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