RALEIGH, N.C. — The Washington Capitals now own the rights to Alexander Ovechkin — “simply the best player on the planet not already playing in the NHL,” in the words of one independent scouting service.
The expected announcement came from general manager George McPhee 12 minutes past noon yesterday in RBC Center, the first pick of the annual NHL Entry Draft. It took the Russian left wing nearly five minutes to make his way to the stage after pausing to hug a few dozen people near his seat.
Ovechkin was only the third No.1 pick for the Caps in their 30-year history. Their first, Greg Joly, was a bust; the second, Rick Green, was a defensive gem.
Ovechkin (6-foot-2 and 210 pounds) is projected to be a “dominant world-class player” by a scouting service, Red Line Report, which cuts few individuals a break in assessments. He will turn 19 on Sept.17 and already has played for more than two seasons with Dynamo Moscow in the Russian Super League, where youngsters are far and few between.
“It is very important to be No.1,” Ovechkin said in halting English after he was picked. “My mom and dad always said to try to be first. If you are second, you are second; if you’re No.1, you’re No.1.”
Ovechkin said it was “my dream for maybe two years” to be in the NHL and he “was ready to give my heart [to Washington].” He admitted to being surprised and impressed by the warm reception from several hundred Caps fans in the building.
There was no disputing his selection as the best player in the draft. But, there are dozens of “can’t-miss kids” who missed.
“Time will tell if this was the right decision,” said Caps majority owner Ted Leonsis, who beamed over the selection.
But Ovechkin is only a start; the Caps have to rebuild the core of the team after last season’s sale of proven veterans in an effort to trim a bloated payroll.
“We have so much work to do [on rebuilding that] we were entertaining trade [offers],” Leonsis said. “Some teams made offers to us and while they were good, [we] felt we should build around this kid and the youth we have in the system.”
Acknowledging there were three serious offers and about a dozen inquiries concerning the top pick, McPhee noted, “You don’t get a chance to pick in that spot very often. We were lucky to win the lottery and lucky to have a player of that ability sitting there. He was on our list as No.1 for a long time.
“He’s an elite player with great character, and we hope he’s going to be the type of player that plays hard and makes the difference in the big games, ultimately in the Stanley Cup Finals.”
Ovechkin carries himself with a great deal of self-assurance, backing reports that he is mature beyond his years. Except for a few language problems, he had no difficulty dealing with a large press contingent, almost always wearing a smile across a face that already shows the ravages of a few close encounters on a hockey rink.
The youngster has been compared to budding Atlanta superstar Ilya Kovalchuk — “only with a great work ethic and a much better attitude. A terrific all-around player, as complete a prospect as we’ve seen in the last 10 years,” Red Line Report said.
Others have said he is the best talent available since Mario Lemieux was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1984 and might be the best player ever to come out of Russia.
Asked about the latter claim, Ovechkin replied, “I try,” seemingly embarrassed that the subject came up.
Leonsis conceded that the team probably erred in the recent past, trying to build through the star system.
“I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve learned that hockey is really a team game,” he said, managing to avoid mentioning Jaromir Jagr. “While there are parts that are special in their own way, I want to market the Washington Capitals. Our team needs to be a team, and this kid is a real team player.”
The challenge now is to sign him. Ovechkin’s agent is Toronto-based Don Meehan, one of the giants in the business and an easy man to deal with. But the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union expires Sept.15, as does the NHL agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation over transfer payments.
Ovechkin and Meehan would be bound by the current rules but only up to Sept.15, and nobody is sure what happens after that. The Caps will own the rights to Ovechkin for two years, so signing him immediately is not a critical priority legally but probably would make a difference to the club’s marketing department.
Taken second by Pittsburgh was center Evgeni Malkin of Magnitogorsk, the first time in NHL draft history that Russians went 1-2.