Friday, June 26, 2015

Young Guns Moving On

Today's tale starts in the 2002 NHL Draft, when the Washington Capitals drafted Alexander Semin out of Russia. The Caps were a playoff-capable team led by stars such as Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Peter Bondra and Olaf Kolzig. After a disappointing 2001-02 season where they missed the playoffs, the Caps were ready to make it back into the playoffs. While the aging core was being knocked out of the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Semin was playing in the KHL at the same time NHL scouts were discovering a 16 year old Russian kid named Alex Ovechkin.

Fast-forward two years, to the 2004 NHL Draft, after the firesale and beginning of the rebuild. After magically winning the lottery, the Caps drafted one of the most exciting prospects in recent memory in Ovechkin. It was the first of three first-round picks the Caps had. With the last of those, the Caps drafted defenseman Mike Green out of Saskatoon.

Two years later these three, Ovechkin, Semin, and Green, formed one of the most exciting young cores in the league. After another disappointing year, the Caps had the 3rd overall pick in the 2007 draft and picked Nicklas Backstrom out of Sweden as the franchise center.

These four: Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nick Backstrom, and Mike Green. A generational superstar, all-star winger, elite first-line center, and Norris-capable defenseman made up the new core for the Caps, and the future seemed brighter for Washington than it had ever been before.


Fast-forward five more years. It's now the summer of 2012, and after five straight disappointing playoff exits, the first member of the core leaves the team. Semin signs a contract with division rival Carolina leaving the Caps without a capable scoring winger outside of the struggling Ovechkin. To make matters worse, Green has missed much of the previous two seasons due to injuries, leaving the Caps void of defensive depth. True, they have talent in John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov, but the rest of the D-corps is full of AHL plugs and struggling veterans.

That season is the lockout-shortened one, and there is a resurgence. Ovechkin goes back to his goal-scoring ways and wins the Richard trophy for the first time since 2009. As the Caps make yet another trip to the playoffs, they're clicking as they never have, and after taking the first two games from the New York Rangers, the second thanks to an OTGWG by Green, it looks like this may be the year.

Of course, the Caps lost that series in 7, but it seems like the future is still bright for the team, and with the remaining members of the core playing as well as they have in the past few years, it only seems a matter of time until Adam Oates leads the team to the Stanley Cup.

The 2013-14 season is an unmitigated disaster, as the Caps miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007, the first time since Backstrom joined the core. There are sweeping changes as the general manager and coach are replaced, but the general perception of the team is that the core is rotten, and the Caps would be better off ditching OV and Green and going into a semi-rebuild.

The next season, spurred by the growth of the next young guns in Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Braden Holtby, Barry Trotz leads the Caps back to the playoffs on the backs of one of the best seasons of Ovechkin's career. Backstrom emerges as one of the best and most underrated centers in the league, and Green has a resurgence with more sheltered minutes. Together, the team gets as close as it has to success, losing in overtime of Game 7 of Round 2 after leading the series 3-1. It is likely the most heartbreaking loss of the Young Guns era.


That brings us to today, and the news that Mike Green will not be back to the Caps. It's a move that most of us expected, especially after Green took a parade of penalties allowed the Rangers to tie up Game 7. Beyond just that, Green's years of steady decline from being a Norris Trophy candidate to an overpaid third-pairing defenseman effectively killed any chance of the Caps re-signing him.

On July 1, Green will be signed by another team, likely a team that needs an offensive D-man capable of playing Top 4 or even top-pairing minutes. Given what he's capable of, he's simply not a good fit for the Caps anymore.

That being said, the fact that Green is leaving this particular year seems symbolic of something else. For one, today's draft will see Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the next generation of superstars, get drafted, thus filling the mold of Ovechkin and Crosby ten years ago. Within the next few years, we'll likely see a passing of the torch to the next crop of generational talent.

But even more symbolic, perhaps, is a milestone coming up later this year, right before the 2015-16 season starts up. It's a milestone I don't think any of us fans saw coming, and it's a milestone I don't think any of us fans want to come.

Yet, this September, Alex Ovechkin is turning 30 years old.

It speaks to OV's longevity and strength that he's played at such a high level for ten years and has the potential to do so for even longer. I don't think his production is going to suffer any time soon.

Still, if eight years ago, after Backstrom's drafting finalizing the core, someone told you that OV would turn 30 before the Caps won a Stanley Cup, what would you have done? Called that guy crazy? I would have. Eight years ago that core, the young guns, seemed capable of so much, of a decade of dominance that would create a dynasty and bring DC multiple Stanley Cups.

It hasn't happened, and now, the young guns are young no more.

Today the Caps are perhaps the closest they have ever been to Stanley Cup success. This is a deep team with great coaching and high-end talent. Next season we may see the Caps come the closest they ever have to winning the cup, and within the next few years, I hope, the Caps may have won a cup.

Despite this, it's hard not to feel disappointed and sad at what has happened to such an exciting and talented core. OV is still here, and will be for the rest of his career. Backstrom is still here, and will be here as long as OV is.

Alex Semin isn't here. He's failing to live up to a 7 million dollars a year contract in Carolina, who is looking to dump his contract and enter a rebuild.

Mike Green isn't here. He's going to sign a big-time contract with some team that needs a skilled veteran defenseman to take them to the next level.

Today, we look at the draft and the future, and we see high potential and a bright future. We see years of success with OV and Backstrom, Kuzy and Bura, Carlson and Alzner, Holtby and the rest of the crew.

But we also see failed opportunity, the ghosts of Alex Semin and Mike Green. We see Nick Backstrom entering his eighth season in the league, halfway through his mega-contract from 2010. We see Alex Ovechkin turning 30 this September.

We see Young Guns moving on.

No comments:

Post a Comment