September 18, 2014

How much does Hershey’s success impact Capitals player development?

I realize the can of worms I’m opening here. The Hershey Bears are one of the most successful minor league hockey franchises in North America with a fan base whose passion has no rival. Year-in and year-out they reside at the top of the American Hockey League and have won 11 Calder Cups in the franchise’s 76 years of existence. In the nine years that they have been associated with the Washington Capitals, they’ve won three Cups alone.

This isn’t to knock or “blame” Hershey for the current woes of the Caps.

But are the long-term goals of both franchises aligned? Does Hershey’s ultimate pursuit of winning Calder Cups have a negative impact on player development in the Caps system?

I don’t know the answer, which is why I’m asking the question and exploring the idea.

As the Capitals continue to languish in some sort of NHL purgatory — perennial playoff qualifiers but tragically flawed enough to not challenge past the first or second round — and now in real jeopardy of wasting another Hart Trophy caliber season in the prime of Alex Ovechkin’s eventual Hall of Fame career (along with another fine campaign of his running mate, Nick Backstrom), we have to examine any possible contributing factor to the Caps lack of depth on the big league roster.

Certainly, long-term contracts doled out to players that aren’t earning them — notably Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Mike Green — is the major and overriding factor. But the fact that the Capitals are having trouble calling up players from the affiliates able contribute meaningfully at the NHL level is worth noting and exploring.

The harsh reality is that the Capitals haven’t had a player — other than Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green – drafted and developed by the organization since Ovechkin (2004), record a 20-goal season or be named an All-Star. That covers 15 first round and 12 second round picks in 11 years.

[Maybe it should be noted: of the 15 first round picks, only five were Canadian, and just five of the 12 second rounders were Canadian. Does that matter? I don't know?]

That’s not to say the Caps aren’t drafting and developing NHL players. Since 2004, 21 of their 80 draft picks have played in the NHL, with the bulk of those becoming regular players in the league. But players like Marcus Johansson, Dmitry Orlov and even to an extent, John Carlson, haven’t become the players the Caps thought they were drafting.

Is that amateur scouting? Is it player development?

Every team has draft busts (see: Pokulok, Sasha; Finley, Joe; Gustafson, Anton), but the Caps seem particularly stricken with an inability to manage high-profile draft picks to an elite level in the NHL.

Meanwhile, the Caps continue to sign veteran AHLers as free agents during the off-seasons instead of fixing the NHL roster, which is filled with bloated contracts and perennial injury cases.

Look at last year’s free agent crop. Sure, Mikhail Grabovski has been a revelation, but the Caps and Grabovski were almost forced together by the hockey gods after Grabo was largely ignored on the open market. The other signings were two-way contracts, meant to stock Hershey’s roster with older, more experienced players.

Defensemen Tyson Strachan (28) and David Kolomatis (24), forward Matt Watkins (26) and goalie David Leggio (28) were all signed as free agents over the summer. I’m sure that none were considered moves to help out the big club, and except for Strachan, that’s been the case. We’ve seen a wave of minor leaguers make guest appearances for the Caps this season, and defenseman Julien Brouillette (27) is just the latest.

The previous summer, the Caps’ “big” free agent signings were Wojtek Wolski and Joey Crabb, with the rest slated for Hershey, including ECHL journeyman Steve Oleksy.

All of this ties together. A draft record spotted with big home runs (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green) and lots of strikeouts. A minor league affiliate with a rich tradition of competing for the Calder Cup. Bloated big league roster reducing free agent activity to reinforcing the affiliate with long-time minor league experienced players.

All of it contributes to what we see today: a Caps team unable to call up players to contribute at the NHL level when injuries thin a veteran, injury-prone roster.

How much of the Caps’ free agent and player development “strategy” is aimed at helping the Caps roster, how much is dictated by necessity and finances, and how much is dedicated to stocking Hershey with veteran AHLers for another Calder Cup run?

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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