By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 9:42 PM
When the Chicago Blackhawks began trading away high-priced players and walking away from free agents of their Stanley Cup-winning roster before their championship was even a month old, it sent a message to the other teams in the league: If salaries are not managed under the National Hockey League's cap with a long-term perspective, be prepared to significantly remodel your team's roster on a regular basis.
The NHL opens its regular season with five games Thursday, and when the Capitals kick off the new year Friday in Atlanta, they will have 12 prominent, high-round draft picks serving as key cogs on their roster.
"We cast our lot with our young players and it was a strategic decision," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. "I've always hoped that our team can be a perennial strong team for years. We think this team will be together for a long, long time. Giving the younger players a shot to find their place here is a large part of that."
Throughout the Capitals' rise to NHL prominence, from early stages of the rebuilding process in the first years post-lockout to recent years as Washington has tried to live up to lofty expectations of a contender, the team's brass kept one eye on talent and another on the ever-shifting options under the salary cap.
When the Capitals opted to forgo adding any prominent free agents this offseason and move forward with its prospects in important roles, it was a direct reflection of the organization's goal to keep most of the current team intact for as long as possible.
Should they wish to add a player before the trade deadline, Washington has more than $3.8 million in space to maneuver under the league's $59.4 million salary cap, according to Capgeek.com. Of the 15 teams with more salary cap room at the start of the regular season, only five made the playoffs last year.
Meanwhile, there's been a timely convergence of the development of many high draft picks after a series of losing seasons in the early part of the decade.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Eric Fehr, Marcus Johansson, Boyd Gordon, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Jeff Schultz and injured goaltender Semyon Varlamov were all first-round selections, while Michal Neuvirth, the projected starter in net against the Thrashers, was a second-round choice. Of those dozen players, half spent considerable time playing for the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears in the fast-paced, fluid offensive style that now runs through the organization.
"We came up with this plan years ago, and fortunately ownership stood by it. Ted stood by the plan," General Manager George McPhee said. "In a lot of cities and on a lot of teams, ownership does not have the patience. We're starting Friday night with 11 of our own first-round picks in the lineup. The league average is four. The closest team to us has seven. So we put this plan together, and we're in pretty good shape. It's a good team. They're our guys, and hopefully it leads to a Cup one of these days."
Washington's average age, including both Varlamov and Dany Sabourin, is only 26.54, while the league's average age in 2009-10 was 27.8, according to data obtained from the NHL.
Some might point to the youth and lack of NHL experience as a weakness, particularly on defense, where four of the Capitals' seven blue-liners are younger than 25, and in goal, where Washington will rely on a platoon of 22-year-olds. But the Capitals believe that part of keeping the group together includes determining whether the best solution to their needs already lies within the organization.
Specifically, Leonsis pointed to the pursuit of a veteran defenseman or tested second-line center. Washington wouldn't consent to a long-term deal with a veteran to fill a temporary need at the risk of sacrificing the team's future integrity.
"Some of the moves that may have seemed self evident . . . would have, in essence, blown up the team," Leonsis said. "Because when it came to re-signing some guys that could be foundational players in the future, we wouldn't be able to do it."
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said he has seen teams run the gamut since the lockout, but believes the Capitals are a strong example of a team that continues to build itself the way franchises did in years past.
"You draft well, develop players in your system and at the right time they fit into the correct spot on the roster," Daly said. "Then you tie up core players, and when you experience success, the others who aren't core players understand that the team will be competitive for a long time based on how they built the team. That's when you see players being willing to take less to play there. That's how a team can stay together."