The Washington Capitals are one of the most recognizable franchises in the National Hockey League, with a long history of winning. The most casual fan knows Alex Ovechkin, one of the greatest players ever, leading Washington to their first-ever Stanley Cup. However, some great Capitals players spent their careers under the radar rather than in the national spotlight. Here are five of the most underrated players in Capitals history.
Backstrom’s career numbers and acclaim from fellow players may not make him a prototypical underrated player. However, playing in the shadow of Ovechkin for nearly an entire career caused him to be largely overshadowed. Born in Valbo, Sweden, the 36-year-old has been in Washington since the Capitals took him with the 4th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft, just two years after Ovechkin came to town. Backstrom became an All-Star and the clear second star in Washington for the team’s long postseason window, culminating in a Stanley Cup.
The center ranks 3rd all-time in points for the Capitals and has been top-10 in the league for five seasons. Known for elite playmaking and passing abilities, Backstrom had six top-5 seasons in assists, including a 2014-15 campaign that saw him lead the league. Backstrom currently ranks fourth among active players in assists. Since entering the NHL, he has been an online sportsbook contender to lead the league in assists each season. He also spent much of his career known as the most underrated player in the NFL. Backstrom is currently dealing with hip issues, which caused him to miss the rest of the 2023 season. He had surgery on the hip last year, and it is unknown if he will return to the ice.
Like Backstrum, it seems oxymoronic to list a Hall of Famer as an underrated player. However, Dino Ciccarelli falls into this category because it’s easy to forget he played in Washington. The Hall of Fame right wing spent just four of his 19 seasons with the Capitals, spending most of his time in Minnesota. He didn’t make an All-Star Team or get any Hart Memorial Trophy votes.
Between 1989 and 1991, though, he did have two of his best seasons, including a 1989-90 season. That year, Ciccarelli took an underachieving Capitals team that finished the season with just 78 points and led them to the Conference Finals. He dominated the New Jersey Devils in the Division Semi-Finals, scoring 11 points on eight goals. No other Washington player had more than three. He got injured the next series and missed the Conference Finals, a loss Washington could not endure. He spent a short time with the Capitals but made a lasting impact.
Like Ciccarelli, Sergei Gonchar finds his way on this list thanks to a career in Washington overshadowed by his time elsewhere. Gonchar is known for his time in Pittsburgh, winning the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He also scored a career-high 67 points in his second season with Pittsburgh. However, his high-scoring abilities began in Washington, and he continues to be overshadowed as Gonchar fights to make the Hall of Fame.
Drafted 14th overall in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, Gonchar waited two years to start his career in Washington as a rookie in 1994. The Russian defenseman quickly established himself as one of the best-scoring defensemen in the league. In 1998-99, the 24-year-old became the first Russian defenseman to score at least 20 goals in a season, and between 2000 and 2004, Gonchar scored more points than any other defenseman in the league, scoring 74 goals and adding 167 assists. In Capitals history, only Kevin Hatcher scored more goals as a defenseman.
Source: Mark Landman, via Unsplash
Similar to Gonchar, Johansson was a defenseman with a knack for scoring. He spent 15 years in Washington as one of the better defensemen in the league but was almost always overshadowed by better defensemen on his team, including Gonchar. Only Ovechkin and Backstrom played more games for the Capitals in their careers.
Johansson never made an All-Star team, and his only career accolade is his inclusion on the 1987-88 All-Rookie team. Drafted 14th overall by Buffalo in 1985, the Swedish national spent just a year and a half with the Sabres before getting traded to Washington, where he spent 15 more seasons. John Carlson is the only Capitals defenseman with more career points than Johansson in Washington.
Famously known as Pee Wee due to his 5’8 stature, this Canadian has doubted his entire hockey life. A late-round pick in the 1975 NHL Amateur Draft, the durable center led the league in games his first two seasons and finished third in the Calder Memorial Trophy voting his rookie year after scoring 62 points. Maruk joined Washington via trade in 1978-79, where he spent the next five years and put up career numbers. He scored a career-high 97 points in his first entire season, following that up with another career year, scoring 136 points in the 1981-82 campaign. Between 1981 and 1983, Pee Wee scored 141 goals and added 173 assists on those forgotten Capitals teams.
Looking For The Next Forgotten Star
Every professional franchise has players who are underrated or out of the spotlight. When a team has Alex Ovechkin skating around, it can be hard to make a mark. However, the cream always rises to the top, and as the Capitals’ current postseason window appears to be closing, new stars should come soon.