- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Washington Capitals drafted a prospect reputed to be the best player available since Pittsburgh picked Mario Lemieux in 1984.

But Alexander Ovechkin, the top pick in Saturday’s NHL Entry Draft, is a mere building block for a team that was razed earlier this year. In a sport that emphasizes teamwork perhaps more than any other, the Caps hope he can be the cornerstone of that rebuilding process. At the moment, however, he is just part of a foundation that needs plenty of more pieces.

The Caps tore up their old foundation last season, an experiment that involved collecting stars rather than concentrating on a team-oriented system. The endeavor cost the Caps victories, money and fans and forced the organization to look toward the future rather than the present.

“We have a lot of young talent, probably as much if not more than any team in the league,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “But we have to be patient and let them grow up together. We can’t hand them experience pills. They need a little time to develop. We’ll be smart about it and build a real good team. But the foundation’s there.”

Still, the Caps have to be careful to avoid the same mistakes other rebuilding franchises made by expecting great things from just one player.

• The Tampa Bay Lightning drafted Vincent Lecavalier with the top pick in 1998 and billed him as the future of the league. Ownership called the 18-year-old “the Michael Jordan of hockey.” That, among other things, placed an intolerable amount of pressure on the teenager, and some league observers claim he has yet to overcome it. It took the Lightning six years to build enough support around Lecavalier to win the Stanley Cup.

• Lemieux entered the league in 1984 and was said to be a combination of Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe. He put up at least 100 points in his first four seasons, but the Penguins missed the playoffs each time. It took seven years for the Lemieux-led Penguins to win a Cup.

So even if Ovechkin is the next Lemieux, the Caps could be on the same timetable as Pittsburgh in terms of producing a competitive team. At the moment, Washington has only 15 players under contract in its entire system, and several of those have never played in the league.

Washington’s first move probably should be to acquire a few veteran free agent defensemen to bridge the gap until prospects are ready to step in.

The Caps also might want to think about getting a good Russian veteran of solid character who can guide Ovechkin and Alexander Semin through their formative years in the league. A player like Igor Larionov comes to mind, but he retired and returned to Russia.

The fans, for the most part, seem to be understanding, but the club may have needed a show of good faith, and drafting Ovechkin was a start.

“I think [the fans] already understand [rebuilding will not be an overnight process],” McPhee said. “I think they understand what we did last year [unloading eight proven veterans], accept what we’re doing now and are thrilled by what we did [Saturday]. We just need to have the collective bargaining agreement settled, and then we’ll do what’s in the best interest of the club once we know what the landscape is.”

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