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.
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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