DALLAS — As the 217th pick neared, the discussion at the Washington Capitals’ table picked up. The Capitals owned the last selection of the NHL draft, and they wanted this year’s Mr. Irrelevant to be a good one. Washington opted for forward Eric Florchuk of the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades, and so concluded a busy two days for the Capitals, a departure from the past few years.
“We hope he has a chance to play,” Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said of Florchuk. “We did a lot of talking about who we were going to take. It’s kind of funny; you’re making the last pick, and we spent a lot of time on him.”
The Capitals didn’t have a draft choice until the fourth round a year ago, and the team had just two selections in the top 100 in the draft before that because the organization wasn’t shy about trading away picks as it built its roster for championship runs. That put a strain on the Capitals’ prospect pool, especially since the team had four rookies regularly in its NHL lineup this season.
But Washington was more conservative when it came to personnel moves, and the result was seven selections in this draft, including three in the top 50 and four in the top 100. The team selected 6-foot-3 Russian defenseman Alex Alexeyev with the last pick of the first round Friday night, and a trade that sent goaltender Philipp Grubauer to Colorado gave the Capitals the 46th pick to go with the 47th it had from a trade with the New Jersey Devils last summer. Washington’s long-standing policy is to draft the best player available, so it took another defenseman, Slovakian left-shot Martin Fehervary, and then added right wing Kody Clark, son of Toronto Maple Leafs great Wendel Clark.
Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said the team considered moving up in the first round, but Washington didn’t want to part with second-round picks to make that move.
“We thought there was a lot of depth to this draft,” Mahoney said.
Alexeyev exhaled when he heard his name called. As a teenager, he grew up a fan of Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and he said he has modeled his game as something between Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, this year’s Norris Trophy winner.
“Lots of teammates when I play in Russia, they were saying my face is like poker face,” Alexeyev said. “I just doing crazy things with poker face.”
Mahoney described Alexeyev as “happy-go-lucky,” and he’s encouraged by how well he speaks English, because that tends to help young European players feel more comfortable and leads to a smoother adjustment to the North American professional ranks. Alexeyev landed on the Capitals’ radar two years ago, when he played in Grand Forks, N.D., at an under-18 tournament, underage compared with other players there. Then, in Mahoney’s first meeting with Alexeyev, the 18-year-old was eating ice cream, and Mahoney chided him that the treat isn’t healthy.
“There’s a little twinkle in his eye,” Mahoney said. “I think he’s got some good character to him.”
Within just a few minutes of being drafted Friday night, Alexeyev was FaceTiming with Ovechkin, who wished the draft pick luck and told him to get on the program in Washington.
“Is that the program with the fountains?” Alexeyev replied, referencing the Capitals’ raucous Stanley Cup celebrations.
The Capitals also selected a defenseman with their second pick, and Fehervary said his best trait is his skating, comparing his game to that of Michal Kempny, the smooth-skating Czech blue-liner who played for Washington this season. The team’s next two picks featured strong bloodlines with Clark and Riley Sutter, part of a long line of NHLers. Riley’s father is Ron Sutter, who played more than 1,000 NHL games, and his uncle is Darryl Sutter, who won two Stanley Cups as coach of the Los Angeles Kings after playing more than 400 games with the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1980s.
“Watching both of those young men play, they do a lot of the little things properly, and that’s probably a direct result of having fathers who played the game and showed them some of the finer points of the game,” Mahoney said. “I think they do that really well. It is an advantage to have somebody in your family who has played at a really high level.”
The Capitals drafted goaltender Mitchell Gibson in the fourth round, and the organization has had success drafting netminders at that stage. Washington took Braden Holtby (in 2008) and Philipp Grubauer (in 2010) in the fourth round, and Gibson fit a similar mold with his athleticism and competitiveness. The Capitals traded up for defenseman Alex Kannok-Leipert in the sixth round, and Mahoney said he’s a “really, really good character kid” along with being a strong skater. Then, with the last pick of the draft, the Capitals were attracted to Florchuk for his skill and smarts, though Mahoney said he needs to get stronger.
Earlier this month, Mahoney was on the ice as Washington celebrated its first championship. He watched 12 players the team drafted, from first-rounders to an undersized seventh-round pick like defenseman Christian Djoos, hoist the Stanley Cup. He eventually got to lift it himself.
“It was pretty good this year that you win a Stanley Cup and you’re still picking a first and a second and a third,” Mahoney said. “A lot of times when you win, you don’t have all of those picks. We had a bunch of picks, so I thought it was pretty good that way.”