Heading into the 2014 NHL Draft, it was apparent to most scouts and draftniks that the Class of 2014 was laden with plenty of skilled wingers and that goaltenders with upside were also in abundance. On the other hand, 2014 was not seen as a banner year for defensemen or top six centers.
With all of that in mind, the Washington Capitals’ hockey operations staff opted to glide with the draft tide rather than try to swim futilely against it. When they arrived in Philadelphia for the draft, the Caps owned nine picks, tied for the most among all NHL clubs. When all the dust had settled from the weekend’s activity, the Caps made three second-day swaps – each to move up to take a player they wanted – and came home with a half-dozen new draftees and a minor league netminding prospect.
“You target different players and you have layers of the draft,” said Caps assistant general manager Ross Mahoney, the architect of Washington’s drafts for the better part of the last two decades. “And if you don’t think a player is going to be there when it’s your opportunity to pick, then you’ve got to be able to try to maneuver yourself up to be able to get players that you like.”
The Capitals got one of those skilled wingers (Jakub Vrana) in the first round and maneuvered to get one of those goaltenders with upside (Vitek Vanecek) in the second round. They chose Nathan Walker, a 20-year-old Australian left wing who was eligible for the draft for the third time, in the third round, swapping a pair of fourth-round picks to move up to the penultimate pick in the third round to do so.
Center Shane Gersich was added in the fifth round and wingers Steven Spinner and Kevin Elgestal joined the Washington organization in the sixth and seventh rounds, respectively.
The very top of the 2014 NHL draft featured a terrific blueline prospect in Aaron Ekblad. Holding the first overall pick, Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon entertained trade offers for the pick before choosing to retain the pick and taking Ekblad. Three high-end centers followed; Sam Reinhart to Buffalo, Leon Draisaitl to Edmonton and Sam Bennett to Calgary.
That’s when the talent level dropped off and teams started going mostly for the plethora of wingers who were on the board. Eight of the next nine picks and 16 of the next 25 were expended on wingers. Washington had faint hope that defenseman Haydn Fleury might tumble a bit, and the Caps were prepared to move up several slots to take Fleury if he were to fall into one of the last couple slots of the top 10. But they also knew that scenario was an unlikely one in a draft that was dry on the defensive side. Sure enough, the Carolina Hurricanes took Fleury with the seventh overall choice and Caps were happy to choose Vrana – one of the wingers they had identified that could be available to them – at No. 13.
“We’re looking at him for sure to be a top six forward,” said Mahoney. “Jakub is a very good skater, he’s competitive, but he has a gift. He can score goals. And he’s proven it everywhere he has played, especially in the bigger games in the tournaments. [He was] another reason I thought why the Czech team played very well [at the U-18 World Championship].
“I think he had eight goals in seven games, if I’m correct. And they weren’t just eight goals in seven games; they were important goals. They were game-winning goals and overtime goals and shootout goals. He did the same in the summertime [tournament] also. He can skate, he’s a smart player, he’s a hard worker, but like I said he has a gift: the puck goes in the net.”
No goaltenders were chosen in the first round, but a mini-run on netminders started early in the second round. The Caps’ staff had discussed this very possibility the day before, so they swapped their third-round choice (No. 74 overall) to Buffalo to move from No. 44 to 39 in order to take the goaltender they wanted, Vanecek.
There were 21 goaltenders taken in the 2014 NHL Draft, and nearly a fifth (four) of those were chosen in a span of six picks, ending with Washington’s choice of Vanecek.
“He played exceptional in the summer tournament,” said Mahoney of Vanecek, “the [Ivan] Hlinka tournament. Again in April, we thought he was one of the reasons why the Czech team had such a good tournament.
“He’s a very athletic goalie and very competitive, and those are probably the qualities that made him most attractive to us. And we didn’t think he’d be there later. Like I said, you target certain players and do everything you can to try to move up and take him. We were really happy to have the opportunity to take him.”
Washington was very familiar with Walker going into the draft. He attended the Caps’ summer development camp in the summer of 2012 and was a rookie camp and training camp invitee last summer. Walker saw preseason action with the Caps last fall, and he was very noticeable in those games, collecting assists in each of his first two games and drawing a penalty shot with his speed in a game against Boston.
The Caps were unable to sign Walker to a contract last fall because he still had a year of draft eligibility remaining, so they did the next best thing. They signed him to a deal with their AHL affiliate in Hershey, where it would be easy for them to keep an eye on him. Aware that other pro scouts had also gotten more than a glimpse of Walker during his season with the Bears, the Caps believed if they didn’t get Walker by the end of the third round that another NHL team might snap him up.
“Once again, you take a chance that he’s not going to be there,” explained Mahoney. “Once you’ve targeted a player and you want to make sure you get him, we would rather do what we have to do in order to move up and make sure we get the player that we want, rather than sit back and hope that that player is still there.”
Owning two fourth-rounders (Nos. 104 and 118) in the 2014 NHL Draft, the Caps moved those picks to the New York Rangers and chose Walker with the No. 89 pick overall. It’s rare to be able to draft a 20-year-old with a season of North American pro experience, but that’s what the Caps have in Walker.
“He’s obviously ahead of some of the other players we’ve drafted today because he has been playing with men,” said Mahoney. “We had him at our rookie camps we had him playing rookie games, we had him playing exhibition games and he played very well in all of those, and then also playing in Hershey. His development for us has been speeded up because of being able to play with men.”
A Minnesota native, Gersich played for the U.S. National Development Team Program in Ann Arbor last season. A natural center, he played some left wing in 2013-14 simply because of the team’s great depth up the middle. Gersich will play for Omaha of the USHL in 2014-15, and he has committed to U. of North Dakota for 2015-16. Gersich’s dad (Frank) and three uncles all played college hockey at U. of Minnesota. Those three uncles – Aaron, Neal and Paul Broten – also combined to play a total of 2,169 games in the NHL.
“He played his high school hockey in Minnesota,” said Mahoney of Gersich, “and then went to play on the U.S. under-18 team. He played center. He was a bigger point producer when he was playing in high school, but playing on the under-18 team he was behind a few players like Jack Eichel, who is a center. I’m sure a lot of you have heard about [Eichel] for the  draft.
“Shane is a good skater with really good hands, but was in more of a checking role with the under-18 team this year. But we know he’s got the ability to score and make plays based on what we’ve seen before from him. He’ll end up playing in the USHL and then heading to the University of North Dakota, which will be really good for him. It is a really good program, so we’re happy with that path that he has chosen.”
The Capitals swapped a seventh-round pick this year (No. 192) and a seventh in 2015 to Winnipeg for RFA goaltender Edward Pasquale and the right to move up five spots in the sixth round. With that sixth-rounder (No. 159), the Caps chose Spinner, a native of Eden Prairie, Minn. Spinner played high school hockey at Eden Prairie, but also had a quick taste of the USHL in each of the last two seasons. He’ll play in that league in 2014-15 before going off to U. of Nebraska-Omaha in 2015-16.
“Steven Spinner played at Eden Prairie, a right winger,” said Mahoney, “a really determined young man. He’s one of those guys that really battles in the corners and takes the puck hard to the net. He’s going to play in the USHL also next year and then go to the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Again, it’s a good situation for him and a good program for him to be in. We were happy to be able to get him at that area [of the draft]. He’s a very honest player, gives a very good effort all the time.”
Pasquale was a fourth-round choice (117th overall) of the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Mahoney said the Caps liked Pasquale then, and they like the way his development has gone as a pro. New Caps goaltender Mitch Korn also holds a favorable view toward Pasquale, according to Mahoney.
Pasquale faced the Caps in a preseason game last September, going the distance in a 4-3 shootout loss to Washington. He made 36 saves on 39 shots in that game, and Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian said after the game that Pasquale had been Winnipeg’s best player that night.
A Toronto native, the 23-year-old Pasquale was 17-13-1 with St. John’s of the AHL last season. He posted a 2.43 GAA and a career best .920 save pct.
Washington finished up its work at the 2014 NHL Draft by choosing Elgestal with its final pick (No. 194). Elgestal is a right wing from Sweden who played briefly with Frolunda of the SHL last season.
“He’s kind of in the same situation as Gersich,” related Mahoney, in regard to Elgestal. “He played on all the Swedish under-18 teams for the national team and also played his junior [hockey] during the season in Frolunda and was more in a checking role on the national teams. But he did put up good points when he played for Frolunda in the junior league. He’s the same kind of player as Spinner, too. He skates well, really works hard, likes to get in on the forecheck and be physical and take pucks hard to the net.”
At the NHL level, it’s clear that the Caps need help on defense and it appears that their almost terminal search for a viable second-line center may be ongoing this summer. In a perfect world, the Capitals would have been able to make some longterm strides toward addressing one or both needs in the 2014 NHL Draft. The five players Washington believed could fulfill those needs were off the board within the first seven picks of the draft in Philadelphia this weekend, so the Caps didn’t worry about position. They made sure they got value, using their quantity of picks to do so.
“It’s really valuable,” said Mahoney, when queried on the usefulness of having extra choices in a given draft. “It enables Brian [MacLellan] as a general manager to be able to make the moves that he would like to make. It’s pretty hard if you don’t have picks or the extra picks and you’re scrambling around trying to find more. If you know that going in, then as part of your strategy you know you’ve got those extra picks that could become valuable as the draft goes on. And in our case, it was. They were very valuable for us.”
As is always the case with the NHL Draft, we’ll find out several years from now how well the players turned out, and by extension, how well Mahoney and his staff performed.