When teams struggle, in any sport, they need a change. Sometimes it’s a coaching change, sometimes it’s a managerial change, and sometimes it is a player change. The coaching change seems to be the most popular, especially in the middle of a season, but during the offseason teams begin to change their makeup with the entry draft.
Generally in the draft, it is rigged so that the teams with the worst record have a better chance on getting a higher pick so they can rebuild with the best players. Washington D.C. has had the unfortunate luck of being in that position several times in the last 5 years or so, and in many different sports. Two of these picks were made a year apart and have had a tremendous impact on sports in this city.
The first of these picks was made on June 26, 2004, when the Washington Capitals selected Alex Ovechkin with the first overall pick in the NHL Draft. The team had dumped salary and gone into full rebuilding mode. The team’s most powerful, offensive players were gone, and the team needed a new face to join Olaf Kolzig’s in leading the franchise. They also needed someone to take over for Kolzig when he eventually left, and that is what they got.
Just under a year later, on June 7, 2005, the Washington Nationals used their first ever draft pick (number 4 overall) to select third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. The new team needed someone to get people excited about baseball coming back to the District, and Zimmerman was the right man for the job. He is an area native from Virginia Beach and a UVA alum. He was someone the fans could get behind and someone the team could build around.
Ovechkin has celebrated more success that Zimmerman thus far, but both serve a similar role on their respective teams. Both were dubed the “future” and both were counted on to bring their team wins. Zimmerman made his DC debut a month before Ovechkin in September of 2005. Ovechkin skating in a Capitals jersey for the first time in October 2005 (the 2004-2005 NHL season was cancelled due to a lockout).
Since they stepped on their respective field and ice, Zimmerman and Ovechkin have each been the best player on their team. Ovechkin won the 2006 Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year, the 2008 Art Ross, Rocket Richard, and Hart Trophies for most points in the season, most goals in the season, and the season’s MVP. He also won the Peterson Award (now the Ted Lindsay) for the most outstanding player as voted on by the players. He repeated in the Hart, Peterson, and Richard trophies in 2009, and three-peated in the Peterson award in 2010. Zimmerman won the 2009 Golden Glove award as the best defensive third-baseman in the National League, and the next day he won the Sliver Slugger Award as the best offensive third baseman. Both have participated in All-Star games.
Both signed longer deals, Ovechkin’s for 13 years in 2008, and Zimmerman for 5 years in 2009. Both want to win with the team that drafted them. Both have implied they never want to leave the city. Both have stared in prominent local commercials. While they have been consistent faces of their franchises, they go about doing it in very different ways.
Zimmerman is more quiet and reserved, while Ovechkin is flamboyant and outspoken. Ovechkin is the fun-loving, over-the-top scorer while Zimmerman does his damage without celebration. He takes himself seriously and is a more mature voice on the team, while Ovechkin smears shaving cream in his teammate’s faces.
Most importantly, they are the cornerstone for their teams’ structure. The Capitals’ rebuilding process has been faster than that of the Nationals, but the Caps model spells good things for the Nats. The Caps built around Ovechkin through the draft with players like Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Eric Fehr, and Semyon Varlamov. These players came up through the system and are completely home-grown.
While it took the Nationals longer to begin their true rebuild, they are now following the same model. They are beginning to fill in the team around Zimmerman with pitchers like Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Drew Storen. With other players like Bryce Harper coming up through the system, there is plenty of reason for hope in the next few years.
Zimmerman has more pressure to lead his team out of the basement, but if Ovechkin and the Caps are any indication, he will soon get some relief. Neither of these players can do it alone, but they each are the player whom the team is structured around. The Nationals are Zimmerman’s team just like the Capitals are Ovechkin’s team, and with a couple more seasons of good drafting, Zimmerman will be able to enjoy the same kind of success with his team that Ovechkin has had.