Ranking the 5 Greatest Rookie Seasons in Washington Capitals History

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIIOctober 20, 2013

Ranking the 5 Greatest Rookie Seasons in Washington Capitals History

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    On Friday, the Washington Capitals informed Tom Wilson that the 19-year-old rookie forward would be staying with the Caps all season long, as opposed to being sent back to the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL.

    For Wilson, who actually made his debut in the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers, it was a huge moment and a sign of just how much confidence the organization has in him.

    So far, Wilson has not been rewriting the Caps' rookie record books. He has no points through the first eight games, a minus-two rating and 14 penalty minutes.

    Then again, he has been on the fourth line the whole time and is only averaging just seven minutes per game. It is hard to set records like that.

    Nonetheless, Wilson has shown what an imposing physical presence he can be, and he has already gotten in a couple of fights that served notice to anyone in the NHL that if you drop the gloves with Wilson, you better bring it.

    This development with Wilson is a unique situation for a Caps rookie, a vote of confidence to a player who is not putting up dazzling numbers but has all those intangibles teams look for.

    But, what about other rookies from the Washington Capitals' past? There have been some great ones, to be sure, and there have been some truly impressive rookie performances turned in by Caps players over the years.

    Which such performances were the best of the best?

    Here is a ranking of the five greatest rookie seasons in Washington Capitals history.

5. Jim Carey: 1994-95

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    Jim Carey was undefeated in his first seven games during his rookie season of 1994-95.
    Jim Carey was undefeated in his first seven games during his rookie season of 1994-95.Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

    Jim Carey was selected No. 32 by the Caps in the 1992 NHL draft. He was the highest-drafted goalie in the 1992 draft.

    After being selected by the Caps, Carey would spend a couple of seasons at the University of Wisconsin. He would then move on to the AHL where he played for the Portland Pirates.

    While playing for Portland, Carey received trophies as the top rookie in the AHL, as well as being the top netminder. In 55 games with Portland, Carey posted a record of 30-14-11 with a 2.76 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage.

    On March 2, 1995, Carey would get called up to D.C., and he made his debut against the New York Islanders. He stopped 21 of 24 shots he faced as the Caps won 4-3.

    Carey would then go undefeated in his next six games, winning five of them with one tie. The final game of Carey's tremendous seven-game start was a 16-save shutout of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    During those first seven games, Carey posted an astounding goals-against average of just 1.43 and a save percentage of .935.

    Carey would finally suffer a defeat to the Florida Panthers in his eighth game. He would then go on another tear, going unbeaten in nine of his next 10 games.

    He finished his rookie regular season with a record of 18-6-3, four shutouts, a goals-against average of 2.13 and a save percentage of .913. He was also selected to the All-Rookie team.

    Carey would not be nearly as impressive in the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins; Carey and the Caps fell apart and blew a 3-1 series lead to the Pens.

    The next season, though, Carey would play in 71 games, winning 35 of them, with nine shutouts en route to his winning the Vezina Trophy.

    His success would be depressingly short-lived, though, and by 1997, he had been traded to the Boston Bruins. He is now most remembered for the similarity of his name to a former famous pet detective who also wore a mask of sorts.

    But Carey's performance in 1994-95 remains one of the most impressive rookie seasons in Capitals history.

4. Bobby Carpenter: 1981-82

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    Bobby Carpenter was not quite as great as expected...but he was still very good.
    Bobby Carpenter was not quite as great as expected...but he was still very good.Steve Babineau/Getty Images

    "The Can't-Miss Kid."

    That is what Sports Illustrated called Bobby Carpenter when he appeared on the cover of the February 23, 1981, cover of SI. Carpenter was the first United States-born hockey player to appear on the cover of SI, and he was being hailed as the best US prospect of all time.

    Carpenter was the third overall pick of the 1981 NHL Entry draft. He figured to be the type of player who would lead the Caps out from relative obscurity and into the playoffs. And, to a certain extent, he accomplished this.

    Carpenter would make his debut during the 1981-82 season. He was all of 18 years old at the time. In his very first game on Oct. 7, 1981, against the Buffalo Sabres, Carpenter would make his presence felt.

    Just 12 seconds into the season, Carpenter would assist on a goal by Ryan Walter. That is still a record for the quickest assist by a player in his debut.

    Carpenter would play in all 80 games for the Caps in his debut season. He scored 32 goals (good for fourth on the team), had 35 assists, had 67 points (tied for fourth on the team) and had 263 shots-on-goal (good for third on the Caps and 16th in the NHL).

    Despite his impressive rookie outing, Carpenter could not lead the Caps to the playoffs. The team finished with a 26-41-13 record, well out of the playoff picture.

    The following season, Carpenter would post similar numbers (32 goals and 37 assists) and the Caps would reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

    Carpenter's best season was the 1984-85 campaign when he tallied 53 goals and 42 assists. In doing so, Carpenter fulfilled some of the expectations placed upon him, and he became the first US-born player to reach the 50 goal plateau.

    Unfortunately though, this was the high-water mark for Carpenter. He only scored 27 goals the following season and conflicts with then-coach Bryan Murray led to his being traded to the New York Rangers about a quarter of the way through the 1986-87 season.

    Carpenter might not have ever truly lived up to his "can't-miss" billing, but his rookie season of 1981-82 was still one of the best rookie seasons in Caps history.

3. Nicklas Backstrom: 2007-08

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    Nicklas Backstrom set a Caps rookie record for assists in a single season during the 2007-08 campaign.
    Nicklas Backstrom set a Caps rookie record for assists in a single season during the 2007-08 campaign.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Any current fan of the Washington Capitals knows who Nicklas Backstrom is.

    He is, in my opinion, one of the more underrated centers in the NHL. Those who watched what he accomplished during his rookie season of 2007-08 should know, by now, exactly what the Caps top-line center can do.

    Backstrom was drafted by the Capitals with the fourth overall pick of the 2006 NHL draft. He would debut at the outset of the 2007-08 season. He was a natural playmaker with good vision who also figured to be a big part of the Caps' power play.

    Backstrom would score an assist in his first game, a 3-1 Caps win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Oct. 5, 2007.

    For the first two months or so of the season, Backstrom put up good numbers. Through Dec. 1, 2007, Backstrom scored two goals and had 12 assists.

    But during that Dec. 1 game against the Florida Panthers, Michael Nylander tore his rotator cuff. Backstrom got promoted to the top line and so was born one of the best, and most dangerous, line duos in all of hockey:  Backstrom paired with Alex Ovechkin.

    Backstrom was the playmaker; Ovechkin was the sniper. Combined, they were largely unstoppable.

    After he was paired with Ovi, Backstrom would go on to score 12 goals and add 43 assists. He would finish his rookie season with 14 goals and 55 assists. His 55 assists are still a rookie record for assists in a season for the Capitals.

    Perhaps the highlight of the season for Backstrom was when he had four assists in consecutive games on Jan. 19, 2008, against the Panthers and then on Jan. 21 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Caps won both games, stretching their winning streak to four as the team began to build momentum for their tremendous run to the Southeast division title and their first playoff berth in five years.

    It was the first time an NHL rookie had recorded four assists in consecutive games.

    Ultimately, Backstrom would end up the runner up to Chicago's Patrick Kane for the Calder Trophy. Still, that does not take away from the tremendous rookie season Backstrom turned in during the 2007-08 campaign.

    In hindsight, it was just a sign of better things to come.

2. Mike Gartner: 1979-80

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    Mike Gartner is one of the all-time greats for the Capitals.
    Mike Gartner is one of the all-time greats for the Capitals.Steve Babineau/Getty Images

    Mike Gartner is one of the greatest players in NHL history. It is hard to argue otherwise. He also turned in one of the greatest rookie seasons in Washington Capitals history.

    Gartner was drafted No. 4 overall by the Caps in 1979, and this would be the start of an absolutely amazing career in D.C. Blessed with a great shot and blazing speed, Gartner would soon prove that the Caps had made a wise investment in him.

    In his very first game, on Oct. 11, 1979, against the Buffalo Sabres, Gartner would record an assist and from there, he was off and running.

    Gartner would end up scoring 36 goals in his rookie season and was the Caps top goal scorer for the 1979-80 season. He would also add 32 assists for a very solid 68-point effort.

    He would win the Caps' Rookie of the Year award for 1979-80 and was also selected as the team's MVP. That is quite a list of accomplishments for a rookie.

    Now, some of you may be wondering why I rank Gartner's rookie season above Nicklas Backstrom's or Bobby Carpenter's. After all, from a points-scored perspective, only two points separate Carpenter's rookie production from Backstrom's, with Gartner's right in the middle. Gartner scored the most goals of any of the three, but Backstrom had, by far and away, more assists.

    I rank Gartner's a bit higher—although all three men are very close, and you can argue for the exact opposite order—mainly because Gartner was productive on a pretty bad Caps team. Yes, I know....the 1981-82 team that Carpenter played for was actually worse, from a record standpoint. But the 1979-80 team had less talent to work with than the 1981-82 team.

    The 1981-82 team on which Carpenter played had Gartner, Dennis Maruk, Ryan Walter, Bengt Gustafsson and Wes Jarvis on the roster. Though that team failed to gel as quickly as expected, there was quite a bit of talent with which Carpenter had to work.

    The 2007-08 team on which Backstrom debuted had Alex Ovechkin at a time when Ovi was completely unstoppable. To top it off, that Caps team actually made the playoffs.

    Compare this to the 1979-80 team on which Gartner debuted. They, too, had Gustafsson, Walter and Jarvis. But, Maruk only played in 27 games, and Gartner did not have Carpenter to play with.

    Maruk's limited availability should not be overlooked because in 1981-82, when he played in 80 games, Maruk scored 60 goals.

    Though the 1981-82 team was worse in the standings, the 1979-80 team just did not seem to have the overall talent the 1981-82 team had. Despite this, Gartner, a rookie, was the best player on the team.

    Gartner would play for the Caps up until the 1988-1989 season when he was traded to the Minnesota North Stars. He would then play in the NHL for another 12 seasons for the North Stars, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Phoenix Coyotes.

    When he finally retired, Gartner was one of only six players to reach the 700-goal milestone. In 2001, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

    As far as the Caps are concerned, Gartner continues to hold several franchise records, including the record for longest points-streak at 17 games and the record for most points by a right winger in one season with 102.

    Gartner also ranks second all-time on the Caps in goals (397), assists (392) and points (789).

    He is one of the greatest players to ever don a Washington Capitals jersey, and his rookie season of 1979-80 ranks as one of the greatest in franchise history.

1. Alex Ovechkin: 2005-06

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    As impressive as the previous four rookie seasons were, when you are talking about the greatest rookie season in Capitals history, there really is no debate.

    Alex Ovechkin's rookie season in 2005-06 remains one of the most impressive debuts in NHL history.

    After being drafted No. 1 overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Ovechkin, like everyone else, had to endure the disaster that was the 2004-05 NHL lockout. When Ovi finally debuted, though, he was well worth the wait.

    There have not been too many rookie seasons like the one Ovechkin had in 2005-06. You can look at his Wikipedia page to get more details. But, that only tells part of the story.

    In his very first NHL game, Ovi scored two goals. On January 13, 2006, he got his first NHL hat trick against the Anaheim Ducks.

    Three days later, he scored the famous goal where he was lying on his back against the Phoenix Coyotes.

    If you watch the video included with this slide, you will notice how fast Ovi is. Defenders simply could not keep up with him. When he put his shoulder down to make his move toward the net, it was essentially game-over for the goalie.

    You will also notice his stick moves and his incredible skating ability. It was awe-inspiring to watch, and it still is eight years later.

    Ovi ended up with 52 goals, 54 assists and 106 points in his rookie season. He led all rookies in goals and points and finished third in the NHL in points. He also led the league with 425 shots.

    Ovechkin was named to the NHL's First All-Star Team, as well—the first time a rookie had done that in 15 years. Not surprisingly, he won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year.

    As good as he was, though, the Caps still stumbled through a 29-41-12 season. The 70 points were an 11-point increase from the 2003-04 season, so progress was being made. However, it would still be two more years before the Caps would really make a serious move in the Eastern Conference's pecking order.

    Nevertheless, Alex Ovechkin's rookie season was one for the record books and, without question, the greatest rookie season in the history of the Washington Capitals.