The NHL Draft is an inexact science. The Washington Capitals can attest to this.
If you don't believe me, check out the Capitals' five biggest draft busts. Some of those picks seemed like a sure thing at the time.
But not all picks are busts. The Capitals themselves have made some wise decisions during the NHL Draft.
Here now are the five smartest draft picks in Washington Capitals history. Each player is listed with the year, round and number of his draft selection, along with his statistics while playing for Washington and throughout his NHL career.
Note: All statistics updated through Nov. 24 courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com unless noted otherwise.
It may be more than a little surprising to see Filip Forsberg on this list. After all, he never played a shift in Washington, and his trade to the Nashville Predators was met with violent opposition. But the decision by Washington Capitals GM George McPhee to draft Forsberg in the first place was very shrewd.
You see, the pick McPhee used on Forsberg was a compensatory pick, ceded by the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for goalie Semyon Varlamov, according to The Washington Post. In essence, the pick was a freebie, and therefore could be used in a more aggressive manner than one of the team's normally allotted picks. This pick was perfect for taking a risk on a certain player.
Filip Forsberg was just that type of player. The Swede finished atop the 2012 NHL Draft European Skaters Final Rankings, but surprisingly went undrafted through the first 10 picks of the draft. McPhee and the Capitals had to change tactics when Forsberg was still available at number 11, telling Stephen Whyno of The Washington Times that "We focused on mostly defensemen. So when we got there, we thought, ‘Geez, we’ve got to switch gears here a little bit; this guy’s a really good player, let’s take him.'"
McPhee essentially took a flyer on Forsberg, since the Capitals would only have burned a compensatory pick in the process if Forsberg did not live up to his potential.
Sure enough, Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com reported on April 4 that McPhee and the Capitals were "internally souring on the prospect, a player they no longer viewed as a top center in the making." So, the infamous trade was consummated. To obtain one veteran (Martin Erat) and one prospect (Michael Latta), McPhee dangled a tempting but unproven commodity in front of the Nashville Predators.
McPhee was unable to turn his shrewd draft day decision into a valuable player. So instead, he turned his shrewd draft decision into a valuable trade asset. The jury is still out on the wisdom of the Forsberg-Erat trade, but the decision to draft Forsberg should always be considered a stroke of genius.
To say drafting Michal Pivonka was a risky move by the Capitals would be a colossal understatement.
At the time of the draft, "Pivonka expressed a strong interest in defecting to the NHL but insisted on completing his required military service before making the jump," according to The Hockey Hall of Fame. Obligatory military service is something Capitals fans have become familiar with in recent seasons, since Alexander Semin and Evgeny Kuznetsov both had to navigate that issue.
However, neither of those players had to defect from their home country. Czechoslovakia in the 1980s was a Communist-controlled country, and Pivonka was not given the freedom to live and work wherever he pleased.
Here is an account of what Pivonka had to go through to leave his native country and enter the United States to play professional hockey, courtesy of The Los Angeles Times:
Pivonka and his fiance, Renata Nekvindova, reportedly had left their homes in Prague July 7 on a bus bound for Yugoslavia, ostensibly to take a vacation. Their mission: a rendezvous in Italy with officials of the Washington Capitals, who in December had secretly offered Pivonka a five-year contract estimated to be worth $1 million. On July 16, Pivonka and Nekvindova were interviewed at the U.S. embassy by an examiner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Czechs told the examiner they wanted to begin a new life in the United States and that they feared reprisals if they returned home. The interview took 20 minutes...Two days later, Pivonka, accompanied by Nekvindova and two Capitals officials, arrived at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, ready to seek his fame and fortune. Pivonka was introduced at a press conference at Capital Centre Tuesday, but club officials offered no details on how the defections were planned and executed. Nor do they intend to.
Pivonka was worth the risk. He played every one of his 13 NHL seasons in Washington, averaging 0.22 goals, 0.51 assists and 0.73 points per game along the way. In terms of franchise records, Pivonka ranks fifth in games played, 10th in goals, first in assists and fourth in points.
Drafting Michal Pivonka was one of David Poile's smartest decisions as general manager of the Capitals, at the draft or otherwise.
During the first ten years of their franchise history, the Capitals opted for a defenseman with their first selection of the NHL draft a total of five separate times. Washington had mostly poor results while employing this strategy in 1974, 1976, 1977 and 1980, but they hit the jackpot in 1982.
Scott Stevens played the first eight seasons of his 22-year career in Washington. Stevens was much better known for his 13 seasons with the New Jersey Devils, on his way to the Hockey Hall of Fame. But he left quite a mark in Washington in a relatively short amount of time.
Stevens ranks eighth in assists and second in penalty minutes in franchise history. But his impact went far beyond statistical output. CSN Washington Analyst and former Capitals teammate Alan May told Ted Starkey of SBNation DC how Stevens' departure after the 1989-90 season affected the team:
At the time, I thought it was devastating to the team. He was the leader of the team, the most important player. And I thought he was our best player, and it changed the whole look of the team—and the attitude. He was the most professional player in the dressing room and at dinner, and it affected everyone. In the locker room, everything was changed. He wasn't the captain, but you looked at how young he was, how hard he played injured, how good he played, how fierce he was. He was basically the identity of the team, and we lost it. ... In the room, we were pissed, we were pretty upset. He was one of the guys we looked to for anything.
The Capitals' decision to let Stevens go was not a smart one, but the decision to draft him certainly was.
Drafting first overall is a high-pressure situation that typically does not occur very often for any given franchise. The Washington Capitals have made only three such picks in their 40-year draft history. The player they selected first overall in 2004 was far and away their smartest decision in that situation.
Alex Ovechkin has lived up to his billing. He ranks seventh among active players in goals, and first among active players in goals per game average. Among notable franchise records, Ovechkin currently ranks third in goals, fourth in assists, third in points, sixth in plus-minus rating, third in even-strength goals and second in power-play goals, game-winning goals and shots.
Only 28 years old, Ovechkin is already 96th in career goals, and will move up eight spots on that list simply by reaching the 400-goal milestone. Ovi also ranks fifth all-time in career goals per game average (minimum 200 goals scored), ahead of goal-scoring gods Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Phil Esposito.
But the success of this pick goes beyond Ovechkin's accomplishments for the Capitals. Any reasonable analysis of this pick must consider who the team opted not to select when they chose Ovechkin. That certain someone would be none other than Ovechkin's friend and fellow countryman, Evgeni Malkin, who was immediately selected by the rival Pittsburgh Penguins with the second overall pick of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
A statistical comparison of both player's careers on a per-game basis reveals that the Capitals chose wisely:
Although the two play different positions, the career comparisons are appropriate. Malkin has been a very good player for the Penguins, and has even won the Hart Trophy. But Ovechkin has been a more productive player. Plus, he's won three Harts.
But who's keeping track?
The smartest draft pick in Capitals history was a diamond in the rough.
Peter Bondra was selected in the eighth round of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, with the 156th overall pick. That means every team in the league passed on him at least six times before the Capitals eventually selected him.
The Slovakian sniper rewarded the Capitals by establishing several major franchise records in his 14 seasons in Washington. Bondra still ranks first in Capitals' history in goals, points, even-strength goals, power-play goals, short-handed goals, game-winning goals and shots. He also ranks second in games played, seventh in assists and eighth in plus-minus rating.
In terms of NHL history, Bondra ranks 40th in career goals, 42nd in career goals per game average, 46th in career power play goals, 14th in career short-handed goals and 26th in career game-winning goals.
Bondra also ranks high among his own draft class. Of the 29 right wings selected ahead of Bondra at the 1990 Draft, only one scored more goals during his NHL career than he did. His name is Jaromir Jagr, and he recently tied Mario Lemieux for ninth all-time in career goals.
The Pittsburgh Penguins found an franchise goal scorer at the beginning of the 1990 Draft, a "can't-miss pick" if you will. That same year, the Capitals were able to find a franchise goal scorer buried deep in the draft, one who had been overlooked by every single team in the league.