Caps counting on Ovechkin
Late in the campaign, long after head coach Bruce Cassidy had been dispatched and replaced by the impossibly upbeat Glen Hanlon, and long after disappointing marquee superstar Jaromir Jagr was packed off to the New York Rangers, and long after the fire sale that included other longtime veterans, the Capitals started a goaltender who couldn't find work in the East Coast Hockey League at the start of the season.
Not that Matthew Yeats played poorly, in fact he was a bit of a revelation. But by the end of the 2003-04 campaign all organizational eyes were on the Capitals' American Hockey League affiliate in Portland, where many of the team's new prospects had been assembled and where the team's future was truly in waiting.
Without a discernible defense following the retirement of Calle Johansson and the departure of free agent Ken Klee to Toronto last offseason, the Caps floundered from the outset. That the Capitals chose to ice an NHL team that, in many ways, was inferior to their AHL team may have been unseemly, and it was in many ways the final act of hitting rock bottom.
By earning the first overall pick in the 2004 entry draft -- which they used to select Russian super-prospect Alexander Ovechkin -- they believe they have turned the proverbial corner.
The farm system is stocked with prospects acquired from their wholesale offloading of veterans, and while the coming year, perhaps the coming years, will no doubt be full of growing pains, management is committed to this new Capitals landscape.
Gone are veterans like Peter Bondra, Steve Konawalchuk, Robert Lang, Mike Grier and Michael Nylander. In their place are unknown but promising youngsters like Alexander Semin. The Caps' second choice, 13th overall in the 2002 draft, finished fourth in team scoring with 22 points in 52 games and looks to be the team's offensive leader of the future. Boyd Gordon, Steve Eminger and Brooks Laich also wait in the wings.
As a show of faith, the Capitals are among the NHL teams that have slashed ticket prices in the hopes of luring back fans who curiously ignored the team even when they were a playoff regular.
Washington general manager George McPhee spoke with ESPN.com about the turbulent 2003-04 campaign and what might lie ahead for a team that in 1998 was a Stanley Cup finalist.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season, regular season and playoffs?
McPhee: We had a plan with ownership that we would try and be as competitive as possible without increasing the budget and that we would see where we were as the season progressed. If we'd stayed competitive, ownership was prepared to add to the team. But we weren't in that position and we decided it was time to make the changes we thought were necessary. The decision was made to turn the roster over to create flexibility for the future. It was a difficult time, but I think our fans accepted the moves that we made. We have a large group of young players that we think are pretty talented, and we'd like them to grow up together. There will be a lot of new faces. We hope the fans will embrace them.
ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides in your estimation or had the biggest impact on your team?
McPhee: Alexander Semin. He was a player we signed last year. We were going to send him back to Russia for development and he made our team. I think he showed at certain times throughout the season that he's really an elite talent. He got better as the season progressed. It was important we didn't put him in over his head early. As he adjusted and improved, we gave him more ice time. It's just a matter of him maturing.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
McPhee: Brian Sutherby is a young player we're looking to for a lot of a leadership and is the type of player we expect will lead our club. We expect him to be one of the young leaders on our team. (The Capitals' first choice, 26th overall in the 2000 draft, the 6-foot-2 Sutherby, a native of Edmonton, was hampered in the second half of the season by a groin injury that limited him to 30 games with the big club last season.)
McPhee listened to a series of suitors leading up to the draft in Raleigh. He ultimately held fast to the belief that the ultra-skilled Ovechkin isn't just a prospect but a player ready to jump into the NHL mainstream, a la Ilya Kovalchuk.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis right now?
McPhee: The player we took first overall at the draft, Alexander Ovechkin, will be ready to jump into the NHL. We think he'll hold down a regular job. But there are other young players -- Steve Eminger, Boyd Gordon, Brooks Laich. What we're trying to impress on our young players, I think, is that there's never going to be a better opportunity than now for them. So don't waste it. These jobs have to be earned. Normally, players who take things for granted aren't around very long.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
McPhee: We're going to need help in most areas. It all looks good on paper, but you'll never know until the real bullets are flying. There's no substitute for live action.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite memory of last season?
McPhee: Yeah, when we won the lottery. I mean that sincerely. To me it was more than just luck, it was a reward for doing what we had to do.
ESPN.com: Least favorite memory?
McPhee: The first trade. Having to trade a Steve Konawalchuk. And it just got more difficult from there. It's one thing to talk about it. It's another to tell people that you like that they've been traded. It's not easy. It's not the sort of thing you fantasize about when you're a manager. You fantasize about bringing in the big-name player. But every once in awhile it has to be done.
ESPN.com: What activity, destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
McPhee: I just spend time with my family. I have two children, a daughter, who is 8, and a son, who is 6. They're into everything. It's awesome. Your family suffers a little bit during the regular season. There's enough risk in hockey I don't need it away from the rink.
Scott Burn side is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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