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Class of '96

The NHL Entry Draft Class of 1996 was not among the best of recent vintage

Wednesday, 07.21.2010 / 8:14 PM / Features
By Mike Vogel  - WashingtonCaps.com Senior Writer
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Class of \'96
An article on goaltender Ray Martynuik appeared in the 1996 Draft Preview published by The Hockey News. Martynuik holds the dubious distinction of being the only top five NHL draft choice from 1969-2006 who never appeared in an NHL game. Looking back now, the piece on Martynuik provids an ironic sense of poignancy from a Capitals’ standpoint.

Washington had the fourth overall choice in 1996, the first time the Caps found themselves drafting in the top five since 1982 when they chose future Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens at No. 5.

In 1996, the Caps picked far, far closer to the Martynuik end of the drafting spectrum than to the Stevens side. Washington chose forward Alexandre Volchkov at No. 4 in 1996. Volchkov’s total of three career NHL games played is the fewest of any skater chosen in the top five from 1969-2006.

The 1996 NHL Entry Draft was not seen as one of great bounty, not then and certainly not now. Eleven of the 26 players chosen in the first round played in fewer than 100 games during their NHL careers. Including Volchkov, four of the first dozen players chosen in 1996 had NHL careers that spanned fewer than 100 games.

Choosing first overall in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, the Ottawa Senators tabbed defenseman Chris Phillips with the first overall choice. Along with defenseman Erik Johnson (St. Louis, 2007), Phillips is one of only two players chosen first overall from 1996-2009 who did not play in the NHL in his draft year.

Phillips has had a solid career in Ottawa, spending his entire career with the Sens to date. He has played 863 games for the Senators, but has never been considered among the best in the business, nor has he ever made an NHL All-Star team.

Picking second, the San Jose Sharks also went for a defenseman. They chose Andrei Zyuzin, who bounced around the NHL for a decade, playing for half a dozen clubs. He last surfaced with the Blackhawks in 2007-08. After playing in 496 NHL contests, Zyuzin now toils in the KHL in his native Russia.

Many scouting services had Volchkov ranked third, but the New York Islanders smartly passed over the Russian winger, opting instead for J.P. Dumont. Dumont has played in more than 750 NHL games, none of them for the Islanders (thanks, Mike Milbury!). Dealt away less than two years after he was drafted, Dumont netted the Fishermen Dmitri Nabokov and a fifth-rounder in 1998.

Dumont has gone on to net 20 or more goals in six different NHL campaigns.

Once the Isles secured Dumont, Caps general manager David Poile went to the podium for his last first-rounder as the Washington GM, making the ill-fated Volchkov pick.

The Hockey News draft guide had Volchkov ranked third. Here’s what their scouting report read:

“There is no disputing Barrie Colts’ right winger Alexandre Volchkov’s status as the premier offensive talent available. There is, however, some question whether he has the attitude to match his ample ability.

‘He’s dynamic,’ one scout said. ‘He has the size, the strength and speed to be a big-timer. He’s strong on the puck, has incredible acceleration and will pay the price to score.’

But … ‘Better do a thorough character check on this guy,’ another scout said. ‘His play is out as much as it’s in. Success might have gone to his head.’

Insiders say Volchkov started acting like a prima donna and wasn’t as popular with his teammates and coaches at season’s end as he was when it started. Still, he’s an awesome talent, and may be as close to playing pro now as any prospect this year.

An ankle injury kept Volchkov out of the CHL prospects game. He bolted the Colts at season’s end to try (unsuccessfully) to play in the International League.”

The guy who was rated as “the premier offensive talent available” scored an anemic total of six goals in 86 AHL games spanning two seasons at the start of his pro career. He showed up at Capitals fall training camp for the 1999-00 season in better shape and with his father in tow. The younger Volchkov had a solid camp, and nearly cracked the Caps’ opening night roster.

Sent instead to AHL Portland, he was rewarded with an early season call-up. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound winger joined the Caps in mid-October and made his NHL debut in Phoenix at the start of a four-game road trip. He also played in Los Angeles and Anaheim, and helped Jeff Halpern – the only other freshman on the Washington roster – foot the bill for the team’s annual rookie dinner in the City of Angels.

Alas, before the trip terminated in San Jose, Volchkov was bound for Portland once again. The Caps had seen enough; they swapped him to Edmonton for a conditional draft choice before the end of the 1999-00 season. Volchkov finished the campaign in the employ of Edmonton’s AHL affiliate in Hamilton, and he has not skated North American ice since.

Richard Jackman (Dallas), Boyd Devereaux (Edmonton), Erik Rasmussen (Buffalo) and Johnathan Aitken (Boston) were the next four players chosen in a lackluster top eight. Ruslan Salei (842 NHL games) went to Anaheim at No. 9, but the next three picks were virtual busts: Lance Ward to New Jersey, Dan Focht to Phoenix and Josh Holden to Vancouver.

Calgary grabbed defenseman Derek Morris at No. 13; he is the third defenseman in the top 13 who has gone on to play more than 800 games in the league. Marty Reasoner (St. Louis), Dainius Zubrus (Philadelphia) and Mario Leveque (Tampa Bay) followed.

Philly gambled and won big on the Zubrus pick. He played junior A hockey the year before, and some scouts were wary of him because he had dominated at a low level of competition. But Zubrus cracked the Flyers’ roster in his draft year as an 18-year-old. Now with New Jersey, the former Cap has played 904 NHL games, more than any other player in the entire 1996 draft class.

Only three of the dozen players Washington drafted that summer ever played in the NHL, and they were the first three players chosen by the Caps in 1996. After Volchkov, the Caps went with Jaroslav Svejkovsky (first round, 17th overall) and Jan Bulis (second round, 42nd overall).

The highlight of Svejkovsky’s 113-game NHL career was a four-goal game against Steve Shields and the Buffalo Sabres in the final regular season game of the 1996-97 campaign. Svejkovsky finished up with 23 NHL goals before concussion problems ended his career prematurely.

Svejkovsky was ranked 35th in The Hockey News draft preview. Here’s what THN said:

“Jaroslav Svejkovsky is a magic man. When the puck is around the net, he makes it disappear.

‘He’s as good a goal-scorer as there is,’ one scout said. ‘He’s just a fabulous scorer. He scores all types of goals.’

The Tri-City Americans’ rookie right winger, who played in the Czech Republic last season, scored 58 goals in 70 Western League games, including 24 on the power play and 13 game-winners. The knock on him is that he’s pretty much one-dimensional – he scores and that’s about it.

Sjevkovsky is a streak scorer, having potted goals in 33 of his 70 games. On 21 of those 33 occasions, he scored more than one goal.

He is a boyhood friend of New Jersey Devils’ center Petr Sykora and believes he’s in the same class of player. He wasn’t drafted last year because his play was limited by injuries.

‘Draft history suggests we should be leery of 19-year-olds,’ one scout said. ‘It could be a factor in when he goes.’
 
Bulis totaled 96 goals and 245 points over the course of a 552-game NHL career. He had 26 goals and 88 points in his 181 games in a Capitals’ sweater.

Among the rest of the first-rounders, there two quality picks: Marco Sturm to San Jose at No. 21 and Daniel Briere to Phoenix at No. 24.

Monstrous blueliner Zdeno Chara is probably the best player to have come from the 1996 draft. The New York Islanders chose Chara in the third round (56th overall). At least one team had its eye on Chara as a late-round, fourth-line winger project-type player. As was the case with several Islander picks of that era, Chara didn’t blossom until he got off the Island. He broke out in his first season (2001-02) with the Senators after four nondescript campaigns with the Isles.

Goaltending was not a strong point in the class of 1996. The only goalie to go in the first round (Craig Hillier to Pittsburgh at No. 23) never played in the NHL. Second-rounder Mathieu Garon has fashioned a 239-game NHL career as a backup. He and sixth-rounder Robert Esche (186 games) are the only goaltenders from the 1996 draft who have played in more than 50 NHL games.

We’ll leave you with this stunning stat: of the 241 players chosen in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, 30 of them found their way into the Washington organization at some point during their careers. Included among that group are four members of the 2009-10 Capitals: Tom Poti (Edmonton, third round, No. 59), Boyd Kane (Pittsburgh, third round, No. 72), Eric Belanger (Los Angeles, fourth round, No. 96) and Matt Bradley (San Jose, fourth round, No. 102).
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