his pedigree.
Perhaps it is not too late for him, as he is only 23 years old. For now though, the drafting of Gustafsson represents one of George McPhee's bigger failures.
3. Sasha Pokulok
As disappointing as the whole Anton Gustafsson situation was, the way things turned out with Sasha Pokulok might be even more depressing.
Pokulok was the 14th overall pick for the Caps back in the 2005 NHL draft. When he was drafted, he was young and raw but had the build necessary to become an elite NHL defenseman.
You are talking about a guy who is 6'5" tall and weighs in at 230 pounds. That is exactly the type of defenseman the Caps could use to become the more physical team they need to be. At least it would sure seem that way.
Pokulok, however, just never developed his skills like many expected he would.
Part of the problem was consistency. With Pokulok, you would get glimpses of his potential. Every so often he would do something exciting and noteworthy, and one would wonder if he had turned the corner. But he rarely maintained any of this, and his inconsistency was a major reason for his fall from grace from the Caps organization.
Pokulok also had some problems with injuries, including suffering a concussion in the first game he ever played with the Hershey Bears. He would miss the next four months and, to be honest, his career never seemed to get back on track.
Ever since then, Pokulok has bounced back and forth between the AHL, mostly with the Hersey Bears, and ECHL, primarily with the South Carolina Stingrays, with stops in Bakersfield, Springfield and San Antonio along the way.
His best season was with the team that plays down the street from me, the Bakersfield Condors. In the 2009-10 season, Pokulok recorded 13 goals, 26 assists and a plus-eight rating.
That was the first season after the Caps had pretty much given up on Pokulok as they did not extend him a qualifying offer in June of 2009.
Pokulok spent the past season with the Cornwall Riverkings of the LNAH, and any hope of him ever making it back to the NHL seems pretty slim.
With the Caps needing a big-bodied blueliner, the fact that Pokulok failed as badly as he did stings even more, and this pick might be one of the biggest draft failures on the resume of George McPhee.
2. Jeff Schultz and Johnny Oduya
These next two slides feature draft failures that actually represent a combination of failures on the part of George McPhee. Standing alone, they do not look quite so bad.
When they are combined though, in the words of Darth Vader, McPhee's failure is complete.
This first combination failure looks again at the Caps defense and what might have been.
Johnny Oduya was drafted in the seventh round of the 2001 NHL draft by McPhee and the Caps.
He never played in a single game for the Caps. Not one.
After being drafted, Oduya continued to play in Sweden for the next five years. For whatever reason, Oduya did not want to play for McPhee, and McPhee could not convince him otherwise.
In 2006, Oduya was dismissed by the Caps and later that year signed on as a free agent with the New Jersey Devils. An opportunity presented itself, and Oduya ended up playing 76 games for the Devils for the 2006-07 season.
How good has Oduya been as an NHL player? In nine seasons, he has played in 511 games, scored 26 goals, notched 100 assists and registered a plus-42 rating.
As if that is not depressing enough, take a look at what Oduya did during the Blackhawks' 2013 run to the Stanley Cup: three goals, five assists, eight points and a plus-12 rating, including the game-winning goal in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinal against the Detroit Red Wings and the game-tying goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins.
Now take a look at the other part of this draft failure combo pack. Jeff Schultz was selected No. 27 overall by the Caps in that infamous 2004 NHL draft. He was actually selected two spots ahead of Mike Green.
During the Caps' tremendous 2009-10 regular season, Schultz had a career year. He had three goals, 20 assists and an astonishing plus-50 rating.
Since then though, Schultz has just not done a whole lot of anything. Over the next three seasons, Schultz had two goals, 17 assists and a minus-two rating.
This past season, Schultz played in just 26 games and was a healthy scratch on most nights. He simply does not fit in with the Caps any longer, and he really has no true role on the team.
As The Washington Post reported, Schultz has now asked to be traded.
Schultz will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2013-14 season, and he is a huge cap liability for the Caps—$2.75 million per year to be exact. If the Caps cannot figure out a way to trade him and free up some desperately needed cap space, they may very well have to buy him out.
Instead of having a solid defenseman like Oduya, the Caps are stuck with Schultz with the very real prospect of them having to burn one of their two amnesty buyouts on Schultz.
How McPhee never got a seventh-round draft pick—who is now a Stanley Cup champion— to even lace up the skates for the Caps, but then got stuck with a rather unproductive first-round draft pick who he probably can't get rid of, is a huge draft failure on the part of McPhee—no matter how you look at it.
1. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Filip Forsberg
I know what you are thinking.
How in the world can I call either of these guys draft failures? After all, Evgeny Kuznetsov has yet to play a single game in the NHL, and Filip Forsberg has played in all of five.
Look at where the Caps are currently, what their needs are on offense and how they have no cap space available to do anything about it. Then come back and tell me the way George McPhee has handled these two players is not the biggest draft fail of his tenure as general manager of the Caps.
Go ahead...I'll wait.
The Caps drafted Kuznetsov with the 26th overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft. To this day, he remains the top prospect in the Caps organization. He might just be the best prospect in the world.
And he has still not played a second in a Caps uniform yet.
Unlike Anton Gustafsson or Sasha Pokulok, Kuznetsov is absolutely ready for the North American game.
His stats this past season while playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL certainly demonstrate his potential. He had 19 goals and 25 assists in 51 games during the regular season. In 25 playoff games, Kuznetsov had five goals and six assists, including one in the KHL Championship where Traktor fell in six games to Dynamo Moscow.
So why hasn't McPhee moved mountains to get this kid to D.C. already? Instead, roughly a year ago, Kuznetsov announced he would be staying in Russia for two more seasons.
Earlier this year though, Kuznetsov stated that he would come and play for the Caps after the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
Meanwhile, the Caps continue to struggle to find a legitimate secondary scoring threat to compliment Alexander Ovechkin. To top that off, they allowed Alexander Semin to depart via free agency for the rival Carolina Hurricanes.
The fact that Kuznetsov remains in Russia is, in my opinion, a huge draft failure on the part of McPhee. I love the pick—it's the handling of that pick that disgusts me.
But as for disgusting, let's talk about Forsberg for a moment. Forsberg literally fell into the Caps' collective laps with the 11th overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft. If you go back and look at mock drafts from a year ago, you will see several that had Forsberg going in the top five.
Look at this one that I wrote last year, and you will see I had Forsberg going at No. 4!
So what does McPhee do with this talented young prospect? He trades him away at the trade deadline for Martin Erat believing that Erat will lead the Caps to the Stanley Cup.
How did that turn out, George?
Oh, that's right...In nine regular-season games with the Caps, Erat had all of one goal and two assists. In the playoffs against the New York Rangers, Erat did absolutely nothing except have a plus-one rating—and he missed the final three games of the series when the Caps could arguably have used him the most.
Meanwhile, Forsberg playing for Leksands of the Allsvenskan League in Sweden had 15 goals, 18 assists and a plus-11 rating in 38 games this past season. Forsberg was already so very good and seemingly getting better.
The Predators brought Forsberg to Nashville and gave him an early look, much earlier than the Caps were going to. And Forsberg seemed very eager to come to North America and play.
In five games, Forsberg got an assist. He was only two points shy of Erat's production with the Caps—and in half the number of games played no less.
That is also one more point than Kuznetsov has scored in his yet-to-begin NHL career.
Now the Caps are likely stuck with Erat and his $4.5 million hit against the salary cap. They can't re-sign Mike Ribeiro, and they can't make a serious run at other much-needed free agents due to their salary cap situation.
If Kuznetsov and Forsberg were going to be in Caps uniforms for the 2013-14 season, the future would look much brighter.
As it is, when you look at the totality of the circumstances surrounding how McPhee has handled the Kuznetsov and Forsberg situations, you might agree with me that these poor decisions represent the biggest draft failures of McPhee's tenure as the GM of the Washington Capitals.