ST. PAUL, Minn. — Just like any other year, the Washington Capitals’ front office made a list of prospects for NHL draft and checked it twice.
On the draft floor, as always, names were scratched off the list as teams announced their picks and players celebrated with their families.
But unlike the past several seasons, when Washington nabbed the likes of center Marcus Johansson, defenseman John Carlson and center Cody Eakin, the Caps didn’t own a pick in the first three rounds. That was the result of trades over the past 16 months that netted veteran players - including one George McPhee orchestrated Friday night with the Chicago Blackhawks, dealing the 26th pick for gritty right wing Troy Brouwer.
The Caps stocked up for the future on the second day of the draft, but never before had they made only four picks. With a farm system already chock full of young talent, this trip to the Twin Cities was more about adding a crucial piece to a playoff roster in an attempt to win a championship now.
“This couldn’t have worked out better for us. We drafted really well, we have some good young players coming in,” McPhee said Friday night. “We really wanted to insert this kind of player into our lineup; he was available at this draft. And this was the kind of draft to do it in.”
Brouwer, a restricted free agent, is expected to receive a raise from the $1.05 million he earned the past two seasons. But McPhee isn’t worried about keeping him around. As a versatile right wing who can play on all four lines - and even on the left side - Brouwer provides some sandpaper and a scoring touch (76 points the past two seasons) to a team desiring that mix of ingredients.
On his blog, owner Ted Leonsis endorsed the move, saying the Caps “don’t have to wait to get productivity.” It’s uncertain what this means for unrestricted free agents Brooks Laich and Matt Bradley, as McPhee refused to discuss their situations less than a week before they can hit the open market. But the Caps know what they’re getting in Brouwer, and McPhee sounded excited after speaking with the 25-year-old.
“You always welcome a guy who plays hard and plays physical,” McPhee said. “I talked to him [Friday] night. … It’s amazing how you feel about somebody after a three-minute conversation. But he sounds like the kind of leader that we’re looking for.”
It remains to be seen whether this is a minor tweak to a team that finished first in the Eastern Conference or the first step of an overhaul to a team that was swept out of the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But on the draft’s second day, the Caps planned for their long-term future by taking Norwegian goalie Steffen Soberg in the fourth round, college defenseman Patrick Koudys in the fifth, U.S. National Team Development Program center Travis Boyd in the sixth and USHL defenseman Garrett Haar in the seventh.
It was much different waiting for pick No. 117 to finally select a player, amateur scouting director Ross Mahoney acknowledged, but something he and his staff weren’t upset about.
“With the move we made [Friday night], we already had one player from this draft who was an NHL player,” he said. “That’s the way you have to look at it.”
The Caps have a group of prospects nearing NHL-readiness, including Eakin, defenseman Dmitri Orlov and center Evgeny Kuznetsov, their first-round pick in 2010. The four players they took Saturday likely are three to four years away, with the current structure of the system providing a good chance to look to the more distant future while letting those guys develop.
McPhee and Mahoney insisted that wasn’t by design - that they always took the “best player available” - but added that it doesn’t hurt to think long-term. Soberg could be playing in the Canadian Hockey League next season; Koudys is going back to RPI; Boyd is heading to Minnesota.
“You’d like to have as many players as you could ready to play right away,” Mahoney said. The bottom line, I guess, is that a lot of these guys are still very young players. Physically, they’re young. Going to college and getting two extra years of development and working with the good strength coaches, the good programs that they have, it’s not going to hurt them. It’s going to be more of a help to them in their own development.”
Perhaps by that point, they’ll blossom into the kind of difference-makers the Caps typically leave the draft with. And if that happens, this weekend will be seen as another crucial moment in the history of the franchise as it seeks to win now and in the future.
• Stephen Whyno can be reached at email@example.com.
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