And, as Caps fans have grown accustomed to over the years, General Manager George McPhee just about pulled another rabbit out of his hat.
The 26th pick in the NHL Draft is somewhat difficult to evaluate. While star players have been drafted in that vicinity and beyond, most general managers would consider it a success to get any caliber of full-time NHL player at that position. Role player, character guy, faceoff specialist - you name it.
George McPhee is not like most general managers. He shoots for the stars, both literally and figuratively.
Consider some of the gems that McPhee -- or GMGM -- as his admirers call him, has discovered with mid- to late-first round picks over the past decade or so.
In 2002, there was Alexander Semin, taken with the 13th overall pick in the draft. Semin was merely 18 years old and fit the stereotypical Russian mold of a hockey player: fast and skilled yet somewhat small and allergic to physical play. Furthermore, Russian players almost always presented problems during the signing process, and those potential difficulties eventually became reality following the lockout, as Semin stayed in Russia despite his contract obligations with the Capitals. Nevertheless, knowing these risks, McPhee still drafted Semin and it has paid off to the tune of 148 goals and 152 assists for 300 points in just 327 NHL games. Along with Rick Nash (No. 1) and Duncan Keith (No. 54), Semin is among the top players drafted in 2002.
As great as it was to land Semin in 2002, nothing could possibly top the Capitals' 2004 draft. Alex Ovechkin was a no-brainer with the first overall pick, but in selecting Jeff Schultz and Mike Green with the 27th and 29th overall picks, respectively, McPhee crafted a legacy as a draft guru. The fact that the Green pick came to Washington from Detroit in a trade deadline package involving Robert Lang made that pick especially sweet. Green and Ovechkin, along with Evgeni Malkin, easily form the consensus top three players in that draft. A similarly guilt-free statement would be that Jeff Schultz is among the 10 best players selected in that draft. And, if we're stretching as far as imagination allows us, Andrew Gordon (197th overall) could wind up being a steal.
Conveniently skipping the disastrous 2005 draft (Sasha Pokulok and Joe Finley were both first round busts) brings us to 2006, where McPhee may have inconceivably topped his performance in 2004. Nicklas Backstrom (No. 4), Semyon Varlamov (No. 23), Michal Neuvirth (No. 34), Francois Bouchard (No. 35), and Matthieu Perreault (No. 177) are just some of the spoils of the 2006 draft. But the Backstrom pick is the one that should stand out in your mind.
"I really like this guy. I think he's better than (Jordan) Staal," McPhee told his son, Graham, on the phone, at around the 3:25 mark of the above video. McPhee stood tall at No. 4.
When Boston General Manager Jeff Gorton offered the No. 5 and No. 37 for the Capitals' fourth overall pick, he proclaimed it was because he wanted "the Swede." McPhee stood tall at No. 4.
Pittsburgh wound up taking coveted Jordan Staal with the second overall pick and Boston selected Phil Kessell with the fifth pick. Both are very nice players but still a level below Backstrom, who is now considered one of the elite centers in the NHL. He and third overall pick Jonathan Toews are the top draft choices of 2006.
The 2007 draft was admittedly weak, but McPhee got his man, perhaps the best defenseman in his draft class, in Karl Alzner. While King Karl hasn't yet solidified a role on the Capitals, he is still one of the best prospects in the NHL as an intelligent, smooth-skating shutdown defenseman. He should be suiting up for the Capitals full-time next year, and his role becomes increasingly more valuable when you consider how he complements his partner in crime on the blue line.
That man is John Carlson, perhaps the steal of the 2008 draft after falling into George McPhee's lap at No. 27 overall. On Carlson's resume so far during his brief professional career: two Calder Cup championships with the Hershey Bears, a clutch game-tying goal in the 2010 playoffs against the Canadiens, and one of USA Hockey's biggest goals in recent memory to win the World Junior Championships over Canada, which earned him the moniker, "Real American Hero," and inspired the greatest series of animated GIFs in the history of the modern world:
In 2009, the Capitals selected Marcus Johansson (No. 24), Dimitri Orlov (No. 55), and Cody Eakin (No. 85), among others, all three of which could be full-time NHL players within the next few years. Johansson has developed nicely in Sweden and, 2008's Anton Gustaffson's slow development notwithstanding, is making McPhee look like an excellent evaluator of Swedish talent. Orlov is a guy who fell several notches below his talent level because of the fact that he's Russian. And Cody Eakin is looking more and more like a second- or third-line center in the future.
Which brings us to this year's draft and the 26th overall selection. McPhee was sold on center Evgeny Kuznetsov. So much so, in fact, that he nearly traded up 10 spots to grab him. Like Semin and Orlov, Kuznetsov fell presumably because of the difficulties in bringing a player over from Russia. McPhee has one secret weapon, though, and he knows it. It's Alex Ovechkin.
McPhee said having Ovechkin on the Caps is like having a guarantee that Russian draft picks will eventually want to make their way to Washington.
"People are concerned about signing and drafting Russian players, but we just feel that what we're doing [with] Ovechkin, that he'll play in Washington," McPhee said. "We can do some things that other teams are afraid to do."
McPhee's decisions in the 2010 NHL Draft will hardly cement his legacy; he's been considered one of the best general managers in the NHL for several years now. But during an event in which the Capitals' crop of players may be the talk of the town five years from now, McPhee once again proved that he's a step ahead of the curve when it comes to draft day wizardry.
With one wink of the eye, George McPhee may have just pulled another fast one on the rest of the NHL.