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Dan Daly: Future is brighter thanks to Ovechkin

- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2008

For so many years - an Ice Age, it seems - the Capitals were there, but they weren't there. Oh, they had some nice teams and some nice players, but they just weren't a big part of the NHL conversation. Even when they went to the finals in '98 it was a freakish thing, and nobody expected the good times to last. And, of course, they didn't.

It's different now, though, 180 degrees different. Everybody in hockey is chattering about the Washington Caps as the 2008 season gets under way. Why, just the other day, there was a column in the Toronto Star, written by the astute Damien Cox, that compared Alex Ovechkin and the Penguins' Sidney Crosby to Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky in one paragraph and to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in another.

How about Hope and Crosby? Because as much as anything, Ovechkin represents hope for the Washington franchise, the promise of a brighter tomorrow, maybe even a Stanley Cup or two. When he goes on tour around the NHL, you'd think he was the fifth Beatle - or maybe seventh Sutter brother. He's one of those players a hockey fan just has to see ... in person, so he can tell the grandkids about it 20 years later.

And here's the coolest part: Ovechkin is a Capital, he's always been a Capital and, given his 13-year contract, he might retire as a Capital. He belongs to Washington. He's not some rent-a-star like Jaromir Jagr, who had his greatest seasons somewhere else. Alex is going to grow up here, athletically speaking, and assuming he stays healthy, rewrite the club record book - and perhaps revise a few league records as well.

"It's nice to have our own stars," George McPhee says. "We had some in the past [such as Peter] Bondra, but no one ever this good. You look at our young players - [Alexander] Semin, Mike Green - and we've really got some outstanding players now. They're not just good players on our team, they're among the better players in the league."

It's one of the reasons there's such a preseason buzz about the Capitals. They aren't just a team that finished fast last season, winning 11 of their last 12 to steal the Southeast Division away from the Hurricanes. They're also a team that, because of its youth, should have its best years ahead of it.

That's not to say Ovechkin will score 65 goals every season, as he did last. Sixty-five goals ... wow. Who ever thought somebody would rack up that many anytime soon, even with the rule changes to open up the game? Had Alex been playing in the more offensive-minded '80s, McPhee speculates, he might have scored 100.

"I think we saw something really exceptional last year," he says. "He's as good a goal scorer as we've ever seen - and on top of that he was in the top 10 [in the NHL] in hits. Never mind the best player in the league, he might have been the best athlete in the world last year ... in a team sport."

(We won't try to compare a guy who competes in water - Michael Phelps - to a guy who competes on frozen water. It would be like comparing Crown Royal-with-a-splash to a 44-ounce Slurpee. I mean, where do you begin?)

The thing about truly exceptional athletes, though, is that they're forever redefining what's possible. Who knows? Ovechkin might have more than 65 goals in him. Ted Leonsis, ever the optimist, would like to think he does. Studies, he says, show a player's best statistical years are usually at the ages of 26, 27 and 28. Alex just turned 23.

"People around the league who know talent think he has upside," says Leonsis.

A 65-goal scorer with upside. Scary.

But one player can't do it alone in hockey. Magic Johnson won a championship as a rookie because he had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes (among others). Larry Bird won one in his second year because he had Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson. Ovechkin and Crosby both have a Hart Trophy on their mantel, but neither has won the Cup - yet.

Much depends, then, on the ability of their bosses to improve the talent around them. The Capitals have made great progress on that front with their pick-and-a-prospect approach - dealing away veterans, usually at the deadline, for a high draft choice and a player in the system.

"It doubled our chances" of getting lucky, the owner says.

Indeed, the club was playing at such a high level down the stretch last season that injured Chris Clark began wondering: "Where am I going to fit in [when I come back]? The guys were meshing so well," he says.

When a 30-goal man is worried about playing time, you know your team is Getting There. For the Caps and their rock star left wing, Ovechkin, it's less a question of if, it appears, than of when.