A look at the Washington Capitals’ All-Decade team for the 1980s
This is part of a series detailing the all-decade team for every NHL franchise for the 1980s. The all-time teams were compiled using a mix of skill, longevity and statistics; it is not necessarily the best, most memorably or most talented players. Instead, this is the list of players by each position who had the best numbers over a prolonged period (i.e. at least three full seasons between 1980-81 and 1989-90) during the regular season. A complete list is available here.
Team: Washington Capitals (1980-81 to 1989-90)
388-309-103, .549 WIN PCT, 3,011 GF vs. 2,737 GA, +274 Diff, 8/10 Playoff Appearances, 0 Stanley Cups
The Washington Capitals weren’t exactly setting the world on fire at the start of the decade, losing a combined 78 games between ’80-81 and ’81-82. But then a magical trade with the Montreal Canadiens occurred, bringing Rod Langway to Washington. The team turned around virtually overnight, going from 65 points to 94 points in just one year. They had three 100+ point seasons, and then finished the decade averaging 38 wins and 85 points a season. They made the playoffs eight years in a row, making it past the fourth round four times. They even made a run to the Conference Finals in 1990, thanks in large part to the heroics of John Druce (14 goals in 15 games), before they were eliminated by the Boston Bruins. After Langway’s arrival, the Capitals were a perennial powerhouse; they had four 40+ win seasons, and were .575 (92 points) or better five times. Their consistent strength in the regular season offset their early struggles, resulting in a 54.9% win percentage (ranking 8th in the league). Their offense wasn’t great; they averaged 3.76 goals per game, which ranked 12th out of 21 teams. But their defense was stellar, ranking 4th with an average of 3.42 goals against per game (only Montreal, Boston and Philadelphia were better). The resulting +274 goal differential ranked them 7th for the decade. While they never had an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, they had a run of sustained regular-season excellence (and several playoff series victories) that was the envy of several fanbases, I assure you.
Left Wing: Bengt-Ake Gustafsson (549 GP, 174-321-495, +48, 179 PIM, 30 GWG)
Gustafsson is one of those players who had an extended period of strong play, and yet he doesn’t get a ton of recognition for it. He was fairly durable: in eight seasons for Washington during the 1980s, he played at least 67 games seven times. He had one 51-game season where he scored 43 points. Otherwise, he was a lock for at least 18 goals and 54 points during a full season. He hit the 20-goal mark five times, including a high of 32 goals in ’83-84. He had two 75-point seasons, and on three other occasions he had 60+ points. He was a consistent playmaker, posting 34+ assists seven times (including twice eclipsing the 50-assist mark). He was a fixture on the powerplay, scoring 5-8 PPG per year over a five-year span. He was solid in his two-way play, posting a positive +/- rating six times in eight seasons (including a high of +29 in ’83-84). And he chipped in a fairly impressive 30 game-winning goals, which accounted for 17% of his goal total for Washington during the decade. An almost-honourable mention to Geoff Courtnall, who was JUST shy of qualifying; he only played two seasons in Washington, but they were stellar: 42 goals and 80 points in ’88-89 (+11), followed by a 35-goal, 74-point (+27) effort in ’89-90. However, my cut-off of three years means Gustafsson gets the nod.
Centre: Dennis Maruk (240 GP, 141-173-314, -32, 286 PIM, 8 GWG)
Dennis Maruk is one of the most overlooked goal scorers of the late 70s and early 80s. During his career, he had six 30+ goal seasons, and finished his NHL career with 878 points in 888 games. But he toiled for the California Golden Seals, the Cleveland Barons, the pre-Langway Washington Capitals, and the pre-Mike Modano Minnesota North Stars… the net result was just 34 playoff games (half of which came in 1984 for the North Stars). But I’ll give Maruk his due here. He spent three seasons with the Capitals during the 1980s, and he was on FIRE. He scored 50 goals and 97 points in ’80-81, and then CRUSHED those totals the following season when he scored 60 goals and 136 points in ’81-82. To put that in perspective, he is one of just 20 players to hit the 60-goal mark, and those 20 players have collectively done it only 39 times in NHL history. He’s in the company of Brett Hull, Phil Esposito, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. He did fall off the next year, scoring 31 goals and 81 points, but those are still very respectable totals. I do have to acknowledge his flaws, though; he didn’t have a positive +/- rating (although being -11 during Washington’s two worst seasons isn’t too bad), and he had a meager 8 game-winners (just 6% of his total). He was a beast on the powerplay, scoring an impressive 48 PPG in three seasons (including 20 in ’81-82). Washington traded him to Minnesota for a 2nd round draft pick after that 81-point season; they must have known something Minnesota didn’t, because Maruk never scored more than 21 goals or 60 points again. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s one of (I believe) 45 players to have multiple 50+ goal seasons in the NHL, and the best centre Washington had during the decade.
Right Wing: Mike Gartner (681 GP, 361-360-721, +45, 704 PIM, 51 GWG)
MAN is it weird to see Mike Gartner without his ‘stache. Gartner was one of the great goal scorers of his era. He is one of just two players to score 30 or more goals each year for the first 15 years of his NHL career (Jaromir Jagr is the other). And Gartner was likely only stopped by the NHL lockout in ’94-95 (limiting him to 12 goals in 38 games), because he scored 30+ goals twice more after the lockout ended, giving him 17 seasons of 30+ goals in his career. He played nearly nine years in Washington during the 1980s, before being traded to Minnesota late in the ’88-89 season.
Of his eight full seasons, his LOWEST totals were 35 goals and 73 points. He had five seasons of 40+ goals, including a high of 50 in ’84-85 and two 48-goal seasons. He had a high of 105 points in ’84-85, and had four others of at least 80 points. He was a constant threat with the man advantage, scoring 10+ powerplay goals five times (and never scoring fewer than 5. He also occasionally popped up as a threat while shorthanded too, scoring 11 SHG (including 6 in ’86-87). And he was strong in the clutch, with 51 of his goals counting as game-winners (14% of his total). He was always in the mix, and had five seasons of 300+ shots on goal. Just a phenomenal talent, and one of the great forwards in Capitals history.
Defense: Rod Langway (585 GP, 24-157-181, +107, 438 PIM, 5 GWG)
The man who saved the franchise; full stop. Without Langway, the Capitals never would have achieved the level of competitiveness and sustainability that allowed them to not only exist, but to thrive. Without Langway, I strongly suspect that the team’s poor performance would have jeopardized its ability to build a fanbase in Washington, which means Capitals fans would never have been able to cheer for the likes of Peter Bondra, Olaf Kolzig or Alexander Ovechkin. Langway spent eight seasons in Washington. While he was never an offensive dynamo (he maxed out at 9 goals and 33 points in a single season), but his presence was never about the score sheet; it was about keeping pucks out of the Washington net. Langway never had a negative +/- rating in a season, and his worst was an even rating in his first season (’82-83). He had four seasons of +11 or better, including a high of +35 in ’84-85. He was tough but disciplined, and played a clean game; he never had more than 75 PIM in a single season, and he tended to keep his penalty minute totals in the 50-60 range. He was also the last pure defensive defenseman to win the Norris trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman (which he won in 1983 and 1984). He’s in the Hall of Fame for a reason.
Defense: Scott Stevens (601 GP, 98-331-429, +72, 1,628 PIM, 14 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Larry Murphy
Larry Murphy was an exciting offensive defenseman who hit some impressive numbers in Washington; in six seasons he had four seasons of 55+ points (including a high of 81 in ’86-87). He twice hit the 20-goal mark, and had two other 13-goal seasons. He was also decent as far as his +/-. But Scott Stevens was a beast, with offensive numbers as good as Murphy’s and a MUCH more physical presence. Stevens spent eight seasons in Washington, playing 73+ games in seven of them. His durability is amazing when you consider how physical his style of play was. He had at least 150 PIM in each of his eight seasons, and four times cleared the 200 PIM mark. But he wasn’t just a crash-and-bang type, he was also an offensive dynamo. He had a high of 21 goals in ’84-85, and had four other seasons in the 10-15 goal range. He had four seasons of 60+ points, including a high of 72 in ’87-88. And he had two 60-assist seasons, as well as two others in the 44-51 range. He had an astounding 16 powerplay goals in ’84-85 alone, and had four other seasons of 5-7 PPG. He also had a respectable 14 game-winning goals (14% of his total). He was an exciting, physical and game-changing defenseman; no wonder St. Louis grabbed him as a free agent in July 1990, even at the cost of five first-round picks.
Goalie: Al Jensen (173 GP, 94-48-18, 8 SO, 3.26 GAA, 0.883 PCT)
Honourable Mention to Pat Riggin
Pat Riggin was solid for the Capitals over 3+ seasons; a 67-49-19 record, a stellar (for that era) 3.02 goals-against average, and a very strong (again, for that era) .883 save percentage. Jensen actually split the goaltending duties with Riggin in ’82-83 and ’83-84. Riggin took the #1 spot for the ’84-86 seasons, but Jensen was the go-to guy in ’85-86. Jensen’s win-loss record was even better; he had three seasons in the 22-28 win range, and was a combined 75-34-12 in 127 games during the three seasons where he played at least 40 games. Not counting his rookie season where he was a backup, his save percentage was solid and consistent; he was in the .882 to .890 PCT range for four straight seasons, and he twice has a GAA below 3.00 (excellent for the 1980s). He also managed a healthy 8 shutouts, and only once had a GAA above 4.00; an ugly 4.94 in ’86-87, although he only made 6 appearances for the Caps before he was traded to L.A. for Garry Galley, an excellent transaction for Washington. You can’t go wrong picking either Riggin or Jensen here, but I’ll go with Jensen.