The Caps found a way to lose, despite a late lead and...
Caps’ Stanley Cup Was 15 Years in the Making
Having now cleared the first week of what is likely to be an offseason-long championship bender in Washington, D.C., we are happy to report that the entire Capitals roster is alive and well.
It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet that the many years of misery, let down and pain have finally been relieved by one grand moment in Vegas just over one week ago. But as the dust is finally clearing from a chaotic postseason, it is becoming more amazing by the day that this year’s squad was the one to summit the hockey universe.
You see, this year’s Washington Capitals were far from their most talented roster on paper. They were equally as far away from being the most experienced. Despite everything, they were able to conquer almost every imaginable demon in just two months time.
It seems a lifetime ago that the Caps were trailing the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-0 in a first round series. Tied up, in double overtime, on the road. One bounce in either direction would be the difference between a probable sweep that would likely ignite a large-scale tear down of an organization or, hopefully, the start of something very special.
We experienced the latter.
To see how all of this came together, we have to go beyond any individual series. Any individual season over the past decade-plus that has ended in the same, typical, D.C. fashion.
On April 20, 2003, the Washington Capitals dropped a triple overtime contest on home ice in round one, game six of the playoffs to the Tampa Bay Lightning. After winning the first two games of the series on the road, the Capitals dropped four straight and bowed out of the postseason in embarrassing fashion. It would lead to the beginning of a full-scale rebuild which involved trading stars such as Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and one of the franchise’s most prominent figures, Peter Bondra, the following season. That is where the story begins.
The Capitals finished the 2003-04 season with the second-worst record in the league. Their 59 points matched the Chicago Blackhawks and finished above only the Pittsburgh Penguins, who limped through the season with 58 standings points.
The Capitals won the 2004 draft lottery. With that, they earned the right to select touted Russian winger, Alexander Ovechkin, first overall.
One of the most widely accepted concepts in hockey, and most sports for that matter, is that championship teams are built through the draft. There aren’t many teams who have done a better job of that than the Washington Capitals, and it all started with Ovechkin.
The Capitals would select Nicklas Backstrom fourth overall two years later. John Carlson (first round) and Braden Holtby (fourth round) would follow just two drafts after that.
In 2009, Dmitry Orlov was a second round pick of the Caps. 2010 introduced us to Evgeny Kuznetsov, a top-ten talent who dropped to Washington at 26th overall due to concerns that he would never leave to Kontinental Hockey League in his home country of Russia. Philipp Grubauer was a fourth round pick in that same draft.
Travis Boyd, who played filled in admirably when called upon this season, was selected 177th overall in 2011. Tom Wilson (first round) and Chandler Stephenson (third round) were welcomed to the organization in 2012 along with defenseman Christian Djoos, who has beaten the odds after being taken in the seventh round. The next year brought Andre Burakovsky (first round) and Madison Bowey (second round).
In 2014, the Capitals added skill and speed through the draft when they took Jakub Vrana in round one, and then Nathan Walker in the third and Shane Gersich in the fifth.
For those who have lost count, that is 16 roster players that were drafted and developed by the organization. Seven first round picks, two second rounders, two third rounders, two fourth round picks, along with one player a piece from the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds.
Sometimes, it pays to take a shot on a guy that flew under the radar. One of the Capitals’ anchors over the past half-decade or so has been Jay Beagle, who has earned everything the hard way in going from an undrafted free agent to becoming the first player in hockey history to win the ECHL’s Kelly Cup (2007), the AHL’s Calder Cup (2009) and now, Lord Stanley’s Cup.
This is all said while not including many other Capitals draft picks who have moved on to careers elsewhere. A short version of that list starts off with Cody Eakin, who faced off against his former team in the Stanley Cup Final. Other prominent names to remember here are Marcus Johansson, Mike Green, Filip Forsberg, Karl Alzner and Mathieu Perreault.
Aside from drafting, the next most important step in building a championship roster is acquiring the best possible complementary pieces from other organizations via trade.
The Art of the Trade
Oftentimes, a team will overreact to a set of circumstances, such as a playoff defeat or the pressure to “win now.” The Capitals are no stranger to those types of deals, and it has burned them before. Think Filip Forsberg and, to a lesser degree, Kevin Shattenkirk. The Shattenkirk trade in 2017, unlike the earlier Forsberg deal, was an example of a move that simply did not work out. The Capitals likely won’t feel any long-term effects from that deal, whereas Forsberg has rapidly developed into a star in Nashville. I think the sting of that has dissipated a little bit after these recent events.
On the other hand, over consecutive summers in 2015 and 2016, the Capitals made two incredible trades that undoubtedly played a big part in the construction of a championship team.
On July 2nd of 2016, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan acquired right winger T.J. Oshie from the St. Louis Blues for forward Troy Brouwer, goaltender Pheonix Copley (who ironically found his way back to Washington in the Shattenkirk trade) and a third round draft pick. This trade seemed lopsided in the Capitals favor the day it was completed, and it is even more comical today given that a beaten and battered Oshie tallied eight goals and 13 assists over 24 playoff games en route to a title.
Oshie has become a fan favorite and integral part of the Washington Capitals over his three years in a red sweater. He’s going to spend many more years rocking the red with seven years remaining on his deal.
Another player that will now be a prominent figure in Capitals’ lore for the rest of time was also acquired via the trade route by MacLellan. Underappreciated in Montreal, Lars Eller was sent to Washington during the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in exchange for a couple of second round draft picks.
Eller found himself at home on the Capitals immediately. Midway through his second season in Washington, one that would turn out to be a career year with the chance to test free agency, he signed a five-year contract extension to remain with the organization. Eller was certainly one of the Caps’ most valuable players throughout the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the ultimate highlight of both his career and the entire history of the Washington Capitals franchise when Eller scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal with under eight minutes to play in game five. His 18 points in 24 games will stand out to the eye, but one goal that was scored in the blink of an eye will be remembered forever.
A more underrated move that will go down as one of the best deadline trades in Capitals history occurred when MacLellan sent a third round draft pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for oft-benched defenseman Michal Kempny. Whatever untapped potential that Washington saw in Kempny was quickly unearthed, as he carved himself a role next to John Carlson within the Caps’ defensive corps. He would go on to score the team’s first goal in the Eastern Conference Final, as well as a backbreaker in game four of the Stanley Cup Final. Aside from that, he was exactly the type of steady, responsible defender that was needed to balance out the Capitals blueline and he undeniably played an unexpectedly large role in a championship run.
Jakub Jerabek also played meaningful minutes for Washington down the stretch following his acquisition from Montreal prior to the trade deadline. Though he didn’t play beyond game two of round one, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he was a very trusted number seven defenseman who would’ve slotted in nicely had anyone been claimed by injuries.
The last piece of the recipe to the 2018 Washington Capitals involves both some big spending as well as some dumpster diving.
Sign the Dotted Line
During the summer of 2014, the Capitals ushered in a new era. A new general manager, a new head coach and a new philosophy.
To bolster their weak defensive unit, Washington spent big bucks on two former rivals. Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, just days after leaving the Pittsburgh Penguins in free agency, took their talent a few miles to the south.
Niskanen has been as steady as they come, manning the top defensive pairing with Dmitry Orlov for several years now. Orpik, as maligned as a player could be by his own fanbase, has settled into a role as a father-type figure within the organization and is probably the most respected man on the roster by his peers. While his on-ice play has been heavily and rightly criticized at times, it can’t be overstated what he means to his teammates. He even chipped in his first goal in over two years during game two of the Stanley Cup Final, and arguably played some of his best hockey of the year in the playoffs.
Beyond the duo of big signings, there were a trio of smaller, under the radar ones that paid off in spades for Washington during this run. Brett Connolly, the sixth overall draft pick in 2010 by the Tampa Bay Lightning, has maintained a depth role with Washington since his signing two summers ago. He isn’t the most consistent player, but he scored more than one big goal for the Caps during these playoffs and did more to justify the two-year extension that the Capitals handed him last summer.
Alex Chiasson, though he didn’t dress towards the end of the playoffs, scored the biggest goal of his career in game six of the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. His goal helped the severely shorthanded Capitals force overtime in a clinching game in which the Capitals eventually won in overtime, vanquishing their biggest foe of the past several years.
That brings us to Devante Smith-Pelly. When he was bought out by the New Jersey Devils with one year and $1.3 million remaining on his contract last summer, it was fair to wonder if he’d ever play another NHL game. The same questions surrounded “DSP” during his first training camp following his one-year agreement with the Caps.
In the end, he scored seven goals in the playoffs, including one in each of the final three games of the Stanley Cup Final, to cement his short legacy in Washington forever. He has become a major figure both on and off of the ice in the community. He has quickly become a model player, especially within the African-American hockey community – one that is growing in the D.C. area and one that is likely to become booming now.
There isn’t a single player, whether it be a home-grown draft pick, a hand-picked trade acquisition or a free agent signing that didn’t play a major role in what the Washington Capitals accomplished this season. It is certainly sensationalized, as it should be, given that it brought a championship-starved fanbase their first taste of what ultimate victory feels like.
There’s no way of knowing when another championship will find its way to the DMV, but looking back at how this team was constructed will always be a fun way to reminisce, while at the same time wondering, what if.