On Rebuilding – Part 2, The Washington Capitals


(RexLibris continues his series on rebuilding this week with the Washington Capitals. Go here if you missed part one featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins)

By RexLibris

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The Myth – “The Washington Capitals came close to winning their first Stanley Cup in the late 90s after trying to buy a Cup and then just tanked it to try and rebuild the right way”.

Is that a reasonable statement of popular opinion on Washington’s rebuild? Well, let’s take a closer look at the organization’s actual moves and see if the actions of George McPhee during that period would seem to support what we commonly believe to be the standard indicators of an intentional rebuild (trade veterans for draft picks and youth).

Jagr Traded (again)?

I would argue that, when poring over the list of Washington Capitals trades, January 23rd, 2004 is probably the date that best stands out as a milestone for the beginning of the Capitals’ rebuild. That day saw Washington trade away Jaromir Jagr (his name is going to come up a lot in this series) to the New York Rangers for Anson Carter. While that move, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily signal a team getting younger or investing in draft picks, it should be remembered that Jagr had a gargantuan contract. So much so that, despite Jagr’s tremendous talents, the Caps had to take a lesser talent in return just for the cost of such a financial burden.

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In addition, the Capitals had to agree to pay $4 million, per year, of Jagr’s $11 million dollar contract. They were so desperate to move the still-productive player in acknowledgement of their failure to secure a Cup with veteran talent that they were willing to literally pay him to go play for the opposition. That they traded away one of the best players in the game at the time is indicative of a management group that had come to terms with a failed strategy and was aggressively pursuing a different approach.

Another, earlier date, that could be said to be the moment that would open the door for Washington’s eventual rebuild was the 1999 sale of the team to Ted Leonsis, then-CEO of AOL. Every one of McPhee’s sell-offs would have had to be generally approved by ownership and a ten-point list of Leonsis’ team-building strategy as it relates to the Capitals can be found here (More on that later).

A change of ownership is a common thread in many of these NHL rebuild stories. New money can bring about new perspectives, and, in good situations, it can correct systemic faults. After trading Jagr, Washington would go on to move Peter Bondra for Brooks Laich and, later,  Robert Lang for Tomas Fleischmann plus the draft pick that would become Mike Green (Does anyone think that Ken Holland would like that one back?). They traded Sergei Gonchar for Shaone Morrison, a 2004 1st round pick (Jeff Schultz) and a 2nd round pick (Mikhail Yunkov), Michael Nylander for a 2005 4th round pick and a 2006 2nd round pick (Patrick McNeill and Francois Bouchard, respectively). They then moved Anson Carter for Jared Aulin and Mike Grier for Jakub Klepis.

The Bondra trade happened February 18th, Lang was moved on February 27th, Gonchar March 8th, Nylander the next day, Carter on the 8th and Grier on the 9th. McPhee was wasting no time in moving every single veteran asset he had for picks, prospects, and youth. This is probably the best example of a GM holding a fire-sale. When fans today talk about the relative merits of their team committing to a wholesale “nuclear-style, scorched-earth” rebuild, Washington would be the best example to use. But I’ll get to that later.

How Low Can You Go?

It worked. The Capitals finished the season a miserable 23-46-10-6, tied for second-last with the Chicago Blackhawks. They won the draft lottery, pushing the league-worst Penguins down to select 2nd overall, and took Alex Ovechkin. They also drafted Schultz and Green in that same year.

Over the next few seasons, the Capitals generally acquired draft picks for players or in exchange for draft position. Occasionally a guy was added for virtually nothing (Bryan Muir was acquired for “future considerations”. Maybe McPhee was going to let then-GM of the Kings DaveTaylor cut in at the cafeteria lineup at the GMs meetings). By 2006 this trend had reversed and McPhee was trading away some draft picks for players such as Alexandre Giroux, Sergei Fedorov, and Cristobal Huet.

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How Bad Were They?

The next question to ask is this: did this cause the Capitals to bottom out and draft high for several years? The answer, frankly, is no. Between 2003 and 2008, Washington’s first round picks were 18th, 1st, 14th, 4th, 5th and 21st overall through the course of a six-year span, the average amount of time estimated for a complete roster rebuild. The Capitals went through the process of finishing dead last, then posting back-to-back 70-point seasons, before managing to turn it around in year four with a 94-point effort. They then went on to a 108-point season in year five. Their draft order notwithstanding, they were a terrible team in a period of many terrible teams in the SW division and New-NHL era, so their thin margin (in one season they lost 42 one-goal games) of defeat eventually worked against their improved seeding at the draft.

The Capitals have also suffered from some poor depth drafting. The 2005 draft, now seven years past, produced only two NHL players, and I had to broaden my definitions of that term to make this fit: the list stops and starts at Joe Finley (5gp, 0-0-0 12PIM) and Tim Kennedy (112gp, 11-18-29 54 PIM). The 2007 draft, though relatively recent, is now five years in the rear-view and the only guy to play an NHL game out of the 10 selected is first rounder Karl Alzner.

Capital Project

Leaving aside the relative success of the Capitals’ rebuild for the time being, the steps taken by George McPhee, with the backing of Ted Leonsis, are probably the best fit description of how to begin a rebuild. They recognized a failure in their approach, identified a path to success, then aggressively and objectively pursued their options to enact that plan. In fact, many fans who want their teams to rebuild would probably draw up a strategy not dissimilar to the one taken by McPhee and Leonsis.

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I’m not necessarily advocating this strategy, merely outlining that they were ruthless and determined in their approach. There were probably many people who laughed at the team when it was trading away player after player in McPhee’s massive purge. Then again, what had they accomplished with an aging star and what could they expect to gain from keeping him? There are lessons here for some fans, comparisons for others. The story, as it is often told, is that the Capitals deliberately sold off Grandma and the kitchen sink in order to get younger, cheaper, and, in the long-term, better.

When looked at objectively in retrospect, I can’t say there is much room for argument there.

  • I think the key difference in terms of optics between trading Jagr and trading Iginla is in what each player meant (means) for the organization in question: Jarome is homegrown superstar, the only one the team has produced in probably two decades. He’ll go down as one of the most beloved figures in franchise history.

    Jagr, in contrast, was a gun for hire – a mercenary paid top dollar to come in and reverse the teams fortunes. When that didn’t happen, his huge contract caused him to be more or less reviled by the fans and club. Trading him was not only an easy decision, it was probably necessary.

    Which isn’t to say the Calgary Flames don’t have legitimate cause to move Jarome given their and his situation. Just that it’s a lot harder to sell it to the general fan base.

    • RexLibris

      Jagr and Iginla, in my mind, have very few similarities that would bear comparison. Jagr, by this time, had established himself as one of the premier players in the league, that might be one of the only common elements I would draw between the two, aside from being wingers.

      As you mentioned, moving Jagr was a lot easier for McPhee than moving Iginla would be for Jay based on a number of reasons, not least of which is the strong emotional attachment Flames fans have for him.

      Washington, despite having been in the NHL for well over twenty years by that time, had to deal with something that I will focus on for Columbus and Florida, in that they have had to build a team and a fan base simultaneously.

      Calgary doesn’t have that dual-task.

      I would love to find out whether the Flames fans, if properly and respectfully communicated to them, would support some of the same moves as those made by McPhee, on the condition that it would be to serve as a significant step towards the franchise’s next era. That’s a long-winded way of saying move Iginla in order to start a rebuild.

  • Karasu89

    yeah cuz they are so good today? rebuilding for 5-6 years gives a small opportunity of maybe 2 years to succeed, so far chicago and pens have been lucky enough to do somehting with that; florida, islanders, tampa (sort of), colorado..all these just proved to be waste of time. The only team to applaud is Philly who after one year of tanking they became competitive again.

  • Arik


    That is correct! They are very good today!

    The problem with the Washington narrative is it ignores the fact that they were one of the best in the league for a few years and are still pretty decent, all because of some playoff troubles.

    Most of the struggles Washington faced this year can be chalked up to (in order) poor goaltending, poor shooting percentage, and finally- horrible horrible coaching from Dale Hunter.

    Bruce Boudreau may not have been a genius coach, but he was an above average one, and Dale Hunter is the complete opposite.

    Also I wish that team had never given up the ridiculously hard forecheck. They were incredible when they played that way.

    • The Caps other problem recently, which was completely out-of-the-blue, is the Ovechkin has gone from one of the three best forwards in the league, to just a pretty good player in the space of two seasons. His possession and shooting numbers have fallen off a cliff and Im not sure anyone – even Pvechkin himself – could tell you why.

      That said, they’re still a decent team. They’d be even better if Ovi could find his way back to being elite.

  • Karasu89

    @Karasu89 – sorry, don’t get how Colorado is a waste of time. They’re just starting to emerge from the rebuild process. Their window is far from “closed.”

    Also, Pens and Caps have a legit chance to go far every year. Their teams are not perfect, but they’re a heck of a lot closer than Calgary.

    You also forgot to mention LA. They seem to be doing OK.

  • Arik


    I’d have to double check, but I seem to recall his underlyings being fine last year with a terrible SH% and this year the opposite. Either way, yeah- he’s no longer driving the bus like he once was.

    • RexLibris

      His underlyings were bad halfway through last season (0 Corsi rel with medium zone starts and easy competition) but he and the team both went on a tear to end the season. I bet his second half of the season was more like his 09-10 (~20 Corsi Rel). This season, yeah, good sh% but he was outshot and scored while on ice. (Meanwhile, Semin outshot and outscored his competition handily, and so did Perreault, but they get no love at all)

  • loudogYYC

    Nice articles Rex, I like all the research you’re putting into them.

    McPhee had some balls to trade off all those superstars for picks and kids. He also did it in a city that doesn’t care about hockey as much as we do. There’s no way Feaster can do anything under the radar here.

    I agree with Kent that trading Jagr as an established, 32 year old superstar is much different than trading Iggy at 35. The closest thing to a hired gun would be Bouwmeester. Not in the sense that he’s a dangerous point producer but because he was signed to big money as a UFA to anchor the blueline. He’s also a Dinosaur Sutter “mistake” so Feaster would probably be applauded for trading him. Just not by me.

    Oh and @BACKBURNER, Trevor Kidd, Brent Krahn and Leland Irving. 3 goalies Calgary picked in the first round and less than 200 games played in Flames colours by all 3 combined. Let other GM’s make those mistakes for a change, the best goalies in the world are rarely high picks anyway.

    • RexLibris

      Thanks loudog,

      I have tried to be thorough. I know that the online community is very adept at sniffing out mistakes and inconsistencies, so the proverbial leg-work is a must.

      There have been some surprises in looking into these teams. My own previously held beliefs about the plot-lines for many franchises has turned out to be slightly out-of-sync with history.

      Trading Bouwmeester would probably be the “tipping point” that would eventually result in Iginla and Kiprusoff leaving the city within two years.

      As much as he is overpaid, to my mind he is similar to a more healthy Ryan Whitney where he eats up minutes and helps to shelter others in the defensive lineup. A sort of hockey scapegoat where the ills of the defense are heaped upon him in order to shelter the others. The Flames defense without him would likely be worse than the Oilers’ looked on paper last season.

      • loudogYYC

        “There have been some surprises in looking into these teams. My own previously held beliefs about the plot-lines for many franchises has turned out to be slightly out-of-sync with history.”

        I agree completely Rex, goes to show you how easy it is to forget the ugly and painful details when there’s a master plan in place.

        Damn I hope Feaster reads this blog every now and then.

  • Karasu89

    You are right, it just seems like Colorado is aactually trying to trade some guys that were suppose to be the corner stones of the rebuild like stasny and matt duchene.
    As for La from 03 to 08 they were in rebuild mode,and they did get 4 great players, but the rest came via trade also Sutter has them going right.

  • RexLibris


    Don’t read ahead! 😉

    Seriously though, the L.A. rebuild began in 2006 and the players they got before that, Brown, Hickey and Kopitar, were drafted prior to the franchise officially pursuing a rebuild strategy.

    There are some terrific articles online about the L.A. rebuild. Jonathan Willis has one that breaks down the percentage of the roster by acquisition, and it is roughly 50% draft,

    • RexLibris


      I must also shamefacedly admit that I forgot to mention their most important departure during this period: the awful white house/screaming eagle logo.

      Not as bad as the BuffaSlug, or the Fisherman’s friend in Long Island, but pretty awful all the same.

      The Capitals really gutted their front-line player ranks. Contrast this scenario with some of the other rebuilding teams.

      Honestly, if any team ever went scorched-earth, it was the Capitals. I don’t subscribe to the concept of deliberate tanking in most circumstances (the 90s Sens being one) but the Caps came pretty close to it. The only mitigating factor is that they were so poor in development at the same time that even after the trades they didn’t have any replacement level players to fill the roster spots.