- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 26, 2004

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Washington Capitals have made a critical decision how they will start rebuilding a team shredded last season by major cost-cutting efforts.

Anyone with knowledge of the NHL knows what the Caps will do shortly after noon today with the first pick in the draft: select 18-year-old wing Alexander Ovechkin, widely reputed to be the best player to come out of Russia and the best talent available in the draft since Mario Lemieux 20 years ago.

The only person who isn’t acknowledging that is Washington general manager George McPhee, who yesterday said the decision had been made but he wasn’t revealing it because he didn’t want to tip off the competition.

“We’ve decided we’re going to make the pick [instead of trading it], and we’re clear on who we’re going to take,” McPhee said.

To make it seem as if there was still some doubt, Ross Mahoney, the Caps’ chief amateur scout, maintained at 3:30 p.m. yesterday that three more player interviews were scheduled.

The situation is so blatant that Don Meehan, Ovechkin’s Toronto-based agent, and McPhee were already sniping at each other. Meehan said the Caps haven’t contacted him yet, which he termed unusual. McPhee said the agent hadn’t bothered to call him, either, and he never calls agents before the draft anyway.

Washington has six of the first 66 picks today: three in the first round, two in the second and one in the third. There are two high quality players at the top in Ovechkin and Russian center Evgeni Malkin and a half-dozen or so very good players. After that, the talent level drops off so much that the 10th player chosen could trade places with the 60th and talent-wise there would be little difference.

Washington also picks 27th and 29th in the opening round, and McPhee said there could be some movement depending on what happens as the draft progresses.

“We’re flexible,” the GM said. “We could trade up; we could move back a little bit. We’ll react to whatever is going on ahead of us. We think the draft could go all over the place after the seventh or eighth pick. We may be just fine to sit still and make three picks at 27, 29 and 33.”

The Caps got rid of virtually every skilled player last season, paring more then $30million off a roster that once was slightly above $50million. Washington finished the season with prospects, minor leaguers and players snatched off the waiver wire. As a result, the team’s ticket prices for next season were lowered an average of $11.

“[Ovechkin] doesn’t have a flaw in his game,” said Brian Burke, the former NHL director of hockey operations, GM of two teams, player and agent. “He’s very mature for a player his age and concentrates on both ends of the ice. That’s rare.”

Could Ovechkin be ready to play in the league next season?

“He could have played in the NHL last season when he was 17,” Burke said.

Added retired defenseman Calle Johansson, the Caps’ European scout: “He’s a man playing with boys right now.”

Notes — The draft will end tomorrow afternoon after 219 players have been selected. … The Caps are sponsoring a draft day party from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Dave and Buster’s in Bethesda with former players Rod Langway, Yvon Labre, Joe Reekie and Ken Sabourin scheduled to appear. … Three busloads of Caps fans plan to leave early this morning for the draft. The Roadcrew filled two buses, and members of the Caps’ Fan Club filled the other. … The first round of the draft will be televised by ESPN2.

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