- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee hears the same query every day: What are you going to do with the top pick in Saturday’s NHL entry draft?

So he decided to have a little fun when he got the question again yesterday.

“You saw the release, didn’t you? We traded the first pick, did it this morning, sent it to Carolina for [defenseman] Bret Hedican and his wife,” McPhee said, barely able to hold back his laughter.

If only the deal were true. Then, at least the Caps would have acquired one pure skater — Hedican is married to Olympic figure skating gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi.

Other than the joke, McPhee said almost nothing new: The team is continuing to collect more information on the top picks and wants to talk to more prospects starting today when the Caps draft party arrives in Raleigh, N.C.

The obvious selection would appear to be Russian wing Alexander Ovechkin, the consensus No.1 prospect who has been described as a franchise player. He is considered the total-package — the 18-year-old plays both ends of the ice well — and is a great team player. He’s considered the best player available since Mario Lemieux in 1984.

“He’s a kid who really doesn’t have any flaws,” said an NHL general manager yesterday who asked not to be identified. “Most kids have something you have to worry about, but this guy, he has size, he can skate, he can score, he hits, he competes, he plays defense — he just does everything well at a very high level.”

But is he ready to play in the NHL now?

“Yes.”

Center Evgeni Malkin, also a Russian, is considered pick 1A. And the consensus third-best player available is 6-foot-3, 215-pound defenseman Cam Barker of Medicine Hat, Alberta, in the Western Hockey League.

“We’ve narrowed it down to a defined group,” McPhee said, refusing to go further. He acknowledged the group numbered less than six.

“We do have more information now that we’ll have to evaluate when we get down there,” he said. “We have more interviews to conduct. Our [draft list] is pretty solid, but generally there are a few changes before Saturday.”

And there are still teams out there that would love to take the pressure off McPhee and trade for the top selection. McPhee said about five teams have contacted him about a possible swap.

“We’d be crazy not to listen if for no other reason than to gauge what our competitors are going to do in this draft and beyond,” McPhee said. “When other GMs are calling to inquire about players, it’s important that we listen. But we do have an opportunity to get a heck of a player here.”

The Caps are well stocked in goal with Olie Kolzig and a platoon of pretenders, but that’s where the depth chart stops. After last season’s budget-cutting trades sent eight good veterans elsewhere for prospects and draft picks, the Caps have problems on offense and defense. This draft, no matter who is selected, only will start to address those problems.

“I don’t think anybody has ever had a problem with having a lot of picks in the first and second rounds,” said McPhee, who has three picks in the first round and two more in the second. “If you’re going to try to build through the draft, then you’d better have lots of picks. We’re in good shape.”

Washington has 12 picks in this draft, but the draft falls off significantly after the aforementioned top three players.

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