General manager George McPhee “can’t talk enough” about how well the Washington Capitals have drafted in recent years.
Homegrown talent such as center Nicklas Backstrom, defenseman Karl Alzner, goalie Michal Neuvirth, defenseman John Carlson and center Marcus Johansson — all taken since 2006 — provide ample evidence.
And while this year’s draft, which starts Friday night in St. Paul, Minn., is another opportunity, McPhee doesn’t see this as one of the better talent pools in recent history.
“There are some drafts that are great drafts,” he said last week on a conference call with reporters. “This is not one of those.”
There is some disagreement as to the quality of this group of prospects, but each draft has different value to different teams. And to McPhee and his staff, who have mined some serious talent for the Caps, it could be hard to make a real splash beginning with the 26th pick.
They took Carlson, Johansson and 2010 first-rounder Evgeni Kuznetsov late in the first round, but McPhee cautioned that Friday might not bring the same kind of result.
“I think [this draft] lacks the real difference-makers,” McPhee said. “I think we were able to look at the last few drafts and say, ‘We’re picking at 25 or 26, is there a difference-maker there? Is he going to be there? Can we find one?’ I think in those drafts there were going to be more available.
“I still think there are a few in this draft, and we’re hoping one is sitting there when we pick.”
After the first round ends Friday night, the Caps have a while until they pick again Saturday. They don’t own second- or third-round selections, the result of trades for Joe Corvo and Dennis Wideman. While Corvo didn’t work out in Washington last season, McPhee is happy to have Wideman, a defenseman, signed for next year, too.
And, “if you were ever going to move picks to acquire players to help your team,” McPhee said, it’s a good time to do it.
There is some disagreement with that assessment. Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke told reporters at the scouting combine that “In terms of depth after the first four or five picks, we really like this group a lot.” Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren called it a “fairly good” draft, even though he doesn’t have a selection until pick No. 84.
“If you look at guys that we think are going to be first-round picks, I think it’s comparable to last year,” Holmgren said. “It’s not looking like [the impressive 2003 draft], but there are a lot of good players and I think there are some players that if they are drafted on the right team, they will have the chance to play right away.”
If the Caps are to select between the 26th pick and the 116th, McPhee will have to make a move or two. And while there has been speculation about trading roster players, McPhee isn’t showing his hand.
“I don’t know what to expect this year, and we’ll go there prepared to draft a player in the first round and then see what else develops throughout the rest of the draft,” he said. “If there are trades being discussed, we’re certainly going to be involved.”
The plan is nothing fancy from McPhee and Washington’s scouts — because even if this isn’t a star-studded draft, there are chances to improve the organization.
“We’ll take the best guy — the best player available,” he said. “I think that in the draft, that’s always been the plan and we haven’t strayed from it very often.”