With a total of just four picks – and none of them until the fourth round – of the 2017 NHL Draft, the Capitals were extremely conscious of the need to restock their system in the 2018 Draft. Washington already offloaded its second-round pick (to Montreal as part of the trade for Lars Eller) and its fifth-rounder (also to the Habs, for Jakub Jerabek), but the Caps were able to get a second-rounder from New Jersey as part of the payment for Marcus Johansson last summer. The Capitals added another second-rounder in 2018 with Friday’s trade of Brooks Orpik and Philipp Grubauer to Colorado.
All that maneuvering left the Capitals with seven picks at the outset of the 2018 Draft, none in the fifth round, but two in the second. The Caps had three of the top 47 picks in the draft, a rather enviable position for the defending Stanley Cup champs.
As it turns out, bringing back those two second-round picks after the deal for Eller two summers ago has placed the Caps in some rare historical territory. Washington is the first defending Stanley Cup champion to have a first-round pick and three of the top 50 overall picks in the draft immediately following its championship run in 35 years, since the New York Islanders pulled it off in 1983. More often than not, the Cup-winning team is bereft of some early picks in the draft, the cost of trying to put the team over the top via the trade route, but the Caps were able to retain their own first and to take three players before the midpoint of the second round.
Each of the last three Cup champs had no picks in the top 50 and no first-rounders, obviously, so Washington is better positioned than most recent champs in that regard.
“We thought there was a lot of depth to this draft, so we were pretty excited when we got the other [second-round] pick [on Friday] right beside it, at 46 and 47,” says Caps assistant general manager Ross Mahoney. “But we thought there was good value this year as far as the depth goes, so we thought it was good to have the two picks in the middle of the second round.”
When it was all said and done, the Caps had seven picks in the 2018 NHL Draft, and the last time they drafted more than seven players was half a dozen years ago, in 2012.
“It’s always more fun,” says Mahoney, of the extra picks. “That’s the [scouts’] work all year, to go to all of those games and do all of that traveling. Some years we have less picks, and other years you have more. It’s obviously more fun for them to be able to call out more names.”
With the last choice (No. 31 overall) in the first round of the 2018 Draft, Washington selected Russian defenseman Alexander Alexeyev, who has spent the last two seasons with WHL Red Deer. Alexeyev is a big and mobile defender with a late birthdate who is likely to turn pro in 2019-20.
“Good size; you know he’s 6-foot-3, and over 200 pounds,” says Mahoney of the Caps’ top choice in 2018. “Smart and skilled. I think he has the ability to play on both the penalty kill and the power play. I think he’s had a little bit of a tough year, injury-wise and on a personal level also. But he played really well.
“We saw him originally when he played in Grand Forks and Fargo at the U18 tournament two years ago. He was there as an underage [player], and then he played well in Red Deer and we watched him again this year. Our Western scouts really liked him a lot.”
Caps general manager Brian MacLellan mentioned after the conclusion of Friday’s first round in Dallas that he and his staff briefly considered moving up in the first round by moving a pick or two, but they ultimately opted to keep and to use all of their picks in 2018, a draft that could go a long way toward restocking a system that took a hit when five members of AHL Hershey matriculated to Washington in 2017-18, leaving the Bears outside of the playoff picture for just the second time in 13 seasons since Washington and Hershey began their current affiliation partnership in 2005-06.
With consecutive picks in the middle of the second round, the Capitals chose Slovakian defenseman Martin Fehervary (No. 46 overall) and winger Kody Clark (No. 47) from Ottawa of the OHL. Clark is the son of longtime NHL forward Wendel Clark, the first player taken overall in the 1985 NHL Amateur Draft. The elder Clark went to Toronto in ’85, and he spent most of his career as an extremely popular player with the Leafs.
With the final choice (No. 93 overall) in the third round, the Caps grabbed center Riley Sutter from WHL Everett. Sutter hails from North America’s most prolific hockey family, one of several second-generation Sutters descendent from six brothers who played in the league from 1977 through 2001. Riley Sutter is the son of Ron Sutter, the last of the first generation of Sutters to hang up his skates.
Clark and Sutter have obviously been around the game for as long as they can remember, and they have fathers who carved out long and successful NHL careers.
“Watching both of those young men play,” says Mahoney, “they do a lo of the little things properly, and that’s probably a direct result of having fathers who played the game and showed them some of the finer points of the game, and I think they do that really well. It is an advantage to have somebody in your family who has played at a really high level, in addition to the coaches that you get on your teams.”
Each of Washington’s top four picks are late birthdays, players who will celebrate their 19
thbirthday before the end of calendar 2018. That means each would be able to start his pro career as early as 2019-20.
“Not by design either,” says Mahoney of the four straight late birthdays to start the draft, another rarity for the Capitals. “With some of the picks we’ve traded in the past, trying to make our run for the playoffs, maybe that will actually speed up as far as the depth of our younger players because yeah, they will be turning pro a year earlier than the 17-year-olds that you would take. It’s interesting how that worked out, but it wasn’t by design.”
At pick No. 124, the Capitals grabbed a goaltender for the first time since they tabbed Ilya Samsonov in the first round of the 2015 Draft. Washington chose Pennsylvania native Mitchell Gibson, a second-year eligible goalie who spent 2017-18 with NAHL Lone Star where he posted phenomenal numbers, going 26-7-4 with 11 shutouts, a 1.59 GAA and a .935 save pct. Gibson will play for Central Illinois in the USHL in 2018-19, and he has committed to Harvard for 2019-20.
“Our scouts A.J. Toews and Darrell Baumgartner really liked his athleticism and his competitiveness,” says Mahoney. “Those would probably be two of the biggest things for him. We’ve always tried to look for that in the goalies that we’ve taken. If you look at Philipp Grubauer, or [Semyon] Varlamov or Braden [Holtby], they’re all athletic and they all compete. So we think this young man kind of fits into the same mold for us.”
The Caps didn’t have a fifth-rounder, and they ended up swapping their sixth-rounder (No. 186 overall) and their sixth-rounder in 2019 to Vancouver for the Canucks’ sixth-round pick (No. 161 overall) in 2018. With that choice, the Caps went back to the blueline, choosing WHL Vancouver defenseman Alex Kannok-Leipert, a right-handed shot who is easily Washington’s youngest choice in 2018. Kannok-Leipert doesn’t turn 18 until July 20.
“Great character kid, like, really, really good character kid,” says Mahoney of Kanok-Leipert, “and he skates really well. It’s just one of those ones where you’re sitting there thinking, ‘Is he going to be there?’ and you don’t want to take the chance he’s not going to be there. Brian [MacLellan] did a great job being able to work that trade so we had the opportunity to take him.”
For the first time since 1974 when the circumstances and reasons were much different, the Capitals made the final pick in an NHL Draft, this time choosing Saskatoon center Eric Florchuk with pick No. 217. An Alberta native, Florchuk split 2017-18 between Victoria and Saskatoon, and he thrived after a trade to the latter team, putting up nine goals and 21 points in 28 games.
“We hope he has a chance to play [in the NHL],” says Mahoney of Florchuk. “We did a lot of talking about who we were going to take. It’s kind of funny, you’re making the last pick, and we spent a lot of time.
“He’s smart and got good skill. He needs to get a little bit stronger, like a lot of other kids his age. But those are the things that probably attracted us to him the most.”
We’ll have more on and from these players in the week ahead as they descend upon Kettler Capitals Iceplex for the team’s annual summer development camp. The first on-ice session is Tuesday morning, with firm dates and times to come in an upcoming press release.