Back when the Capitals elected to rebuild into the 2004 NHL lockout, Washington stockpiled draft picks and looked to replenish their depleted prospect pool. The move gave the team a wealth of young talent coming out of the labor dispute, and many of the players picked in the draft eventually made the Caps a Stanley Cup contender.
While the recent regular-season success of the Caps has limited their ability to replenish the thinning farm system, this year's bounty of draft picks will offer them a chance to add some young talent to the system.
For the first time since 2007, Washington has a pick in the top 11 overall selections of the draft. Washington also has a league-high 11 selections to make this weekend in Pittsburgh, most notably Colorado's first-round pick (11th overall) as part of the Semyon Varlamov trade, as well as their own selection (16th overall).
The Capitals' core was built with some top picks, with Alexander Ovechkin (1st overall in 2004), Mike Green (29th overall, 2004), Nicklas Backstrom (4th overall, 2006), Karl Alzner was the last high pick Washington had back in 2007. Ever since, the highest the Capitals have selected was 21st overall, and the Capitals traded away last year's first-round selection to Chicago for the rights to forward Troy Brouwer.
With a pair of picks in the middle of the first round, General Manager George McPhee indicated he is leaning towards using the first-round selections in the first round.
"[The draft is] the way you build a team, and that's how we built this team," McPhee said last week. "We like where our team is, we've built in a traditional manner from the net out, and we have two terrific young goaltenders, a terrific defense of mostly home-grown players, and you have to draft well in this league to have a good team. I think we've drafted well so why not keep making picks?"
Unlike the NFL or NBA drafts where the first-rounders usually make the jump to the pros immediately, the NHL draft offers players that will enter the league in a season or two, so it's less about projecting to fill needs than taking the best player available, according to McPhee.
The strength of this year's crop of draft-eligible 18-year-olds appears to be on the blueline.
"There seem to be more defensemen than forwards," McPhee said. "When you talk to your scouts, the answers you usually get are even in a bad draft, you can find players. Good scouts can find players in a bad draft, so we think every draft is a good draft. They're looking at the draft as an opportunity to pick players - and we have a lot of picks this year."
Kirk Luedeke, who is a draft expert for New England Hockey Journal, concurs.
"The discussion among scouts and analysts I've talked to is that this is a weaker draft crop when compared to recent years," he said. "That said, there are always players who emerge as stars unexpectedly - even in 'weak' years, so teams who scout well can still find value throughout the 2012 class.
"This group is richer in defense than at forward, with a strong group of two-way defenders available in the first round. Forward depth may not be as good based on current projections but that can all change as prospects continue their development."
McPhee also noted the uncertainty of this year's draft, that one team's draft wish lists likely isn't going to resemble another team's.
"We don't see a big drop off in this draft," he said. "What we see [a player we like] at 3 or 4 might be there at 11."
While McPhee declined to tip his hand on who the Capitals will go with their picks, Luedeke offered his prediction on which way Washington is leaning.
"I like a defenseman and forward for them in the 1st round," he said.
"London's Olli Maatta brings an intriguing defensive game and offensive upside. His regular season didn't see a lot of production, but he looked like a different player in helping his team to the OHL Robertson Cup championship and the Memorial Cup finals. He's got size and is an OK skater but sees the ice well and plays a pretty good defensive game."
Of course, one person familiar with Maatta's play is former Capitals coach Dale Hunter, who coached in London before heading to Washington in November. McPhee indicated back in May that Hunter will be helping the club out at the draft table, and as a result, Luedeke also thinks a couple of Hunter's London Knights might end up holding up Washington sweaters for the cameras this weekend.
"London has several draft eligibles who could be of interest to the Caps such as the Rupert twins- Ryan & Matt - two abrasive forwards," he said. "Andreas Athanasiou is a speedy forward who disappointed a bit after a strong Ivan Hlinka tourney in August, and Chris Tierney is an underrated sleeper who stepped up late after spending most of the year on the 4th line. Don't forget about second-year eligible Seth Griffith who was inexplicably passed over last year - it won't happen again.
"I would think Hunter would advocate for any of those players and would not be surprised to see the Caps end up with one or more."
With the other first-round pick, Luedeke thinks the Caps might be looking at a center.
"At forward, I like Latvian center Zemgus Girgensons - he is a power forward who isn't dynamic in any one area, but does everything well and brings a high compete level with good character and leadership. He's a winner, having been a part of Dubuque's USHL championship from a year ago."
If the Caps opt for another defenseman, he tabbed an another OHL blueliner.
"Matt Finn of Guelph in the OHL is another defenseman with good two-way ability and high-end hockey sense. He's the kind of player who I think would appeal to the Caps at around 16."
With the two picks just outside the top 10, there is also the possibility the Capitals could elect to move up if they see a player that they think won't fall to them at 11.
"With the 11th and 16th picks, they have the currency to move inside the top-10, but they may stand pat if they think they can get two players high enough on their draft boards," Leudeke said. "This draft is tough to project, and after the top-five or so, you could see some surprises as unexpected players move up, while other 'sure bets' drop off."
And, while McPhee seemed to indicate the Capitals would use the picks, there is the uncertainty of what should be a fluid trade market over the weekend.
"The plan is we're going to make the picks," he said. "We'll see what develops. Part of what goes on this week and next is that you have lots of discussion about the draft itself and there's lots of discussions with teams around the league about what they're doing with their personnel."
For the first time in five years, the Capitals will get a chance to recharge its future prospects, and with 11 picks - and perhaps some trades - in play, McPhee will have some important choices coming up over the weekend.