Revving the Rebuild: The 2004 Entry Draft
Caps' '04 draft could ultimately prove to be the best in franchise history
During a dismal 2003-04 season, the Washington Capitals divested themselves of several high-priced veteran players in an effort to stockpile young players and prospects for a rebuild that was overdue. As a result of that effort, the Capitals held six of the first 66 choices in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, and that ’04 draft has helped spark Washington’s successful rebuilding effort. Although many more years will be needed to fully and accurately assess how the Caps and the rest of the NHL fared in the ’04 draft, Washington’s Class of 2004 has been strong so far.
Good fortune smiled on the Capitals on Apr. 6, 2004 when Washington won the NHL Draft Lottery and the right to choose dynamic left wing Alex Ovechkin with the first overall choice. Trades during the 2003-04 season brought picks No. 27 and 29, and the Caps smartly opted for defensemen Jeff Schultz and Mike Green, respectively, with those two picks. All three of those players are now contributing regulars on the Washington roster, and Ovechkin and Green are among the best players at their positions in the league.
Among Washington’s later choices in the 2004 Draft are Chris Bourque, Sami Lepisto and Andrew Gordon, all of whom are playing pro and all of whom could challenge for jobs at this fall’s Capitals training camp. When it’s all said and done, the 2004 draft class could go down as one of the best – if not the best – in franchise history.
With that in mind, we thought it would be fun and somewhat instructive to look back on the aftermath of the 2004 draft. What follows is an excerpt of our coverage of that 2004 draft, a piece that appeared days after the completion of the ’04 Draft in Raleigh.
Hope springs eternal at and after the NHL draft. Most draftees are teenagers who are years away from making an impact or even a ripple at the NHL level but it’s easy for fans to get excited about players chosen by their favorite team and occasionally irritated by those players passed over by the hometown squad.
For scouts and general managers the draft is akin to Christmas morning. Nervous anticipation rules the first round as each pick is made and they hope to “receive” those players ranked highest on their wish list. No scouting director is unhappy on draft day; the next head scout to walk around muttering that he had a bad draft will be the first.
The truth is only time can tell whose draft was good and whose wasn’t. The odds are brutal; it’s harder to divine which talented teens stand a chance to reach the NHL than it is to hit a Roger Clemens fastball. Draft studies show that roughly 21 percent of all players chosen in the NHL Entry Draft since 1979 have gone on to have a career of as many as 400 NHL games. During the course of his 21-year career in the major leagues, opposing batters have hit safely against Clemens exactly 23% of the time.
While it will take a few years to determine exactly how well the Washington Capitals and their 29 NHL brethren fared at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft in Raleigh’s RBC Center, we can tell you this: Washington got the player it – and 29 other clubs – wanted. By virtue of winning the draft lottery in April, the Capitals won the right to choose first and selected Russian left wing Alexander Ovechkin, the consensus No. 1 choice.
Ovechkin and 12 other players joined the Capitals fold on the last weekend in June. Those 13 players plus a bevy of promising young players already in the Washington system combine to give the Capitals what is arguably the best assemblage of young talent in the franchise’s three-decade history.
Here is a quick glance at some of the newest members of the Capitals' organization and what the future may hold for them in Washington.
First Round, #1 overall – Alexander Ovechkin – LW – Moscow Dynamo (RUS)
Ovechkin has been playing in the Russian Super League for three seasons now, since he was 16 years old. He has also been projected as the first overall choice in the 2004 Entry Draft for that long. A 6-foot-2, 200-pound right-handed shot, he is a great skater, a hard hitter and brilliant stickhandler with a lethal shot. He plays both ends of the ice capably and actually enjoys his defensive responsibilities. For a guy with the skill, talent and ability he possesses, Ovechkin is remarkably well grounded. He has a good attitude on and off the ice and is by all accounts a great teammate. His combination of character, speed and skill pushed him to the top of the charts and kept him there. Ultimately, choosing Ovechkin was a no-brainer. Caps fans hope they’ll be watching him ply his trade in DC next season and for the next decade or two.
Capitals’ director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney: “He is a complete player. He comes to play every shift. He works hard, he has good skill, he skates well, he shows good strength for his age, his work ethic is good. There are other players who maybe do some of those things well … but he is a complete player. That’s the best way to describe him.
“He is definitely a very talented player and he has to rank among the top players that I’ve seen over the last 20 years.”
Ovechkin: “If I play in Washington, I’ll give this team my heart. I just want to play in the NHL.
First Round, #27 overall – Jeff Schultz – D – Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
Schultz is a towering (6-foot-6, 212 pounds) defenseman who comes from a strong Western League program in Calgary. Each of Calgary’s six regular blueliners in 2003-04 was selected in one of the last three NHL Entry Drafts. Five of the six went in the top four rounds and two (Schultz and Andy Rogers, 30th overall to Tampa Bay) were among three Hitmen drafted in the first round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft (Carolina chose winger Andrew Ladd with the fourth overall choice). Schultz more than held his own in that lofty company. Although he did not turn 18 until late February, he led all Hitmen defensemen in goals (11) and points (35). Schultz is skilled and poised with the puck. He has a good shot and is used in both power play and penalty killing situations. Defensively, Schultz has the wingspan of a pterodactyl and is strong in one-on-one situations. The Caps see Schultz adding more bulk and muscle to his already hulking frame and hope he can develop into a strong two-way defenseman.
Mahoney: “When you’re 17 years old and you’re 6-foot-6, you’re still growing into your body. You’re probably a little more awkward at that age compared to someone who is 5-foot-11 and weighs 200 pounds and is already matured physically. We expect Jeff to put on another 30 pounds over the next three or four years. Right now what Jeff needs to do is work on his core strength and work on his leg strength. I think working on his leg strength will also improve his skating a little bit.”
“I think as Jeff Schultz matures into that body he is going to get more strength and getting more strength will give him more confidence, and having more strength and more confidence should allow him to be a little more confident in some of those physical confrontations. Right now, he competes but it’s hard. Sometimes your body doesn’t allow you to do what your mind wants it to do all the time. And that will change as he fills out the big body.”
Schultz: “Last year as a 16-year-old, I didn’t get much playing time. I came into this year wanting to be on the power play and the penalty kill and wanting to be one of those go-to guys for tough times. I came into each practice and worked real hard and the coaches had a lot of confidence in me and they put me into those situations that I wasn’t in last year.”
Schultz on which NHL defenseman he compares himself to: “I think Wade Redden. He is real poised with the puck, makes the smart play with the puck all the time. He likes the offensive and defensive sides of the game and I try to play like him.”
First Round, #29 overall – Mike Green – D – Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
Green was named Saskatoon’s team MVP and the club’s top defenseman for 2003-04. He also took over the team captaincy in midseason. The Blades had what could charitably be called a trying season; they won just seven games. By all accounts Green never stopped competing in spite of his club’s position in the standings. He regularly logged 25-30 minutes every night and performed on both specialty teams. Green led all Blades defensemen in goals (14) and points (39) and was second overall on the team in scoring. Green is a hard-nosed, hard working defender with good puck skills and a hard right-handed point shot. He has good hockey sense and uses his body well despite his average size. Green is a character player and no team can have too many of them.
Mahoney: “It speaks a lot about Mike Green’s character. Mike Green never asked for a trade and his team was probably one of the worst teams in junior hockey this past year. Mike was a good team player for them. He never complained, he came to the rink every day and worked hard.”
Green: “The one hockey player I probably like the most would be Scott Niedermayer. I think he’s a great player and I try to idolize him as much as possible.”
Second Round, #33 overall – Chris Bourque – C – Cushing Academy (USHS)
Perhaps no player’s stock rose as swiftly and as sharply as Bourque’s did over the second half of the 2003-04 season. The NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau ranked him 198th among all North American skaters in its midseason rankings. By season’s end he was 74th … with a bullet. The son of Hall of Fame defenseman Raymond Bourque, the younger Bourque has his father’s physique; thick and compact. The younger Bourque turned 18 in January and can be expected to add to his 5-foot-7, 170-pound frame. He reminds some of former Capitals great Dale Hunter with his size and his tenacity and edge on the ice. Bourque is a quick and shifty skater who also has goal scorer’s skills and a good shot. He captained his team at Cushing and was named New England prep school MVP for the 2003-04 season. Bourque was also a New England prep school all-star each of the last two seasons.
Mahoney: “Chris Bourque skates very well, he’s got great hands and he is very competitive. Some people might say he’s on the smaller side but we’re talking about strength here. And Chris is very strong on his skates.”
Bourque: “Not too many people are going to live up to the name ‘Bourque.’ If I have just half the career he had, that’ll still be a great career. I’m not looking to be my dad. I’m my own person, I’m Chris Bourque. I’m going to do my best.”
Bourque on his size: “I don’t look at a guy as ‘big,’ just someone I have to get past. If you come watch me play you will see that.”
Raymond Bourque on his son: “He is a player who plays with a good edge. He is not big in stature in terms of height but he is solidly built. He has good hands, he sees the ice really well, he makes good plays and he has a knack for scoring goals. He goes after it pretty good.”
Second round, #62 overall – Mikhail Yunkov – C – Krylja (RUS-2)
Yunkov is a smart, two-way center with strong playmaking skills. The 6-foot, 180-pounder is good on face-offs and can also play on the wing. At a tournament earlier this year, Yunkov centered a line with wingers Alexander Radulov (selected 15th overall by Nashville in 2004 Entry Draft) and Roman Voloshenko (42nd, Minnesota). The trio combined for 19 points in just four games. Yunkov also posted four assists in six games at the World U18 tournament. Scouts who have seen him play marvel at his hockey sense and say he is a very solid complementary player.
Yunkov: “I do consider myself a playmaking center but I also consider myself a defensive center. I don’t get to watch the NHL that much but during an interview in Toronto the Phoenix Coyotes said that I resembled Ron Francis in my style.”
Mahoney: “[Junkov] is a real solid two-way guy. He was the kind of player that you might be watching his wingers because they had been given a little more of a buildup before the season started. But as you kept watching he kept catching your eye because he was very good on faceoffs, he played really well defensively and he made some real nice plays with the puck. He turned out to be a good fit with those high-scoring wingers. He does a lot of the work that makes people successful in the NHL. It’s nice to have a player like that where you don’t have to spend as much time teaching him that side of the game.”
Third round, #66 overall – Sami Lepisto – D – Jokerit (FIN)
Lepisto garnered global attention last January when he was named the best defenseman at the World Junior Championships in Helsinki. The 6-foot-0, 176-pound defenseman totaled four goals and eight points in seven games at that tournament, helping Finland to a surprising bronze medal showing. Lepisto was eligible for the 2003 draft but did not opt-in, a move that probably turned out in his favor. The 19-year-old is a very good skater who moves the puck well and likes to join the rush. Lepisto is also effective at playing on the power play. He likens himself to Brian Rafalski of the New Jersey Devils, another slightly built defensemen with offensive prowess who gets by with guile in his own end. Lepisto is a smart and steady performer who has good hockey bloodlines; his father, Jussi, played in both the Finnish and Swedish pro leagues. The younger Lepisto is already playing in the pro league in his native Finland. He is serving a hitch of duty in the military this summer and is expected to return to Jokerit in time for the start of the 2004-05 season.
Mahoney: “Sami is a bit of a late bloomer. He had a very good year this year. He played in the elite league in Finland which is an excellent league and he also performed very well in the world juniors this year. We’re very pleased that we had a chance to draft him.”
Seventh round, #197 overall – Andrew Gordon – RW – Notre Dame (SJHL)
Ranked 194th among North American skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, Gordon is coming off a strong season at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a renowned prep program in Wilcox, Saskatchewan that has produced several NHL players over the years. Gordon was second on the team and ninth in the circuit in scoring with 64 points. He accepted a scholarship and will be attending St. Cloud St. (WCHA) in the fall.
Mahoney: “He is a hard worker. He has good skill. He had more than a point a game out in Notre Dame in the Tier II and he a lot of assists which usually shows a that there is a good level of hockey sense there.”