- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

LAS VEGAS | Every year, contingents from NHL teams arrive at the draft and hope a couple of correct selections can change the fortunes of the franchise.

It happened 20 years ago for the Detroit Red Wings. On one day in 1989, the Red Wings had arguably the greatest draft the league has ever seen. A class highlighted by Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom joined Steve Yzerman as the foundation for Detroit’s return to prominence in the 1990s.

Rarely does an NHL team draft two players who are future winners of the Hart (league MVP) and Norris (top defenseman) trophies on the same day; only Montreal has also done so, picking Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson in 1971.

By the end of Thursday evening, the Washington Capitals also might be able to boast such a feat. But regardless of whether Alex Ovechkin collects his second consecutive Hart Trophy and Mike Green earns his first Norris, which will be announced here at the NHL Awards show, it is clear the franchise changed forever June 26, 2004.

That day in Raleigh, N.C., Washington general manager George McPhee and the Capitals chose Ovechkin with the first pick overall and tabbed Green at No. 29, and now less than five years later both players could celebrate their rise to stardom with some of hockey’s most treasured hardware.

“From the first year when I came here to where we are now, it is night and day,” Green said. “The organization has taken the right steps to get the right personnel and the right players in here. George and [owner] Ted [Leonsis] had a vision, and here it is now. I think we’re very close to winning a Stanley Cup.”

McPhee’s staff did plenty of groundwork in the months leading up to that fateful day. With a potential work stoppage looming and the franchise floundering both on the ice and at the box office, Leonsis and McPhee decided it was time to start over.

As the 2003-04 season’s trade deadline neared, McPhee cast off several high-priced veterans in an epic fire sale. Among the bounty from those trades were two first-round picks - one from Boston for Sergei Gonchar and one from Detroit in a package for Robert Lang.

“Some people have talked about ‘Oh, that’s a good draft for us.’ To win the lottery and be able to step up and take Alex, that is partly lucky,” Caps scouting director Ross Mahoney said. “But George got us multiple picks. If we had one pick, we get Alex and that is great, but we don’t get Mike and we don’t get Jeff [Schultz]. When your general manager goes out and acquires extra picks for you, especially early in the draft, it increases your odds of having a good draft.”

The moves also ensured the Caps would finish the season with one of the worst records in the league and a prime chance to win the draft lottery. Washington ended up with the second-worst mark, and the Caps received the break they needed to move past the Pittsburgh Penguins and secure the top pick.

“When I found out we won the lottery, I called our chief scout and told him we had had a good day and we would be picking first,” McPhee said. “I asked him what he was thinking, and he immediately said Ovechkin. Now, we had a couple of months to go through the due diligence and put in all the work, but he was just a guy that it would have been tough to pass on. He is such a rare combination of being able to score goals the way he does and also be able to hit people and be physical the way he is.”

Ovechkin announced his presence on the world stage by scoring 14 goals in eight games at the world under-18 championship - as a 16-year-old. Two years later he remained the favorite to go No. 1 in 2004, but there was another highly touted Russian at the top of the list.

The Caps had to choose between Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, whom the Penguins then selected with the second pick. They have blossomed into maybe the sport’s two greatest talents, and the rivalry between the two - civil or otherwise - will be a dominant story line in the NHL for years to come.

Regardless of which player is considered the best in the world on any given day or week, one clear advantage for Ovechkin is his marketability. He has a rare combination of sublime talent and an infectious personality to match.

That ability to be the face of a franchise might not be a factor on draft day, yet with Ovechkin the Capitals have not only become a Stanley Cup contender - they are also one of the league’s most marketable clubs.

“I don’t know how much that goes into it when you are picking, but he’s probably the best thing to ever happen to this franchise,” McPhee said. “Not only is he a great player, but he is an entertaining player, and he makes the game fun to watch. He is so great about everything, and he’s turning Washington into a hockey town. That’s the best way to describe it.”

That the Caps didn’t make Green their first selection of the 2004 draft is understandable, but Washington passed on the defenseman from the Western Hockey League again with its second pick of the day at No. 27. The Caps did take a defenseman from the WHL with their second first-round choice, but instead it was Schultz, who also has become a regular for the team the past two seasons.

Dallas had the next pick, taking another WHL defenseman, Mark Fistric, who has six career NHL points. The Caps were on the clock again, and the guy who was the fourth player at his position from his junior league finally made his way to the podium to put on an NHL sweater.

“I really had no idea. I was informed it could be anywhere from top 10 to second round to who knows. I didn’t know where, but I was just hoping to go up on that stage - that’s for sure,” Green said. “We went through a series of pictures and media stuff first, and then we had a suite upstairs that we went up to and got meet everybody. The highlight of that day was getting to meet Ray Bourque [the Caps drafted his son Chris in the second round].”

Added McPhee: “We thought there would be some good defensemen at the bottom of the first round, and we went into the draft thinking that was how we would go. We ended up getting two guys we really liked, and we still like them.

“We liked Schultz and took him, and then there was some debate about the next pick. It came down to either Mike or another player, and we just really liked his character. He was on a bad team in Saskatoon, but he never asked for a trade and played it out the whole way through.”

Reasons why Green was passed over 28 times are a bit murky. Playing on a bad team often led Green to try to do too much. His signature end-to-end forays might electrify the crowd at Verizon Center, but he wasn’t skating with the same caliber of players on the Blades.

It should also be noted that in the summer of 2004, rule changes to open up the game had not yet been enacted. Green’s style might not have worked in the 1990s, just as it didn’t with defensive-minded coach Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau’s predecessor.

Regardless of the reasons, Green is the third-best player to come out of the 2004 draft at the five-year mark behind the Russians at the top. The game’s top offensive defenseman, he led the league in goals at his position two years ago with 18 and then last season potted the most in 16 years among defensemen with 34 despite missing 13 games because of injury.

He and Ovechkin could spark a run of success in the nation’s capital not unlike what Lidstrom and Fedorov experienced in Detroit.

“I think Mike also did a tremendous job after he was drafted of preparing himself to be a professional player,” Mahoney said. “He’s really committed to his off-ice training. He’s gotten a lot stronger. When you get stronger your skating improves a little bit, you’re harder to knock off the puck and you can be better defensively. I think he made a real commitment afterwards to be the best he can be.”

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