We are now less than one week away from the 2013 NHL Draft, which will take place this Sunday at Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. The Caps have eight picks in the seven rounds of the 2013 Draft, and Washington’s first pick is the 23rd overall choice, a familiar area of the first round for general manager George McPhee. The Caps have an extra selection in the fifth round because of a deal made last summer that sent defenseman Dennis Wideman to the Calgary Flames.
At each of the last two drafts, McPhee has swung a significant trade. Two years ago today, McPhee swapped his first-round choice (24th overall) to Chicago in exchange for right wing Troy Brouwer. Brouwer has been a top six forward in Washington for the past two seasons, and he had a career year with 19 goals in just 47 games in the lockout shortened 2012-13 campaign.
As he does every year at this time, McPhee held court for the local media on Monday prior to departing for New Jersey for the 2013 Draft. In a question relating to whether the Caps’ general strategy is to go for the best available player or to target a specific need, McPhee’s answer harkened back to the deal that brought Brouwer to the District two years ago.
“It’s both of those things and more,” answers McPhee. “Sometimes you can get to a draft and say, ‘Boy, this is deep and we really like a couple of guys that might be there, so we’re going to hang in and make a pick.’
“There are other years – like the Troy Brouwer acquisition for example – where we kept looking at it and the scouts were saying, ‘It’s going to get really lean there. You might get a guy that will play [in the NHL], but it’s going to be a couple of years down the road.’ We didn’t like where that was going and we had an opportunity to use our pick to get Brouwer and it turned out to be a heck of a move for us. He’s a guy that we all like and I think he was fifth in the league last year for goals from a right winger. I thought that was a pretty good move.
“A good working relationship between the amateur scouts and the pro scouts put that together and came up with that result. There are different ways to approach all of those things and that’s the way we did it for that draft, and that one worked.”
The Caps are no strangers to picking where they’re picking in the first round in 2013, at No. 23. The Caps have grown accustomed to choosing in the latter third of the first round, as they will do again this summer. Washington has had eight picks between Nos. 21 and 29 over the last nine drafts, and five of those players have played a significant amount of time in the NHL. One more – Evgeny Kuznetsov – is expected to play in the NHL as soon as next season. Kuznetsov was chosen 26th overall in 2010.
Choosing in the 20s every year, the Caps are often able to focus on a smaller group of players that they expect to be available near their spot. They’ve traded up, they’ve traded down, and – in the case of the Brouwer deal – they’ve traded out.
“I like the way that we approach the draft,” says McPhee. “I like the analysis that our scouts do. I like the way we break things down. There are a few new wrinkles for our staff this year that we’ve tried and I kind of like what it looks like. We’ll just keep trying to improve. You do learn things and certainly one of the first things you learn is, ‘Let’s focus in on that part of the draft.’ There is no sense in focusing in on other areas, because you’re not picking there. Sometimes you might have a feeling that you might be able to move in certain directions, but if you don’t have that feeling then you focus on that area.”
Regardless of where players are chosen, the goal is to average about two quality NHL players per draft year. That doesn’t sound like much, but only a handful of teams are able to do so. From 2003 through 2009, the Caps drafted 14 players who became NHL regulars. Nine of those 14 players were first-round selections.
“I think you learn something every year when you’re preparing for the draft; what works, what doesn’t work with your staff,” notes McPhee. “Each year, we try to get better. We’d like to think that the facts would show that we’ve drafted really well over the years and to continue to get better. You’re not going to hit on every pick obviously, but we’ve done really well and want to continue to do well.”
Being able to pull a couple of NHL worthy players out of every draft is important because it’s the most economical way of building a roster. About half of Washington’s 2012-13 roster was comprised of players the Caps drafted over the last decade and many of the others were obtained using players McPhee and his staff drafted.
Center Mike Ribeiro joined the Caps in a trade made at last year’s draft; Washington sent center Cody Eakin – a third-round choice in 2009 – to Dallas in the deal. Late in the season, McPhee swapped Filip Forsberg – one of the Caps’ two first-round choices in the 2012 draft – to Nashville for forward Martin Erat.
In both of those trades, the Caps dealt down-the-road potential in exchange for a proven, top six NHL forward.
Experts are saying that the 2013 Draft is one of the best of recent vintages, but the top tier doesn’t extend as far down as the 23rd slot where Washington’s first selection sits. It’s not difficult to envision McPhee moving up, down or out from that spot depending on what happens with the picks ahead of Washington.
McPhee’s first draft as the Caps’ general manager was in 1997. There were nine rounds in those days; there are just seven now. Washington exercised 18 first-round choices over the last 11 drafts, more than any other team in the league. The Caps have been able to sustain six straight playoff teams largely by drafting well over the last decade.
With the advent of the salary cap era in 2005-06, added emphasis has been placed on drafting and developing around the league.
“As with everything else, everybody seems to get better at it,” notes McPhee. “Staffs are bigger around the league. The players are more scrutinized and more watched than they’ve ever been before. We learn more things at the combine. You learn better interview techniques. Clubs structure their staffs in different ways; sometimes they hire people just to watch the first round.
“There are a lot of different ways to do it. I really like the way we’re doing it. I don’t really want to give away my ammunition on how we do that, but I like the way we’re doing it.
“We’ve gotten real good results. When you’re getting players near the back of that first round like [Mike] Green or [Marcus] Johansson or [Semyon] Varlamov or [John] Carlson and Kuznetsov. We drafted Johansson and one year later he was in our lineup and playing well. That doesn’t happen very often there in that position [in the draft]. But that’s the kind of thing that you’re trying to find. Is there someone there that can make a difference and play for you soon?”
That’s the question McPhee and Caps director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney will ask themselves as their pick approaches in the first round on Sunday afternoon.
“If there is something there where we’re picking that we think will work for us, then we’ll do that,” says McPhee. “But I’m not really married to any position. We’ll get there and see what people want to do. Sometimes things come up and you can move up. How far up do you want to move, is the question, and what’s it going to take? But we’ll see. I’m open to that if someone wants to do it.”
If the activity in the first 15 picks or so leads McPhee and Co. to believe a player they really like might be available around No. 19 or 20, they'll look into making a deal to move up. If there's a player they really like at No. 23, they'll simply draft him. And if not, McPhee could accept a pick or two later in the draft in return for that No. 23 slot. It's a very fluid situation, and one that is constantly being tracked as the draft wears on.
Should McPhee opt to move the Caps’ first-round pick as he
did two summers ago, he may have more suitors. With the salary cap dropping by
more than $6 million for the upcoming season, many teams are up against the cap
and might be looking to offload a contract or two. If another club offers a player that McPhee thinks could help in the District now, he'll pull the trigger on a deal as he did in 2011.
“There may be more activity in this one than in other drafts,” observes McPhee. “You would think that that would be the case because some teams have [salary] cap issues and have to move some players. You would think that there would be more of that kind of activity. So we’ll see.”
We will. But probably not for another six days or so.