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The biggest ‘what ifs’ in Capitals history: What if Washington had not won the 2004 draft lottery?

The biggest ‘what ifs’ in Capitals history: What if Washington had not won the 2004 draft lottery?

We are looking at some of the biggest “what ifs” for the Capitals. Last week, we looked at what ifs for the season. This week, we are looking at some of the bigger what ifs from franchise history.

The Capitals have picked No. 1 overall only once in franchise history and selected Alex Ovechkin in the 2004 draft. He is the greatest player to ever to play for the organization, perhaps the greatest goal-scorer of all time and the captain who led Washington to its first Stanley Cup.
 
But what if the Capitals had not won that draft lottery?
 
Despite a 59-point season, Washington had only the third-worst record in the NHL in the 2003-04 season and had to leapfrog both Pittsburgh and Chicago for the No. 1 pick.
 
The Penguins had the greatest odds of winning. Had they won the lottery, they would have taken Ovechkin. Let that sink in for a moment if you can.
 
It would have been less likely, of course, that Pittsburgh would win the lottery in 2005 and taken Sidney Crosby the next summer at No. 1 overall. 

The 2004-05 season was canceled by a lockout. There were no team records to determine the draft lottery odds. Instead, the NHL came up with a new plan that guaranteed each team at least one ball in the lottery, but no more than three. 

For every No. 1 overall pick or playoff appearance over the previous four years, a team lost a ball. So, the Caps, despite finishing with 59 points in 2003-04, ended up with only one ball and picked 14th in one of the most asinine draft set-ups in NHL history. 

Had Pittsburgh won the lottery in 2004, the Penguins would have dropped from three balls to two and it would have been far less likely that they got Crosby - though not impossible. If Pittsburgh had pulled that off, it would have resulted in perhaps the greatest dynasty in league history.
 
But under that scenario, with Ovechkin on the Penguins, the Caps would have gotten one ball back in the Crosby draft. They still probably would not have walked away with the No. 1 pick, though the odds are they’d have picked better than No. 14.
 
Here’s the real problem with losing the lottery in 2004: There was no consolation prize for Washington. Yes, Ovechkin’s fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin was the clear No. 2 pick that year and he, too, is a future Hall-of-Famer. But that wouldn’t help the Caps because there was only a chance to move up to first that year, no higher. If the ping-pong ball doesn’t bounce the right way, Washington would have stuck with the No. 3 or No. 4 pick. 

RELATED: RE-DRAFTING THE 2004 NHL DRAFT

There were some decent players taken later in that 2004 draft like Blake Wheeler and Alexander Radulov. But the player ultimately taken third by the Chicago Blackhawks was defenseman Cam Barker.
 
Haven’t heard of him? That’s because Barker played just 310 games in the NHL. That’s more than most, sure. But his last season playing in North America was 2012-13 where he split time between the Vancouver Canucks in the NHL and Texas Stars in the AHL. 

Andrew Ladd was selected fourth by the Carolina Hurricanes, Wheeler fifth. Hopefully Washington’s scouts would have recognized the value of Wheeler and selected him at No. 3 and they’d have taken a valuable player. Wheeler has 264 career goals and 761 points. A good, solid career and any team would take that even at No. 3

But he’s no Ovechkin. People won’t walk around years from now saying they saw Blake Wheeler play. 

The 2004 draft was so critical to Washington obviously because of Ovechkin, but also because had it lost out on him that long, slog of a rebuild, which still took until 2007-08 to really get moving, might have taken even longer. 

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The Capitals risked it all by tearing their team apart in 2003-04. Miss the generational talent of Ovechkin and they could very well have ended up with Barker and a mid-round pick in 2005. This is a team that wasn’t very good WITH Ovechkin the first two years of his career. It’s hard to see how it would have had anywhere near the same success on the ice - or off it. 

Let’s not forget, interest in the team was nowhere near as strong as it is today. The Capitals had a hardy, loyal fanbase, but Penguins fans always took over the arena come playoff time. They had a long run of success in the 1980s and 1990s, but often jettisoned star players (Mike Gartner, Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy). There was little sizzle, not much star power, just good, solid teams that had a reputation for choking in the playoffs and only went to the Stanley Cup Final once in 1998. 

Excitement over Ovechkin, with his tinted visor and his electric-yellow laces and his physical dominance and his jaw-dropping goals, sparked the Rock the Red era that took hockey in Washington to a different level. Some top phenoms only have to be great on the ice. Ovechkin had to do that and re-sell the sport, too, to a younger generation of fans. It was a Herculean task, but the Capitals are glad the ball bounced their way and gave them 15 years and counting with their franchise icon. 

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T.J. Oshie shows you don't always have to have a letter on your chest to be a leader

T.J. Oshie shows you don't always have to have a letter on your chest to be a leader

When T.J. Oshie took to the ice on Monday for the round robin game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he did so with an "A" on his chest. With John Carlson out, his A went to Oshie. It was not a major talking point before the game and was mentioned only briefly afterward by head coach Todd Reirden. Oshie taking the A wasn't a major storyline not because no one cared, it was because no one needed Oshie to wear a letter to know he was a leader.

In the second period against the Tampa Bay, Oshie dropped the gloves with Tampa Bay forward Yanni Gourde in the second period while the Caps were down 2-0 and struggling to find any intensity in their game. Less than five minutes later, the game was tied at 2. It was the clear turning point of the game and helped the Caps earn a point in a game that looked like it was getting away from them.

"He has an A on his jersey without Carlson and clearly a leadership move right there and the results speak for themselves," head coach Todd Reirden said. "He does a tremendous job with our leadership group and that was another signal of the type of person he is, the character he has.”

The energy Oshie brings to a team is evident. You can watch his interviews, see his interactions with his family or even check out the butt tap. That type of energy is contagious and goes a long way towards loosening a team up and giving them confidence in key moments.

"He is a great teammate and everything he does inside the locker room on a daily basis that everyone doesn’t get to see," Nicklas Backstrom said, "He is always positive, comes in with a lot of energy."

He added, "[Oshie] brings everything to the table."

But it's not just about what he does off the ice that makes him a leader.

Oshie has fought before, but no one would label him a "fighter." It's not something he does not do often -- his last fight came back in May of 2018 against Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang -- but he did it when the team needed it on Monday and that's what makes Oshie a leader.

If the team needs a goal, Oshie scores. If the team is in a shootout, Oshie always goes. If the team needs a fight, he drops the gloves.

That fight against Letang? It came in the final minute of Game 4 in the second-round series against the Penguins. After that game, Washington would not lose to Pittsburgh again.

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When it comes to talking about the Caps as a contender, we can talk about the skill they have, the size, the speed, etc., but there's something else to consider: The leaders. The fact that the Caps can turn to someone like Oshie to wear the A when needed is a sign of the amount of leadership on the roster. And that's not even including guys like Braden Holtby, Lars Eller or Tom Wilson, a player many believe will be the next C after Ovechkin.

In terms of leaders, Washington is full of them.

And that's evident when a player like Oshie steps onto the ice wearing an A and no one notices. That's because he's always been a leader and it doesn't take wearing a letter for his teammates to recognize it.

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Lars Eller departs the bubble for birth of his second child

Lars Eller departs the bubble for birth of his second child

Capitals forward Lars Eller has left the NHL bubble in Toronto to be with his family for the birth of his second child, the team announced Wednesday. Eller had made it known he intended to do so before even arriving in Toronto so the news of his departure is no surprise.

Eller is actually not the first player to voluntarily leave the bubble for the birth of a child. That honor goes to Ivan Barbashev of the St. Louis Blues who departed on Tuesday.

Eller’s departure means he will miss Thursday’s game, Travis Boyd is expected to step into Eller’s position at third line center. Boyd has largely been an extra for much of the season in Washington and played in only 24 games, but still managed 10 points. Boyd also has experience playing the third-line center role in the playoffs as he did it in 2018 during the team’s Cup run. An injury to Nicklas Backstrom pushed Eller into the second line, which allowed Boyd to get into the lineup.

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Eller’s return will be complicated. It is not just a matter of rejoining the team, but also being able to re-enter the NHL’s bubble which will mean a period of quarantine and testing. That means that even upon returning to Toronto, he will not be available to join the team right away. Eller will almost certainly miss the team’s final round robin game as well against the Boston Bruins on Sunday.

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