Caps Draft and Upcoming Free Agency
This Friday, June 20th at 7pm is the start of the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft which will be held in Ottawa, Ontario (first round is televised on Versus). Rounds two through seven will take place on Saturday beginning at 10am. The Washington Capitals have the 23rd overall pick in the first round and the bad news is this is the lowest the Caps have picked since 2001 when they didn’t pick until the second round. The good news is that the late pick is because Washington finally had a winning season and made the playoffs. The Caps have nine picks total in this year’s draft including three late second round picks (54, 57, and 58).
The NHL draft is unlike the NFL and NBA draft because the players selected are typically only 18 years old so these hockey players are nowhere near as seasoned and physically developed as the players taken in football and basketball. Plus, because of the lack of coverage of junior, college, and overseas hockey in the United States many fans have never seen these players at all. At times it can be a real crap shoot.
The good news for Caps fans is that the recent draft history of GM George McPhee and his scouting staff is good. Since 2002 they have drafted the following players in the first round (overall pick number in parentheses):
2002 – Steve Eminger (12), Alexander Semin (13), and Boyd Gordon (17)
2003 – Eric Fehr (18)
2004 – Alex Ovechkin (1), Jeff Schultz (27), and Mike Green (29)
2005 – Sasha Pokulok (14), Joe Finley (27)
2006 – Nicklas Backstrom (4) and Simeon Varlamov (23)
2007 – Karl Alzner (5)
Fans already know about eight of the above players because they played with the Caps last season (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, Schultz, Fehr, Gordon, Semin, and Eminger). From recent discussions I’ve had with an NHL scout the Caps have two other blue chip prospects in Varlamov (goalie) and Alzner (defensemen). The jury is still out on Pokulok and Finley but they are both still young.
Look for McPhee and his staff to pick the best player available in the first round regardless of position on Friday night.
McPhee has a busy summer ahead as he needs to re-sign unrestricted free agent goalie Cristobal Huet and try to get unrestricted free agent center Sergei Fedorov to sign in Washington. McPhee also needs to ink several restricted free agents that are very important to the hockey team including the NHL leader in goals for defensemen last season, Mike Green. There are two benchmarks for Green’s agent and McPhee to use in these negotiations with the upper limit being the $6.5M a year salary given to Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf and the lower bound being Monday’s four year, $14M contract given to Predators defenseman Ryan Suter (average of $3.5M a year). Look for Green to get at least $5M a year going forward. On Monday McPhee claimed he’ll match whatever offer sheet is presented for Green but that is a dangerous position to end up in so hopefully George gets the Green camp to agree to a deal before free agency begins on July 1. Shaone Morrisonn, Brooks Laich, Steve Eminger, and Boyd Gordon also are restricted free agents. McPhee has already locked up unrestricted free agent Matt Bradley for three more years. Matt Cooke is also an unrestricted free agent but I don’t see him coming back to Washington next year unless the price is really right.
The Caps do expect to have fully recovered forwards Michael Nylander and Chris Clark back in the line-up next season.
The other great thing about the draft, besides seeing the future of the NHL, is that all of the general managers and their staffs congregate at the host city and that typically results in several trades. With the NHL salary cap trades have become a bit more difficult but rumors are already flying around that Toronto is looking to move up in the draft (they currently pick 7th). The Leafs have a bleak short term future so GM Cliff Fletcher is looking to draft some future talent in an organization that severely lacks it so you may see him trading some of his veteran players under contract and the rights to some of his unrestricted free agents for whatever draft picks he can obtain.
As for the first overall pick, you can already take that to the bank because as I mentioned in some of my previous blogs the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to select forward Steve Stamkos of the Sarnia Sting according to what GM Jay Feaster has already announced publicly. Stamkos will very likely play in the NHL next year on a line with Vincent LeCavalier so that he can learn from a team captain and Stanley Cup champion. LeCavalier, however, is an unrestricted free agent after next season so it will be interesting to see what develops down in Tampa Bay next year. Tampa already unloaded Brad Richards at this year’s trade deadline and they are undergoing an ownership change that already cost coach John Tortorella his job.
According to a conversation I had with an NHL scout who oversees his clubs draft there are six, maybe seven top players in this draft and then after that there is a leveling off of talent. Caps GM George McPhee called this year’s draft “a very good draft” in his pre-draft press conference on Monday.
The Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins have some tough decisions to make this off-season as they have three significant unrestricted free agents in forwards Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone plus hard hitting defensemen Brooks Orpik. The NHL salary cap next season will likely be between $55.5M and $56M and the Pens already have a large portion of that allocated plus goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will be going through salary arbitration. Word has it that the Columbus Blue Jackets are very interested in Malone. Hossa will garner a ton of interest around the league as well.
On Hockey Night in Canada radio on Monday afternoon host Jeff Marek and Kelly Hrudey interviewed Mark Gandler, the agent of former Islanders star forward Alexei Yashin. Yashin, who signed a 10-year deal worth $87.5 million with the Islanders in 2001 (New York bought out the final four years for $17.5 million last year), is interested in coming back to Long Island and apparently GM Garth Snow and Islander ownership wants him back as well. Gandler says money is not the issue because whatever the Islanders offer will be less than what he could make in Russia and he says that Yashin wants to come back and play in the best league in the world. Another interesting thing about all of this is that Gandler was delayed coming onto to the show because he was actually on the other line with Snow. So we’ll see how this story develops over the next several weeks. Yashin has a ton of talent but he’s never really produced at a high level in the NHL playoffs.