October 9th, 1974
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
If there was any place where a team would want to make an NHL debut, few would be better than New York City.
The Washington Capitals would begin their life as an NHL team at Madison Square Garden, the home of the New York Rangers. It was expected to be somewhat of an uphill battle for the Caps in their inaugural year, as most had the team stumbling out of the gate. Though Washington got the 1st Overall Pick in the Amateur Draft (using it on blue-liner Greg Joly), they would pick second in each round of the Expansion Draft, meaning that between them and the Kansas City Scouts, the Capitals would have the worse squad to start with. If there was any consolation, the Expansion Draft in 1974 was much more forgiving than in previous years, in part due to the threat posed by the WHA; instead of having to settle for scraps, the Caps could at least grab some NHL talent to supplement their roster.
Washington, however, had another tactic in their arsenal. While they did what they could in the Expansion Draft, they went to extraordinary lengths to find talent in the Amateur Draft. They would make the most selections of any team that year, claiming TWENTY-FIVE players. Their “quantity and quality” approach gave their Canadian scouts a ton of work, as twenty of the players Washington drafted were from major Canadian junior leagues. The #1 pick, Joly, was from Regina, and was already competing for an NHL spot in his first pro year.
If the Expansion and Amateur Drafts weren’t enough for the Capitals, they also acquired several players through cash trades in the off-season. One of their top forwards going into the 74-75 campaign was acquired this way, as the Caps got the rights to Tommy Williams from Boston in July. Williams had spent the last two years with the New England Whalers in the WHA, and would be signed just a day after the trade to Washington. Another key player for the inaugural year would be Doug Mohns, who was bought from Atlanta; now almost 41, Mohns would serve as the team’s first captain.
On opening night against the Rangers, Washington would put the following line-up on the ice:
F1. Keith McCreary – Tommy Williams – Terry O’Reilly
F2. Dan Maloney – Henry Boucha – Don Saleski
F3. Bob Kelly – Rick Dudley – Mike Corrigan
F4. Mike Marson – Norm Gratton – John Gould
D1. Joe Watson – Jimmy Roberts
D2. Doug Jarrett – Doug Mohns
D3. Greg Joly – Noel Price
G1. Phil Myre
G2. Rocky Farr
1974-75: Many who had followed the 1974 Expansion Draft believed that despite the increased amount of talent available for the taking, the Washington Capitals were due for a terrible season. Rather than having a serpentine order in the draft, the two new sides alternated picks, with the Capitals picking second in each “round”. This meant that they were at the mercy of Kansas City, forced to pick up the scraps that the Scouts left behind. Many writers at the time had Washington earmarked for last place, and few had them even cracking the 50-point mark.
Amazingly, virtually all of those predictions would end up being dead wrong. Jimmy Anderson would find himself working with some emerging young talents, not the least of which was John Gould. Having started the season on the fourth line, Gould would work his way up the line-up, eventually finishing with the team lead in goals with 34. His 65 points would also leave him second on the team behind only Rick Dudley, who put up 70 points in a break-out campaign. Beyond Gould and Dudley, there was more scoring to be found, with Dan Maloney grabbing 66 points, and Tommy Williams and Bob Kelly adding over 50 points each (58 and 51 points, respectively). So competitive were the Capitals that they made a late-season trade to get veteran Fred Stanfield from Kansas City, and he would put up 33 points in 32 games with the Caps.
Defensively, the Capitals were much like their expansion counterparts in that they were reasonably built. The top pairing of Joe Watson and Jimmy Roberts were hard to crack, as were the second unit of Doug Jarrett and Noel Price. The weak link on the blue line would turn out to be rookie Greg Joly, who would play 44 games of rather uninspiring hockey. He had time to get it together, but early signs looked discouraging for the 1st Overall Pick from 1974. In goal, the major story was Phil Myre, who got the starting job and ran with it. He would play 48 games in the Capitals’ maiden year, putting up a solid .909 SV% in that time. His regular back-up, Rocky Farr, proved to be far less competent, with his .876 SV% winning few fans in Washington.
Though Washington was clearly aiming to be competitive immediately, playoffs would be just out of reach for them. Thanks to a strong Norris Division, the Capitals would be stuck in 4th Place with 81 points. They would have the last pick in the 1st Round of the 1975 Amateur Draft, having traded their original pick on Draft Day to Philadelphia in exchange for Bill Clement, Don McLean, and the 18th pick, which they would use on Kingston Canadians forward Alex Forsyth.
Notable Trades (that happen differently in this timeline):
Washington Capitals trade D Larry Giroux to the Kansas City Scouts for F Doug Roberts and a 1976 4th-Round Pick (used on Mike Liut)
Washington Capitals trade F Norm Gratton and a 1976 3rd-Round Pick (used on Tom Rowe) to the Kansas City Scouts for F Fred Stanfield
1975-76: Despite a strong opening year for the Washington Capitals, there was concern going into the 75-76 campaign, as many players had left the club in the off-season. Included in that group was last season’s top point-getter Rick Dudley, who had left the team to join the Cincinnati Stingers of the WHA. Coach Jimmy Anderson isn’t interested in fretting over departed players, and instead says that the team he has is still good enough to be a playoff team in their second year. Hockey writers don’t agree, picking Washington to finish close to the bottom of the standings after what was considered a “fluke” first season.
Thoughts of the first year being a fluke are swiftly dispelled, as Washington finishes the first two months in a competitive spot. The team’s first line of Dan Maloney, Tommy Williams, and John Gould leads the way, but behind them, there is plenty of supplemental scoring to be found. In total, TEN different forwards manage at least 40 points, as Anderson spreads the playing time out evenly so as to not tire anybody out. Of those, four players (Maloney, Gould, Terry O’Reilly, and Bob Kelly) crack 50 points. The team’s defending is somewhat worse than the previous year, and the goaltending takes a slight step back, but with such a potent attack, it hardly matters.
When asked to describe the Caps’ style of play, one journalist of the time put it best:
“You never have any idea how to defend against the Capitals, because they have so many players who could beat you. The only way to shut them down is hope that you’re facing whichever of their four lines is unluckiest that night.”
The defensive woes are completely forgotten by the time the season is over. Washington, thanks to their well-spread offence, has barely qualified for the playoffs with 73 points. In the preliminary round, they are drawn against the Buffalo Sabres, and are swept in two games, but fans in Washington don’t care. The first playoff game in their history, a 6-5 over-time loss, ends with fans at the Capital Center applauding the team despite the result. Washington would get the 7th Overall Pick in the 1976 Draft, using it on Saskatoon Blades’ forward Bernie Federko.
Washington Capitals trade G Rocky Farr to the Kansas City Scouts for cash
Washington Capitals trade the rights to Henry Boucha to the Kansas City Scouts for a 1978 2nd-Round Pick (used on Steve Christoff)
Washington Capitals trade D Doug Jarrett to the New York Rangers for G Gilles Villemure
Washington Capitals trade a 1976 2nd-Round Pick (used on Greg Malone) to the Kansas City Scouts for D Bob Paradise
1976-77: Most of Washington is still riding the high of the euphoria from the Capitals’ first playoff appearance in 1976. While the ’74 Expansion experiment had failed in Kansas City, it had succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams in Washington; the Capitals were already making post-season waves only two years into their existence. But with great fortunes come greater expectations, as the young players would soon find out. The time was nigh for the Caps to start building for deep playoff runs, and the first victim of this mentality shift would be former 1st Overall Pick Greg Joly. After 22 games in the AHL to start the year, Joly would be traded to Detroit in exchange for veteran blue-liner Bryan Watson. The man once touted by Milt Schmidt as the “next Bobby Orr” was cast away by the team that had drafted him, after only two and a quarter years of pro hockey.
The offensive line-up that had been so effective the previous year was only boosted with the addition of free agent Guy Charron, who had spent most of the past two years in Kansas City. Though the Caps hardly needed the extra firepower, Charron obliged regardless, putting up 82 points in 80 games to lead the way. He would be well supplemented by the likes of Gerry Meehan (64 points), Terry O’Reilly (55 points), and Gary Croteau (51 points). The offensive depth allowed the Capitals to ship John Gould off to Atlanta, getting a couple of depth pieces in return. Once again this year, defensive play was a concern for the team, but with their offence continuing to be so powerful, it was hardly relevant down the stretch.
For the second time in a row, the Capitals had made the playoffs. They would finish 3rd in the Norris (and 7th overall) with 82 points, setting up a preliminary round clash with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Both sides would take the respective away games, as the series was tied 1-1 going into Game Three in Washington. Though the Caps fought hard to try and secure the win, a late power play goal by Ian Turnbull, followed by an over-time winner by Inge Hammarstrom, consigned Washington to defeat. They had once again shown that there was much for the NHL to fear in the future, but still much for the Capitals to learn along the way.
As a result of their finish, Washington would get the 12th Overall Pick in the 1977 Amateur Draft, selecting Toronto Marlboros defenseman Trevor Johansen.
Washington Capitals trade F Mike Corrigan to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a 1977 5th-Round Pick (used on Julian Baretta)
Washington Capitals trade F John Gould and a 1977 2nd-Round Pick (used on Mark Lofthouse) to the Atlanta Flames for F Hilliard Graves and D Larry Carriere
1977-78: The kid gloves were well and truly off for the Caps. With two straight playoff berths under their belts, the new mission was to win at least one playoff series, or even to claim the Norris Division to get a bye straight to the quarter-finals. After all, the team was offensively gifted, and had all the makings of a potential Cup contender if they played their cards right. Unfortunately for the Caps, things started off badly, as some horrible defensive performances left the team at the bottom of the standings after a month of play. If the team was going to make the post-season at all, they needed a spark, and they needed it quick.
The spark they were looking for came in the form of two young players: Jim Bedard and Terry O’Reilly. Bedard, a 1977 draftee, would take the starting job from Phil Myre, and not let go. His .879 SV% wasn’t the greatest, but it was still marginally better than both Myre and Bernie Wolfe, which was enough for the rookie to get the #1 spot. O’Reilly, meanwhile, had already spent a few years in the NHL with some decent results, but 77-78 saw the tough man take his game to new heights, as he would slot in on the first line alongside Guy Charron and score 90 points. It was a Washington record, and gave the team not one, but two certifiable top-tier forwards.
Those sparks, however, weren’t enough. Washington’s porous defending would finally come back to bite them in the backside, and the scoring depth was no longer present. The Capitals would miss the playoffs, finishing last in the Norris with 51 points. After four seasons, Jimmy Anderson would be sacked as head coach, to be replaced by Danny Belisle.
The Capitals would have three picks in the 1st Round of the 1978 Amateur Draft. Their natural pick at #4 would be used to select Brandon Wheat Kings forward Bill Derlago, while the 12th Pick, acquired in a mid-season trade with Toronto, would be used on Portland Winterhawks centre Brent Peterson. They would also have the last pick in the round due to not taking part in the Cleveland Barons Dispersal Draft; they would use that pick on Hamilton Fincups winger Tim Coulis.
Washington Capitals trade D Larry Carriere to the Los Angeles Kings for D Sheldon Kannegiesser
Washington Capitals trade D Jimmy Roberts to the St. Louis Blues for a 1979 3rd-Round Pick (used on Guy Carbonneau)
Washington Capitals trade F Dan Maloney and a 1980 2nd-Round Pick (used on Bob McGill) to the Toronto Maple Leafs for F Errol Thompson, a 1980 1st-Round Pick (used on Mike Bullard), a 1978 1st-Round Pick (used on Brent Peterson), and a 1978 2nd-Round Pick (used on Al Jensen)
Washington Capitals trade D Neil Komadoski to the St. Louis Blues for a 1980 2nd-Round Pick (used on Greg Terrion)
Washington Capitals trade D Darryl Edestrand to the Los Angeles Kings for cash
1978-79: Though common wisdom would be for the Caps to continue to stack up picks for their rebuild, the 78-79 season was one where common wisdom would be defenestrated. The NHL had been shrunk to 17 teams after the Cleveland Barons were absorbed by Minnesota, and with only five teams to be eliminated, the playoffs could potentially be in sight, even for a few sub-par teams. One indicator of how serious the Capitals were about making the playoffs was a trade they made with the North Stars early on in the season. Washington would send Pittsburgh’s 1st-Rounder in 1979 – which the Capitals had acquired for forward Hartland Monahan – to Minnesota for former Baron Dennis Maruk.
As it would turn out, the Maruk trade would be one of the few things that went right for Washington. In his first season with the Caps, Maruk would be placed on the first line with Guy Charron and Terry O’Reilly; with Charron’s playmaking, and O’Reilly’s protection, Maruk would show the NHL that his time in California and Cleveland was no fluke, as he led the team with 90 points. Amazingly, not even Maruk would lead the team in points, as Bernie Federko would rack up 95 points from the second unit. But as the offence continued to be deadly, so too did the defending continue to hamper the team. Not only did the team give up the second-most shots in the NHL, but the team save percentage was among the worst in the league.
Once again, Washington was the epitome of “all sizzle, no steak”. Their awful defending was their undoing, leading to yet another season without playoff action. They would finish in last place in the Norris Division with only 60 points. Because of their finish, they would get the 3rd Overall Pick in the newly-renamed 1979 Entry Draft, using it on Sudbury forward Mike Foligno.
Washington Capitals trade D Joe Watson to the Colorado Rockies for cash
Washington Capitals trade F Don Saleski to the Colorado Rockies for future considerations
Washington Capitals trade G Phil Myre to the Philadelphia Flyers for F Blake Dunlop and D Rick Lapointe
1979-80: With four new teams migrating from the now-defunct WHA, there were now twenty-one teams in the NHL. The number of playoff teams was also increased, with sixteen making the post-season. Though Washington was on the outside looking in the past couple of years, there was enough hope that the Capitals could at least keep up with some of the new clubs. It would be hard, seeing as how they had been thrown into the new Patrick Division with the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Islanders, both of whom were now in competition to be the best regular season team.
As expected in the Patrick Division, Washington got off to a terrible start. Danny Belisle would be relieved of his duties as head coach in November, with Gary Green tapped as his replacement. Green would become the youngest head coach in NHL history at just 26 years of age, but it didn’t seem to matter; the team experienced an immediate turn-around, rising up the standings with each passing month. The offence that had been so formidable in recent years was running even hotter, with Bernie Federko’s 95 points leading the way. Three other players would crack 60 points, with two of them, Bengt-Ake Gustafsson and Mike Foligno, doing so in their first year of play.
But the one change that made all the difference was the acquisition of former Philadelphia goalie Wayne Stephenson in the off-season. Stephenson came in and immediately grabbed the starting job. His presence gave the Capitals something they were lacking for the past several years: a credible starting netminder. Stephenson would play 56 games, finishing with a .880 save percentage, only a couple of thousandths behind the league average. The young duo of Rollie Boutin and Mike Liut served as his back-ups; Liut was a man that many believed could be the future starter, having played 54 games for Cincinnati in their final WHA season in 78-79.
Washington had finally broken out of their slump. Though they would finish last in the Patrick Division with 78 points, that total was good enough for 11th in the NHL, giving the Capitals a playoff spot. Washington would be drawn against their divisional rivals, the New York Islanders. Though Washington had been competitive with the Islanders in the regular season, New York was simply too strong for the team in the playoffs. Wayne Stephenson was shelled in the first two games, and Mike Liut couldn’t do much better in the third, as the Capitals were swept out of the first round.
The Capitals would have two picks in the 1st Round of the 1980 Entry Draft. The first, which they acquired in a 1978 trade with the Maple Leafs, would be used at #9 on Mike Bullard, while the second, their natural pick at #11, would be used to select forward Mike Blaisdell.
1980-81: There was once a time when Washington was a team that could score with virtually any of their lines, all in short bursts. By 80-81, this had changed massively. Now, the Capitals had a clear-cut first and second unit, and they absolutely torched other teams. Dennis Maruk, after a season of injury, was back to his old self, scoring 50 goals and adding 47 assists. His line-mate, Bernie Federko, surpassed that, registering 104 points to lead the team. The Caps were getting solid seasons all across the board, from such players as Mike Foligno (63 points), Bill Derlago (74 points), and Blake Dunlop (87 points, and a Masterton Trophy). Heck, even Bob Kelly, who had never gone above 46 points, was getting in on the action, putting up 62 points to go along with 157 penalty minutes.
But for all of the offensive stars the Capitals boasted, their arguable MVP was in goal. Mike Liut, now in his second NHL season, would take the starting job by the horns, and never look back. Playing in 52 games, Liut would post an impressive .894 save percentage, making several clutch saves along the way. Long needing somebody to come in and calm the team down, Liut did his job admirably, and even got votes for both the Hart Trophy (league MVP) and Pearson Trophy (MVP as voted by the players). The presence of Liut transformed the Capitals from playoff periphery team to serious contenders.
The Capitals would finish 2nd in the Patrick Division, and 7th in the league, with 92 points. They would be drawn in the first round against the Boston Bruins, and for the first time, Washington looked like a team that could mount a serious run. In his first game as a true playoff starter, Mike Liut would perform well, giving up only three goals, but his offence could only muster two of their own. Game Two was a reversal, as Liut would allow five goals, but his team would manage eight to even the series. Games Three and Four, however, would both go to the Bruins, who would seize the day on home ice to eliminate the Caps.
On Draft Day, Washington would make a trade with the Colorado Rockies, sending their 1st and 2nd-Round Picks to Colorado for the Rockies’ 1st-Rounder, the 4th Overall Pick. Washington would use the pick on another centreman, getting Ron Francis from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Washington Capitals trade F Errol Thompson to the Pittsburgh Penguins for F Gary McAdam
Washington Capitals trade a 1981 1st-Round Pick (used on Al MacInnis) and a 1981 2nd-Round Pick (used on Rich Chernomaz) to the Colorado Rockies for a 1981 1st-Round Pick (used on Ron Francis)
1981-82: Washington was now known across the league as a team that could score in bunches on any given night. It was certainly a good team identity to have in an era led by the likes of Wayne Gretzky, where offence was up across the board, and teams that couldn’t score were left behind. It also helped that the Capitals had a true-blue starter in Mike Liut between the pipes; Liut was so strong in goal for the Caps the previous year that he very nearly got a couple of MVP awards, both from the league and the players’ union. All in all, the collection of high-scoring forwards was a great problem for GM Max McNab and coach Gary Green to have, but sooner or later, it would need to be solved, somehow.
That problem would be slightly addressed by a trade on December 2nd, 1981 with the Buffalo Sabres. The Caps were a good team, but needed some steel across their line-up, especially on the blue line. Two good young talents, Mike Foligno and Bill Derlago, were sent to Buffalo along with depth forward Brent Peterson, with former 50-goal scorer Danny Gare, veteran defender Jim Schoenfeld, and struggling playmaker Derek Smith going the other way. Schoenfeld, in particular, would be important, as he was once a league leader in plus-minus (+60 with the Sabres in 1979-80). Though some good talent was given up in the deal by Washington, it mattered little to their scoring output, especially with Dennis Maruk managing to rack up 60 goals and 136 points to lead the team.
Despite a slight dip in form from Mike Liut in goal, the Capitals were still a certain playoff team. They would finish in 2nd in the Patrick Division with 92 points; because of a change to the division and playoff structures, the Caps would now face off against the 3rd-place team in the Patrick, the New York Rangers. Washington had looked for a couple of years to be a team on the verge of a lengthy playoff run, and the hope was that they could at least win a series this time around. They would take the game to the Rangers on home ice, making sure that Liut faced few shots. What shots he DID face, he stopped with ease, as the Capitals won the first two. New York would get six past the Caps’ starter in Game Three at Madison Square Garden, but they would lose that game thanks to an over-time goal by Chris Valentine, sealing a three-game sweep. For the first time in their history, Washington had claimed a playoff series, and they had done it against the first NHL team they ever faced.
Next up for Washington were the formidable New York Islanders. New York was not only the top regular season team in the league with 118 points, but they also had two straight Stanley Cup wins under their belt. The Capitals seemed to handle the Rangers with ease, but the Islanders would be a significantly harder test. Indeed, the two-time defending Cup winners handed the Caps their backsides in the first two games, winning by a combined score of 16-4. The Islanders would also win Game Three, and despite a momentary blip in Game Four (which Washington would win thanks to an OT goal by Bengt-Ake Gustafsson), the fifth contest was much more of the same. The Caps had done well to get to the second round, but the Islanders were just too much for Mike Liut to handle.
The Caps would have the 17th Pick in the 1982 Entry Draft, using it on Medicine Hat forward Murray Craven.
Washington Capitals trade F Gary McAdam and a 1983 4th-Round Pick (used on Tim Bergland) for F Eric Vail
Washington Capitals trade F Mike Foligno, F Bill Derlago, and F Brent Peterson to the Buffalo Sabres for F Danny Gare, D Jim Schoenfeld, and F Derek Smith
Washington Capitals trade D Howard Walker, F George White, a 1982 6th-Round Pick (used on Mats Kihlstrom), a 1983 3rd-Round Pick (used on Perry Berezan), and a 1984 2nd-Round Pick (used on Paul Ranheim) to the Calgary Flames for D Charlie Bourgeois and F Ken Houston
1982-83: Washington had cleared a major hurdle by defeating the New York Rangers in last year’s playoffs, but now, they were hungry for more, and without many draft picks in the 1983 Entry Draft, it was time to go for it. In all of their preparations for a deep post-season run in this campaign, however, the Capitals’ front office seemed to entirely forget about stocking up on blue-liners. Greg Theberge and Timo Blomqvist seemed to perform well as a first pairing, but behind them, Washington looked thinner than a piece of paper, and about as strong, too. Injuries would inevitably pop up here and there, and Gary Green would be forced to dress only five defenders in some games – even dressing only four blue-liners in a couple of games.
The key players for Washington were expected to up their game in response to the thin blue line, and many did so. Ron Francis, after a solid rookie year, would crack 90 points in his sophomore season. Dennis Maruk and Bernie Federko would both crack the 80-point mark once more, while Mike Liut would continue to be a strong starter in 58 games of work. The biggest surprise would be the play of rookie Guy Carbonneau, who got called up for this season after a year in the AHL to adjust his game. Now working as a two-way centreman, Carbonneau would shine, putting up 47 points and scoring 5 short-handed goals to lead the team.
Any defensive concerns were once again being glossed over by the Caps’ strong attacking play. Washington would finish in 3rd in the Patrick Division, racking up 88 points. The team that had destroyed them in the past post-season, the New York Islanders, were now their first-round opponent. Expected to be at the Islanders’ mercy once again, Washington actually put up a decent fight, winning Game Two at the Nassau Coliseum to grab a road split. New York, however, would take both games on Washington’s ice to win the series three to one.
Washington had traded several picks in the 1983 Draft, including their 1st-Rounder, which was dealt on Draft Day to the Winnipeg Jets for Tim Watters. This meant that the Caps would not have a pick until the Fifth Round; they would use their 5th-Rounder on Granby Bisons centreman Martin Bouliane.
Washington Capitals trade a 1983 1st-Round Pick to the Winnipeg Jets for D Tim Watters
1983-84: Even in the strong Patrick Division, the Washington Capitals are still competitive. They are able to keep up with the likes of the two New York teams and the Flyers, and even if they fell back at all, they would still be well ahead of New Jersey and Pittsburgh, who were both occupying the bottom of the table. A playoff spot was virtually guaranteed, but the Caps’ vibrant offence made them more than just a token playoff squad. Their defending, however, left much to be desired, and the team desperately needed reinforcements on the blue line. Having already acquired Tim Watters from Winnipeg on Draft Day, the Caps would also grab Larry Murphy from Los Angeles in a deal that saw Washington part with Ken Houston and Bengt-Ake Gustafsson.
The new acquisitions prove very effective for the Caps, and give the team some solidity when they needed it most. Murphy would immediately become the team’s #1 defenseman, putting up 46 points in 72 games. Tim Watters wouldn’t be a top player off the bat, but would still provide stability on the depth pairings. And even without Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, Washington’s attacking play was still electric; The newly-formed line of Mike Bullard, Ron Francis, and Bernie Federko would combine for just under 300 points, with Federko’s 107 (41 goals and 66 assists) leading the way. (Francis was moved up to the top unit due to the departure of Dennis Maruk, who was traded in the off-season to Minnesota.)
Washington had sacrificed a bit of offensive flair, but now had a more secure blue line. They would finish 4th in the Patrick with 86 points, setting up another first-round match-up with the New York Islanders. New York had just won their fourth straight Stanley Cup, and it seemed as if the long years were starting to take their toll. This would be shown by Washington winning Game One in sudden death thanks to a goal by Gaetan Duchesne, forcing a road split just as they had done the previous year. New York would kick into high gear following the loss, winning the next three to eliminate the Capitals once more.
Washington would get the 13th Pick in the 1984 Entry Draft, using it on American defenseman David Quinn.
Washington Capitals trade F Ken Houston and F Bengt-Ake Gustafsson to the Los Angeles Kings for D Larry Murphy
THE CAPITALS AND THE NHL
THE FIRST TEN YEARS: Washington started out as a team with some potential, but still a ways away from being true contenders. By the ten-year mark, they have grown into a team with a serious identity thanks to their explosive attack. This identity has been detrimental in recent years, as teams have figured out that their blue line is prone to breaking rather than bending, leading to even better offensive teams getting the best of the Caps when April and May come around. No team exploits this better than the dynastic New York Islanders, who eliminate the Capitals three years in a row.
While their expansion cousins have moved from place to place in their ten years of existence, the Caps are still in their original home. Owner Abe Pollin expected times would be tough in the first few years of the team’s NHL tenure, and was willing to take a financial hit in exchange for stability down the road. As it would turn out, things would go much better than expected thanks to some solid expansion drafting, and some good scouting in the Amateur and Entry Drafts. Washington would not only be competitive quickly, but even grab a series win in 1982.
In the last playoff game of the 1983-84 season, Washington would line up as follows:
F1. Mike Bullard – Ron Francis – Bernie Federko
F2. Gaetan Duchesne – Alan Haworth – Danny Gare
F3. Bobby Gould – Guy Carbonneau – Terry O’Reilly
F4. Greg Terrion – Glen Currie – Pat Hickey
D1. Larry Murphy – Dave Shand
D2. Timo Blomqvist – Peter Andersson
D3. Tim Watters – Greg Theberge
G1. Mike Liut
G2. Al Jensen
Once upon a time, the Washington forward core was loaded with talent. In addition to Federko, players like Dennis Maruk, Mike Foligno, Bill Derlago, and Blake Dunlop were all scoring in bunches. The Caps had surpassed being simply “decent” and moved on to being “fearsome”. Those days look to be over, for the most part, but the top line is still solid by NHL standards. Mike Bullard is coming off a career-high point total of 92 (with 51 goals, to boot), and Ron Francis is only set to grow even more. Down the line-up, there is a mix of past-their-prime players (such as Danny Gare and Terry O’Reilly) and young players with some potential (Gaetan Duchesne and Guy Carbonneau, among them). They may not be as dynamic as they were in their heyday, but they are still dangerous on the attack.
Defensively, the Capitals have struggled for depth, but those who do play seem to be good. Larry Murphy was brought in via an off-season trade, and has already established himself as the team’s #1 blue-liner. Behind him in the depth chart are players like Dave Shand, Timo Blomqvist, and Peter Andersson, all of whom have proven themselves to be more than capable at the NHL level. The sixth spot is a battle between Greg Theberge and Charlie Bourgeois, both of whom seem to be liabilities more than assets. In goal, Mike Liut is the starter of choice, and when he is on a roll, he is one of the best goalies in the game. Al Jensen is a very solid back-up, and can easily play as many as 40 games in a season without losing any effectiveness.
COMPARED TO THE OTL: The most important question in comparing the new Capitals to their counterparts in the OTL is a pretty obvious one: Do they still suck?
The answer is as loud a “NO” as a human voice could muster. The original Capitals set records for futility that still stand to this day, and will likely never be touched as the league becomes more and more focused on parity. Now, with more relaxed expansion rules, and more talent available to start with, the Caps may not start off as a contender, but they come damn close to a post-season spot. They don’t have to wait long to make the playoffs, either, clinching their spot in the 75-76 season, only their second year of existence. Any chance of matching their early failures in the OTL is long gone even by the time the Capitals begin to regress, as they manage no less than 51 points in a season, well above their real-life low of 21.
Washington also does very well in finding good players in the 1st Round of the Amateur/Entry Draft, as they claim several players who would go on to become key pieces, even if for a different team. Notable in particular is the 1976 Draft, which sees the Caps miss out on Rick Green, only to get Bernie Federko; of all the players in the 1st Round, Federko is the only one who would go on to play more NHL games than Green. In addition to Federko, the Caps draft all of Mike Foligno, Mike Bullard, Bill Derlago, and Ron Francis. By 1984, both Francis and Bullard are first-liners for Washington alongside Federko, while Foligno and Derlago are traded out for veteran pieces.
Of course, drafting past the 1st Round can never be discounted, and thanks to a pair of trades, the Capitals end up selecting a pair of important players with the acquired picks. Their selection of Larry Giroux in the Expansion Draft allows them to trade the young blue-liner to Kansas City in exchange for the pick that becomes Mike Liut. After a couple of years in the WHA, and a year as a 1b with Washington, Liut has blossomed into a bona fide NHL starting goalie, and even gotten league MVP consideration. Taking Jimmy Roberts during expansion, meanwhile, allows the Caps to get the pick that becomes Guy Carbonneau. Though he was a high-scoring forward in junior play, Carbonneau has begun to evolve into an effective defensive centreman at the NHL level, with many years to play in his career.
By the time Washington is ready to make their move in the OTL, the alternate timeline Capitals have already made several playoff appearances. In a new 1982, the Caps would even win their first playoff series, a year before the real team had even made it to the post-season. By 1984, they are now gifted with enough talent to be a post-season regular, but because of some of the drafting changes made, there is a problem or two looming…
THE FUTURE OF THE CAPITALS: As it stands, all is well in Washington. The Caps are making appearances in the post-season, and they have some talented pieces all across the line-up. But amongst all the happiness, a time bomb is ready to go off in the next few years. Because of the Caps’ drafting habits in the new timeline, they miss out on several key blue-liners. They would never draft any of Scott Stevens, Rick Green, or Darren Veitch; losing Stevens and Veitch is bad enough, but because they don’t get Green (or Ryan Walter, for that matter), the Caps are never able to acquire Rod Langway, who would become a symbol of the 80s Washington teams.
The effect is already being felt by the Capitals, as they have to make trades to bring in defenders that they wouldn’t in the OTL. Instead of getting Dave Christian at the 1983 Draft, they get blue-liner Tim Watters. Instead of trading away Brian Engblom (who they don’t get anyway), they have to trade away solid forward Bengt-Ake Gustafsson in order to acquire Larry Murphy from Los Angeles. Though Washington has some good D-men under contract, they also have very little depth at the position, and when injuries inevitably hit, they are forced to employ blue-liners that normally wouldn’t even see AHL time.
As it stood, Washington was a lock for playoff spots thanks to the utter ineptitude of the Penguins and Devils. Now, with Mario Lemieux leading the way for Pittsburgh, and Lou Lamoriello becoming GM of the Devils, things change. The Caps finally miss the playoffs in 1987-88, and are forced to re-tool. As it would turn out, they make some pretty good moves in the late 80s, including bringing in Adam Oates for Bernie Federko in the 1989 off-season. The rejuvenated Capitals actually manage a Conference Final appearance in 1990, only to lose to the Boston Bruins.
The 90s see the Caps begin to cement themselves as a team on the periphery of the playoffs, never quite being able to make a deep run. There is one major exception to this: 1998. That year, with Ron Wilson brought in to be the bench boss, the Capitals make a spectacular run to the Stanley Cup Final, with veteran Ron Francis leading the way. In what would be his final season as a Cap, Francis would put up 22 points in as many games, as his side would lose the series 4-1 to the Detroit Red Wings, who would end a 43-year drought. It was a miracle run for the Caps, but it was to be their only major post-season run in the decade.
The attempt to replace Ron Francis as talisman of the team goes poorly. In 2001, Washington trades for Jaromir Jagr, who had won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading point-getter four years running. Jagr proved to be a shell of his former self with the Capitals, eventually getting traded to the New York Rangers in the 03-04 season. That year, the Capitals would end up in last place in the entire league, but thanks to Pittsburgh winning the Draft Lottery, Washington would get the second pick. This would lead to their second attempt at finding a new talisman: Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin would be taken with the 2nd Overall Pick in 2004, but he would not be in the line-up for the 2005-06 season due to being unable to get out of his contract in Russia. When he does join the Caps in 06-07, he immediately slots in as the #1 centre, putting up 85 points in 78 games. The next year, Washington would make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, losing to Philadelphia in the first round. That playoff appearance starts a string of six straight, but the Capitals are never able to advance past the second round. One of Washington’s biggest rivals is the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by their dynamic duo – Alexander Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews.
In the mid-2010s, the Capitals, tired of being Pittsburgh’s playoff chew toy, make moves to try and become a Cup contender. Firstly, in 2014, they hire former Nashville head coach Barry Trotz as their new bench boss. Then, the next season, they make a trade with Toronto to acquire star winger Phil Kessel. The moves have little effect over the next two seasons, as not only do the Caps have to deal with the Penguins, but now they have to deal with the Blue Jackets; led by Sidney Crosby, the Jackets would move over from the Western Conference to join Pittsburgh and Washington in the Metropolitan Division, leading to a three-way dogfight over the course of the mid-2010s. Washington would not advance past the second round until 2018, when they would eliminate both Columbus and Pittsburgh on the way to their first Stanley Cup.
ACROSS THE LEAGUE: So, you probably noticed me mentioning that Sidney Crosby is now a Blue Jacket, and Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews are both in Pittsburgh. Well, there’s a reason for all that.
With the Capitals being as bad as they are in the mid-2000s, three drafts are thrown into disarray. First up is the 2004 draft, in which Washington finishes last in the entire league, but fails to win the Draft Lottery. This leads to Pittsburgh, who win the lottery instead, to draft Alexander Ovechkin that year, while Pittsburgh ends up with Evgeni Malkin. The next draft in 2005 is also altered; with Pittsburgh having won the lottery in 2004, they have one less ball available for the 2005 draw, and thus end up with the #2 pick instead of #1. The Columbus Blue Jackets, who finished highest among the other three-ball teams in the 2005 Lottery, end up with the #1 selection, and as a result, they get Sidney Crosby, while Pittsburgh drafts Bobby Ryan. Washington, meanwhile, takes the Blue Jackets’ spot at #6, using the pick on Gilbert Brule, who ends up a bust.
As mentioned, Malkin never plays the 2005-06 season due to his difficulties in trying to get out of Russia. This affects the 2006 Draft as well, leading to the Capitals finishing last once more in the league. This time, they win the Draft Lottery, using the #1 pick on blue-liner Erik Johnson. This in turn affects the next three picks; St. Louis gets Jordan Staal at #2, Pittsburgh gets Jonathan Toews at #3, and Chicago ends up with Nicklas Backstrom at #4. Backstrom forms a dangerous pairing with 2007 1st Overall Pick Patrick Kane, and the two combine to lead Chicago to the 2010 Stanley Cup. (Not having Toews, however, means that Chicago misses out on the 2013 and 2015 Cups, which go to Boston and Tampa Bay, respectively.)
Finally, I have written in the past about how the Penguins would move out of Pittsburgh without Sidney Crosby. In this new timeline, they do not move, even without Crosby on their roster. The spark the team badly needed in terms of both local and national attention is easily found in the form of Alexander Ovechkin, who proves just as exciting in his rookie year with 52 goals and 106 points. Even without Crosby or Malkin, Pittsburgh is still a hot market for hockey in the 2010s, with the new Consol Energy Center (now known as the PPG Paints Arena) being opened for use in the earliest part of the decade. The new building boasts 18,888 seats, and very rarely does a game happen in which any of those seats are not filled.
And that concludes the three-part series on the 1974 Draft. Yeah, this was a ton of work.
Next month, a more traditional “What If” question: What if the Cam Neely trade never happened?