- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

Two weeks ago Alex Ovechkin traveled to Pittsburgh to accept a pair of trophies to commemorate his 2007-08 season.

Later that night, Ovechkin was afforded a firsthand look at his future plans. In attendance for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals at Mellon Arena, Ovechkin watched his Penguins rivals Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin playing on the sport’s grandest stage against the Detroit Red Wings.

“Well, I’m a little jealous,” Ovechkin said before the game. “They have a great team. If you see when [the Penguins] were first in the playoffs, they lost in first round. Now they are in the final. I hope next year we will be the same. I want to win. That’s it. I want to win everything.”

With the Maurice “Rocket” Richard and Art Ross trophies already in tow for leading the NHL in goals and points, Ovechkin will be in Toronto on Thursday night as the heavy favorite to collect two more pieces of hardware that would cement his season as one of the best in league history.

It is likely to be a grandiose celebration for Ovechkin at the Elgin Theatre and again during a day of festivities Friday in the District. In Toronto, he is expected to win both the Hart Memorial Trophy and Lester B. Pearson Award, which are given to the league’s MVP as voted on by the media and players, respectively.

Toss in a gold medal playing for his native Russia at the world championships, and it will be remembered as quite the productive summer and a fitting conclusion to a remarkable nine months.

Ovechkin will not be alone in Toronto. Bruce Boudreau is one of three finalists for the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year, and Nicklas Backstrom is one of three rookies who could win the Calder Memorial Trophy given to the league’s top first-year player.

The league’s online store proclaimed Ovechkin as the Hart winner last week by putting a shirt saying so on sale to the public, but it was quickly pulled, and a statement from the league said shirts are made for all of the finalists. Even if it was an honest mistake, Ovechkin’s 65 goals, 112 points and ability to lead his team to a division title and after it was mired in last place for much of the early part of the season could make him a near-unanimous choice.

He will receive a ceremonial key to the District on Friday, and the trophies he has won this offseason will be on display at the team’s practice facility. Later that night, majority owner Ted Leonsis will throw a party to salute Ovechkin’s effort.

But Leonsis and Ovechkin are like-minded about all of this hoopla. While it is a time to celebrate, bigger things lie ahead.

“I think it is a great sign that we have been recognized for having built a great organization with great young players and a great coach,” Leonsis said. “But it all pales in comparison - the individual awards from a team award, such as winning the Stanley Cup.”

Moving forward

Ovechkin’s 65 goals were the most since Mario Lemieux had 69 in the 1995-96 season. A total that high was considered almost unreachable as recently as a few years ago. Better goaltenders with bigger equipment, better defensive systems with relaxed rules on physical play - it all resulted in a dearth of prolific scorers in the latter part of the past decade and the beginning of this one.

Times have changed though. Sure, the environment in which Ovechkin plays is better suited for goal scorers than, say, seven or eight years ago, but his talent and drive have made feats once considered impossible possible again.

“My personal opinion is that he was the best player in the league this year. There’s no reason to think he can’t continue to be the best player,” Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. “He’s going to get wiser as he matures and maybe even improve in some ways.”

It is a scary word for Ovechkin’s opponents - improvement. Where does this go from here? Could this just be the beginning for someone who is still only 22 years old?

Can the league’s dominant goal scorer actually be, well, more dominant?

“As an opponent you hope not, but he seems to be such a driven athlete, a driven person,” Nashville Predators GM David Poile said. “It seems hard for me to believe after a couple years of years in the league he would be satisfied. Players like that are motivated to do special things, and that comes back to the goals and points.”

Added Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell: “Absolutely - I’ve seen it with our guy, [Ilya] Kovalchuk. These guys have a great passion to play. They are a new wave of Russian players. Ovechkin has fun playing. He wants to be on the ice all the time in key situations. When you have that kind of passion and ability, I’ll never say anything isn’t possible. I think he can definitely improve on those numbers. We saw him a lot this year - a little too much especially with me behind the bench. He is a great franchise player.”

Scaling the mountain

Ovechkin is at a transition point in his career. For three seasons, he and Crosby have been touted as the future of the NHL. Both have lived up to and exceeded expectations as individuals.

This season Crosby, with the help of Malkin and some other talented teammates, took a step forward by coming within two wins of winning the Stanley Cup. Now it is Ovechkin’s turn to help morph his young team from surprise to Cup contender.

“It goes to team accomplishments. You haven’t hit the peak of Mount Everest until all of your teammates are there with you,” longtime NHL analyst Bill Clement said. “He made it to about the seventh base camp, so he is way up the side of hockey’s version of Mount Everest, but to stand at the apex he needs to have his teammates with him.”

After a sobering finish to the 2006-07 campaign, Ovechkin put any questions about his leadership skills to rest this season. Teammates and coaches lauded him for his consistent effort and courage on the ice.

He played through pain. He improved defensively, gaining his coaches’ trust in his own end. A transformation from sniper to all-around star has begun.

Rutherford said it is not entirely on Ovechkin’s shoulders to bring a Cup to the District. His young superstar, Eric Staal, had plenty of help when the Hurricanes won in 2006. The Penguins proved they were far from a one-man show this season.

Still, there is little question who will be the driving force for the Caps’ pursuit of Lord Stanley’s 35-pound mug in the coming seasons.

“In any franchise there are turning points. You need leadership to get that done,” said Poile, who was Washington’s GM for 15 years. “Ovechkin is certainly a strong leader - he does it night in and night out. There are some other young players there that have kind of hopped on his coattails. If you are looking for a team in this league where the best players are on the rise, the Capitals are certainly one of them.”

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