- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

Yesterday’s NHL draft lottery didn’t bring the Washington Capitals the same good fortune they received two years ago, with the team having to settle for the fourth pick.

The Caps won the lottery in 2004, moved from third to first in the order of selection and picked Alex Ovechkin. The left wing probably will be rookie of the year after scoring 52 goals and 106 points. But the order for the top five picks in this year’s draft, which will take place June 24 at GM Place in Vancouver, did not change.

St. Louis, which had a league-low 57 points this season, won the lottery and will choose first followed by Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington and Boston. The rest of the non-playoff teams pick in reverse order of finish; choices six through 10 go to Columbus, the New York Islanders, Phoenix, Minnesota and Florida followed by Los Angeles, Atlanta, Toronto and Vancouver. The exact order of drafting beyond the top 14 isn’t firm until after the playoffs.

Unless a trade materializes, the Caps have five picks in the first two rounds. Along with the fourth overall selection, Washington has Nashville’s first-round pick, currently 25th, after trading defenseman Brendan Witt. The Caps also have the fourth, fifth (Boston’s for center Michael Nylander) and current 19th (Anaheim’s for left wing Jeff Friesen) picks of the second round.

Defenseman Erik Johnson, who has said he will go to the University of Minnesota, is the top-rated player available, according to the NHL Central Scouting Service. He is a swift skater and an aggressive, highly skilled player — perhaps the U.S. version of Scott Stevens. With defensemen the most sought-after commodity on the market, most projections have him going first.

Three centers come next in most rankings, with their order differing. They are Phil Kessel, the Wisconsin native who enrolled at archrival Minnesota; Jonathan Toews of the University of North Dakota and Jordan Staal of the Ontario Hockey Association’s Peterborough Petes. Staal’s older brother, Eric, plays for the Carolina Hurricanes.

The next two in the expected order of selection are European forwards, Niklas Backstrom of Sweden and Michael Frolik of the Czech Republic.

Washington seeks the same assets as every other team — skill, speed, size and hockey sense. In the Caps’ case, it would help a great deal if an available forward has all those ingredients and is also right-handed so he can play on the side where they need the most help.

Of the top five forwards available, Kessel is the only right-hander. Kessel is highly skilled and can do a lot with the puck but, among other things, he doesn’t like to give it up. He is reportedly not popular with teammates and not an easy player to coach.

Washington has picked fourth three other times — twice in the NHL Entry Draft and once in an expansion draft — with one hit and two misses. In 1979 it took right wing Mike Gartner, now in the Hall of Fame after scoring 397 goals and 789 points for the Caps. In 1996 the Caps took Russian right wing Alexandre Volchkov, who appeared in only three games with Washington before he was traded. Volchkov eventually returned to Russia, where he plays in a minor league.

In 1974 Washington claimed Michel Belhumeur from Philadelphia in the expansion draft; in two seasons the goalie went 0-29-4 with a goals-against of 5.32. He was 0-24-3 in 1974-75, when the Caps posted the worst season in NHL history at 8-67-5.

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