Capitals' youth movement is example for Nationals, Wizards to follow

Defenseman Karl Alzner, drafted fifth in 2007, has been at the center of a youth movement, which has fueled the Capitals' resurgence.
Defenseman Karl Alzner, drafted fifth in 2007, has been at the center of a youth movement, which has fueled the Capitals' resurgence. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Tracee Hamilton
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A decent-sized crowd gathered at Kettler Capitals Iceplex last week to watch the Washington Capitals put their recent draft picks and invitees through their paces during their summer development camp. Sure, the frigid temperatures inside Kettler might have been a draw, but for a midweek morning in July, the head count was high.

On the ice, the youngsters played three periods to a draw before a shootout decided the outcome. Off the ice, the players emerged from the locker room in their long shorts and T-shirts, and I wondered if their mothers were waiting to drive them home. It's a known fact that hockey players seem to shrink when they shed their pads; these kids got smaller and younger.

The Capitals were one of the younger teams in hockey last season, when they also had the best record in the regular season. This season, they'll be even younger. They are the leaders of a youth movement in our nation's capital that has nothing to do with the annual influx of summer interns and school tour groups.

The Caps are at the apex of their much-discussed rebuilding plan -- they have actually reached the point where they are filling roster spots with talent from their minor leagues, rather than having to dip a toe in the free agent pool every summer. (Stan Kasten, take heart.)

Caps fans have been clamoring for a veteran defenseman since the team's ignominious elimination from the playoffs in the first round, but they might as well save their breath. Karl Alzner, 21, and John Carlson, 20, who started last season with the AHL Hershey Bears, the Caps' top minor league affiliate, are in Washington to stay.

Alzner was the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft. Carlson was the 27th overall pick in the 2008 draft. Last year's first-rounder (24th overall), center Marcus Johansson, has more than a decent chance to make the team this season. This year's first-rounder (26th overall), center Evgeny Kuznetsov, is exceeding expectations as well. In other words, the cupboard is full.

"We've been very fortunate drafting where we've been drafting, at least the past three years, late in the first round," said GM George McPhee. "You're fortunate if you can find someone who can play. We've been fortunate to find someone who not only can play, but play at a high level."

The Caps didn't call their plan a capital-p "Plan" -- although think of the "Our Plan is Capital!" bumper stickers -- like the Nats, but the ideas are the same. Build, build, build through the draft and the minor leagues, acquire young talent like cordwood and use it to build the roster and to bolster trade possibilities. Having the top pick in the past two drafts, plus a No. 10 last season, has helped the Nats enormously. (It also doesn't hurt that young players from the minors are cheaper than free agents, which gives a savvy GM some salary cap wiggle room.)

The Nats are at a critical stage in the process: Their youngsters are not quite ready and their fans are running out of patience. The Nats also haven't been helped by the fact that some of their young pitchers have had more health complaints than a foursome at an Elks Club Senior Scramble. This is the stage where it becomes tempting to throw out all those babies with the bath water and sign a few big names -- thus scuttling The Plan. That's where a patient owner like Ted Leonsis makes all the difference.

"Owners have to have guts," McPhee said. "It's hard. They have friends in the community and pride and reputations and they're getting feedback from people all the time and when things aren't going well they're getting criticized and ridiculed. It takes guts to be able to withstand that and say, 'We're going to wake up one morning and we're going to be right and this team's going to be good.' We got through that. A lot of owners aren't patient enough to do that."

Leonsis will need that vaunted patience as he prepares for his first season as the owner of the Wizards, although the NBA doesn't have a farm system to match those of MLB or the NHL, and the draft is a short two rounds.

"The systems are different but the philosophy is always the same," McPhee said. "Have faith in the people that are working for you. You certainly stay on top of it but let them work, be patient and things usually work out for you."

The Wizards have gotten younger under Leonsis just by taking teenager (!) John Wall with the first pick in last month's draft. They also drafted center Trevor Booker, 22, and acquired forward Kevin Seraphin and Kirk Hinrich from the Bulls. With seven NBA seasons under his belt, Hinrich becomes one of the older players on the roster.

Of course, this is Washington, where no one agrees completely on anything. Which brings us to the Redskins. In this youth movement scenario, the Redskins are the old man who yells, "You kids get off my lawn!" through his monogrammed screen door. Too many traded draft picks, squandered draft picks, draft picks that slipped between the sofa cushions like loose change.

Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders ranked the under-25 talent of the 32 teams in the NFL for ESPN. The Redskins finished 32nd. Training camp will feature a 5 p.m. buffet -- don't forget those AARP cards, boys -- then a couple hours of CBS prime-time programming before lights out.

With Brian Orakpo, Trent Williams, Fred Davis, the Redskins have some young talent. But not nearly enough. "Win Now" is not so much a philosophy as a necessity this season, and probably next. It will take skillful drafting and some medical miracles to balance veterans and youngsters during that stretch.

Donovan McNabb was an exciting offseason acquisition for the Redskins. But the excitement generated by signing -- or renting? -- a 33-year-old quarterback is not the same as the excitement generated by drafting a 19-year-old basketball phenom, or a pitching phenom like Stephen Strasburg, who turned 22 on Tuesday.

Despite all their missteps, the Redskins remain the most popular team in town. That probably will never change. But downtown has become the place to go to see Washington's youngest and brightest stars.

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