Breaking Down Washington Capitals' Biggest Needs in 2014 NHL Draft
Despite never leading his team to a Stanley Cup title during his 17 seasons at the helm of the Washington Capitals, one cannot ignore how well George McPhee and his staff drafted over the years.
In fact, of the 21 first-rounders selected by the Caps since he took over as general manager in 1997 (not including 2013 pick Andre Burakovsky), 18 have become NHL players.
More importantly, most of them have developed into valuable contributors as members of the team, including past and present standouts such as Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Semyon Varlamov, Alexander Semin, Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Of course, McPhee is no longer the GM, so the exact holes that the Caps will be looking to fill at the 2014 NHL draft remain to be seen. But with the No. 13 selection in Round 1, the franchise has a big opportunity to add to a talented core that saw a string of six consecutive playoff appearances snapped in 2013-14.
Heading into the final few weeks leading up to the draft in Philadelphia, here's a look at Washington's biggest needs, along with the prospects to address them.
A Versatile Top-Four Presence
The Caps have long tried to keep pace with the elite teams of the Eastern Conference while relying on a defensive core consisting of few players who possess the physical edge or snarl needed during the postseason.
Green, Alzner and Carlson are all legitimate top-four rearguards, and it's possible that one day soon Connor Carrick, Nate Schmidt or Dmitry Orlov could be as well.
However, given that John Erskine is the only ruggedly physical defenseman who has played meaningful minutes over the last two seasons, there is a clear need for a blueliner with the mobility to play a puck-possession style while keeping the opposition honest with the ability to mix it up when needed.
Over the last 10 drafts, the Capitals have taken six defenders in Round 1, and while four have become quality NHL players, the misses on 2005 first-rounders Joe Finley and Sasha Pokulok, both more than 6'5", hurt.
Hopefully the team makes up for it in 2014 and adds the engaging defensive presence it has needed.
Best Option: Haydn Fleury
At 6'3" and roughly 200 pounds, Fleury has the size as well as the poise and skating. The Red Deer Rebels standout has all the makings of a minute-munching defenseman. After tallying 46 points in his second WHL campaign, he may never blossom into an elite offensive weapon, but if he's around at No. 13, the Caps have to take him.
A No. 2 Down the Middle
Assuming that CSN Washington's Chuck Gormley is right about Mikhail Grabovski's preference of waiting until a new coach is hired (which entails a new management team being in place), one has to believe there's a realistic chance that the slick two-way center's time in D.C. will be up in July.
And if that's the case, the Caps will be in need of a replacement, because it seems pretty apparent that even if Kuznetsov could fill that role eventually, he's going to need a good amount of time to adjust to the North American game.
So, if there's a quality potential scoring-line center available, why wouldn't the Caps take a chance on him?
No, Johansson and Kuznetsov haven't yet materialized into NHL stars, but Backstrom has, and if recent NHL postseasons have taught us anything, strength down the middle is important in today's game.
Best Option: William Nylander
The chances of Nylander being around at No. 13 haven't seemed all that great, as most analysts, such as TSN's Craig Button and The Hockey News' Ryan Kennedy, have projected the Swedish offensive catalyst to be a surefire top-10 pick. However, Button's latest rankings have the son of longtime playmaking pivot Michael Nylander as the 13th-best prospect available.
If he's around when the Caps are on the board, Nylander is simply too talented to pass up. After posting seven points in 22 games with Modo, it's clear he's easily one of the most NHL-ready centers out there.
A Scorer with Grit
Though the Capitals got breakout seasons from Troy Brouwer (25 goals) and Joel Ward (24 goals) in 2013-14, Washington's group of forwards isn't nearly as dangerous as it was during Semin's time with the team.
That's not to say that the Caps need another skilled yet not overly combative forward for the top six up front, because Kuznetsov, Backstrom and Johansson are never going to be confused with bruising offensive talents.
Tom Wilson may be able to fill this void soon, but if there's an offensively capable forward with the size and speed to make an impact in the near future, Washington has room for one, especially on the left side.
Best Option: Brendan Perlini
A 6'3" winger with the hands and instincts to contribute offensively, Perlini broke out with 71 points with Niagara of the OHL this year after registering just 11 in 59 games during his rookie season in 2013-14. He's willing to play a physical game when needed, but if he continues on the trajectory he's on, Perlini will be a viable top-six player for more than just his size.
An Insurance Plan in Net
Since the end of the Olaf Kolzig era in D.C., the Caps have actually done well at identifying and selecting future NHL goaltenders.
And while Varlamov went early, Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer all were taken outside of Round 1, so the team's scouting staff has experienced success in finding quality goaltending prospects.
However, Neuvirth and Varlamov (a 2014 Vezina finalist) are gone, and unless a new management team makes a change, Grubauer and Holtby will compete for the No. 1 job in Washington this fall. That means there's absolutely a void to fill in between the pipes.
Until Holtby shows he can be a consistently capable starting goaltender, particularly during the regular season, the Caps have to be in the market for a stopper of the future. Given that goalies have rarely gone high recently, maybe a blue-chipper will be around by the time the Caps are on the clock at No. 44.
Best Option: Thatcher Demko
As the NHL's top-ranked goaltender in the pool of prospects, Boston College's Thatcher Demko stands a very good chance at being a first-rounder, but given that no goalies were taken by No. 30 in two of the last three drafts, the Caps have an outside chance at the freshman star. If it requires a deal to move up a couple of spots to get him, it might be worth it, because the 6'4" Demko has all the tools to be an elite presence at the next level.