- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

The week leading up to the NHL’s amateur draft is usually filled with trade rumors surrounding the team with the No.1 pick.

This season is no different. The Washington Capitals own the top pick and the best player available, Russian wing Alexander Ovechkin, is considered the most talented young player since Mario Lemieux was drafted in 1984.

The closed-mouth Caps have not said what they intend to do with the selection.

Speculation intensified yesterday when Chicago Blackhawks assistant general manager Dale Tallon told the Daily Herald in Arlington, Ill., that his team was “talking to Washington and we’re talking to them aggressively. This is a franchise-type player we’re talking about here.”

Rick Dudley, before he was fired as general manager of the Florida Panthers a few weeks ago, admitted he discussed a deal for the top pick with Washington general manager George McPhee. Reportedly Dudley’s replacement, Mike Keenan, would like to make the move. The New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings also are thought to be interested.

Repeated efforts to reach McPhee or other members of his front office staff yesterday were unsuccessful. In the past McPhee has been coy about his knowledge of Ovechkin so as not to tip his hand.

The 18-year-old wing is viewed as the best Russian player ever available in the draft. He is believed to be ready to compete in the league immediately and possesses an all-around game that puts him in a different category than others in his or any recent draft class.

“I’m 99.9 percent sure, in my mind at least, that the Caps will take the kid,” said one scout with knowledge of the situation. “He’s simply too good not to take a flyer on. This is a guy you build a franchise around. This is a guy who can save a franchise, the same way Mario did for Pittsburgh.”

“They’d be dumb not to listen [to trade offers],” said another scout familiar with the posturing that goes on before the draft. “You’re duty-bound to at least listen because you never know, the next phone call might be another Lindros.”

That happened in 1992, a year after Quebec drafted Eric Lindros and the center refused to report. After the league stepped in to settle the dispute, the Nordiques traded Lindros to Philadelphia for goalie Ron Hextall, centers Mike Ricci and Peter Forsberg, defensemen Steve Duchesne and Kerry Hoffman, a first-round pick that turned into goalie Jocelyn Thibault, cash and future transactions. The Nordiques moved to Colorado and used those players to win the Stanley Cup three years later.

Meanwhile, the rebirth of the World Hockey Association may have hit a fatal snag. Two “confirmed” teams, Orlando and Jacksonville, Fla., have pulled out. According to the owner of the potential teams, he reneged when the man he was dealing with in Canada failed to meet financial obligations. That leaves the WHA with four “confirmed” teams 21 days before its initial player draft.

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