In May, 1970, the Montreal Candiens traded winger Ernie Hicke and a No. 1 draft choice for 1970 to the Oakland Seals for that club's No. 1 pick in 1971. A year later, the Canadiens used Oakland's choice to draft Guy Lafleur.
It is with memory of such disaster that the Washington Capitals are passing up the Ernie Hickes of the hockey world in retain their draft picks. Although the 9-33-11 record of the Capitols is a disaster, and a hoped-for playoff berth is no longer a rational possibility, there is no panic to change faces at Capital Centre.
"We're not giving up," General Manager Max McNab said yesterday. "Tha facts are you never say you're out until you are. But any deal we make will be viewed in the long range. We will not be relunctant to trade off our surplus draft choices, but they must before guys who have a solid future with this club. Changes for the sake of making changes do not always work to your advantages."
The Capitals are blessed with some extra amateur draft picks, both this year and next. In June, in addition to their selections, they possess a No. 2 from Cleveland and a No. 3 from Detroit. Next Year, they add to their first- and second-round choices a No. 1 from Pissburgh and a No. 2 from Detroit. It is in these picks that the club's hopes of future improvement rest.
Possession of such picks alone in no guarantee of upward movement. They must be used wisely. McNab appears to have done so the past two seasons, drafting defensemen Rick Green and Robert Picard, two players wtih excellent NHL prospects. But, oh, those first two years.
Hindsight is a blessing to critics, but a little foresight certainly would have improved the Capital's current prospects.
In selecting Greg Joly No. 1, General Manger Milt Schmidt overruled scout Lou Jankowski's recommendation that he choose Clark Gillies. In the second round, Schmidt chose Mike Marson, although such players as Bryan Trottier and Danny Gare were still available.In choosing John Paddock No. 3, Schmidt passed up Gary Sargent. Schmidt selected Paul Nicholson and Jack Patterson before Toronto drafted Mike Palmateer.
In 1975, the year Schmidt sacrificed his No. 1 pick for Bill Clement, he went on to choose Alex Forsyth and Pete Scamurra, though Dennis Maruk and Doug Jarvis were still available. Not even a plea of hindsight can excuse the passing on Maruk. The Capitals trained in London, Ontario, where Maruk played junior hockey, and Schmidt was aware of his ability. The verdict: two small.
Bill Plett and Don Edwards went in the fifth round, after Schmidt tabbed Blair Mackasey and Craig Crawford. Certainly, other teams passed up good talent, but none came up so empty-handed as Washington.
Besides wasting the vital amateur draft choices, Schmidt expended vast sums on multiyear contracts for mediocrities taken in the 1974 expansion draft. Those commitments, contributing to heavy financial losses, have been a factor in the Capitals' failure to bid for free agents.
"I've never been with an organization that lost money," McNab said. "Maybe the fault lies in wanting to get the organization on a normal businesslike plan. "I'm taking about going hog wild. That was the position we were in when I got here (Dec. 30, 1975).
"We're paying off players in Europe, several cities in Canada and several states in the U.S. We have commitments to 45 players and some organizations are committed to only 27, 28 or 30. This is the last year of this commitment. We could be down to 25 guys next year and at least we're reaching the point we have control over our destiny."
That destiny could include a bid for World Hockey Association players, the scouting of whom has become a priority item for Roger Crozier.
A year ago, despite losing a league-high 277 man-games to injury (the NHL average about 100, St. Louis was low with eight), the Capitals improved to a 24-42-14 record. In many quarters, therefore, optimism spread of another jump forward, into a playoff situation. There are several reasons it never happened, the foremost being another amazing series of injuries, which figures to reach 305 man-games by season's end without another mishap.
"The first thing I'm trying to analyze is the course we've got on us," McNab said. "Injuries are supposed to even out. It's a shocking thing, because even at the league average of around 100, we'd be in a better position.
"Bill Riley was starting to show to great advantage when he was hurt. Tom Rowe was starting to score goals. Our defense was left a shambles. We lost three of our top five in (Rick) Green, (Yvon) Labre and (Jack) Lynch. Take those three from any team and you would see the same effect."
I'm convinced in my heart that given a fair injury ration we'd be good for another 14 or 15 points, right in the playoff picture. Coming into the season I felt we were competitive. I had great confidence to our veterans to maintain a certain average scoring ratio and in some cases I got burned. I didn't expect a complete loss of production from some guys. I tried to show loyalty to some who started Y. Maybe I should have moved them sooner.
"Some of our rookies have been force-fed, brought up too soon.But we can't give up draft choices or throw money around to patch holes. There has to be a reasonable business sense taken into consideration. There were guys available last summer, just to take over their contracts, who could have patched, but suddenly they were of great value to other clubs. It's supply and demand. The price goes up on sugar when they have a flood."
McNab feels the league has improved, with rookies Dale McCourt, Barry Beck and Mike Bossy having a tremendous impact. He also points out the importance of each game in determining playoff participants and pairings, with no resultant letdowns among visitors to Washington.
"Nobody can afford to help anybody, because every game is so important," McNab said.
"We used to outwork and surprise a lot of hockey clubs," coach Tom McVie agreed. "We haven't changed.But other teams are copying this thing. The other clubs play us tough and we just haven't the personnel to match a lot of them, when they're going at full speed."
McVie has never publicly complained about his talent-poor predicament, but after Sunday's 4-1 loss in Buffalo, when he was asked why Blair Stewart, slowly recuperating from knee surgery, was playing left wing on the club's No. 1 line, McVie said, "Who else is there?" He shook his head and added, "This is killing me."
Losing is no easier on the players, but they have maintained a high level of morael. In fact, they are concerned about McVie.
"How's Tommy with you?" Bryan Watson asked a reporter. "Is he taking it okay? It's got to be tearing him apart."
"We know we have a long way to go to match the top teams," said Guy Charron. "But we feel here that we have an opportunity to play. The team has unity and keeps together. It's a long season. It would be a lot longer if our spirit wasn't so good."
Gord Smith, one of the original Capitals of 1974, agreed with McNab's assessment of the injuries.
"Any time we get something going, a guy is out," Smith said. "We've had a lot of injuries and we've had guys playing hurt. I know Tommy doesn't like to talk about it, but when you lose guys like Greener and Lynchie it has to bother you.
"The first year (1974-75) we didn't have it. They guys weren't together, there was nothing but dissension. GUys were fighting each other more than the teams we played. This year we really want to win and the guys are hustling. But we're not clicking together as a team. Maybe it's a matter of communication on the ice."
"The chemistry doesn't seem to be right," McNab ventured in a similar vein, but he made it plain the Capitals would not pay inflationary prices for more compatible ingredients.
Certainly, no last-place team has ever been so inactive in the marketplace. McNab's lone deal since he traded off hartland Monahan on opening night, was the more or less forced dispensing of Walt McKechnie for Bob Girard and a draft pick. McNab has discussed innumerable other possibilities, but all have been dismissed.
There is still a chance of playoff contender with an injury goaltender might hand over a draft choice for gary Smith or Bernie Wolfe, but it is unlikely the Capitals will be acquiring any visible talent before the draft. The few teams with a surplus simply want too much in exchange.
"The basic problem is other clubs' desire to get our high draft choices, or players we're not in a position to move. McNab said. "We can't give up Picard or Green or Charron for a left wing or a right wing, and we need scoring.