Saturday, May 22, 2004

Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee had the unreadable expression of a poker player trying to hide a straight flush.

He was being coy, and when you have the best hand — in this case, the first overall pick in next month’s amateur draft — you don’t want to tip off anyone.

“Have you seen this Russian kid in person?” McPhee was asked.

“Who?” he replied, his expression unchanged.


Who is McPhee trying to fool?

Alexander Ovechkin, the 18-year-old Russian in question, is undeniably the best player in this year’s draft. The Moscow-born wing has an amazing degree of maturity, skill, speed and skating ability. No other player in this draft class or any recent class is even close. In fact, scouts, reporters, agents and other general managers say he is the “total package” — possibly the best player available since Mario Lemieux came out in 1984.

You could get longer odds on Smarty Jones winning the Belmont Stakes than the Caps selecting Ovechkin with the first pick, and yet McPhee has to make it seem plausible Washington might consider someone else when it picks June26 in Raleigh, N.C.

He refuses to discuss individuals because he claims there are so many variables involved. And he might be right.

“The hockey graveyard is full [of can’t-miss prospects],” he said. Eight years ago the Caps took Alexandre Volchkov with the fourth pick overall. He was the best forward available, despite a checkered past, and he was too big a talent to pass on.

They should have. Volchkov played only three NHL games in his career and is now somewhere in the Russian outback playing for a bush league team.

McPhee will preside over what could be the most important draft in Caps history. In a cost-cutting measure, the team sent its most talented skaters to other clubs for a collection of young prospects — some of them still unsigned. The team desperately needs help everywhere — except goal — if it hopes to be competitive next season. That’s why so much attention is being paid to this pick, whether the Caps take Ovechkin or one of the two or three other pedigree picks or make a blockbuster trade.

If they select the Russian wing and he is a bust or a prima donna, the Caps will have wasted an opportunity to get a cornerstone player who can help rebuild the franchise quickly. If he is everything advertised or even shows promise he might be that player someday, the Caps might be well on their way to turning around.

With attendance and on-ice talent both at a trickle and the Jaromir Jagr fiasco in the recent past, the marketing department needs something to sell other than a nameless roster and slightly lower ticket prices. The status of McPhee and his staff also could depend on the outcome of the draft. The general manager, heading into his eighth season, will be a hero if Ovechkin comes close to approaching Lemieux status and could be out of a job if the wing performs below expectations.

Privately, the Caps hope Ovechkin can do for this franchise what Lemieux did for Pittsburgh — create hockey interest in an area badly in need of a positive hockey experience. Lemieux became one of the best players in the sport’s history and was the leader of two Stanley Cup-winning teams.

* * *

How do you assess Ovechkin? Other players have worn the “can’t miss” label and failed miserably. Remember, Alexandre Daigle, Joe Murphy or Brian Lawton? Probably not.

“People don’t understand how difficult the process is,” McPhee said. “You’re trying to predict future performance and behavior, and that’s difficult. But we’re trying to do it with 17-year-olds when we don’t even know how big they’ll be. There are so many elements that make this very difficult. …

“There have been can’t-miss players in the past who missed. We’re trying to be as comprehensive as we can be, evaluating and interviewing, going to the fitness combine to make sure we get the best player. … You can learn a lot in the interviews, get to know the person, the parents, talk to the coach about the player, watch them perform for a year or two. It’s still not an exact science. You make decisions on the best information available.”

When a team drafts a player from overseas, from a culture less open than North America, “the best information” might not be available. There are rumors swirling about Ovechkin as with most premier prospects. Nevertheless, he may be too good not to take a chance on.

He is listed anywhere from 6-foot-2 to an inch taller, weighing anywhere from 200 to 215 pounds, depending on the scouting report, and he is still growing. He is a right-handed shooting left wing who switches to the right side with ease. He is not afraid of giving or receiving contact.

“A superb skater with excellent acceleration and top speed … maintains a fast tempo … very hard to knock down with the puck,” one report reads. “Possesses a strong, precise wrist shot, very quick and deceiving. Possesses a great, precise backhand; his slap shot is very strong with a quick release. Makes very precise passes, right on the stick. Already a very mature player … great awareness of where his teammates are at all times.”

The part of his game that separates Ovechkin from the others is the one that takes place away from the puck: defense. It is the critical part of the game for any coach or general manager and a part so often ignored by top offensive players.

“Ovechkin can be responsible defensively, [but] lapses do occur as a result of his primary offensive approach,” the scouting report states. “Skates well backwards and uses his amazing acceleration to get back into the zone … has been more responsible defensively while playing for the [Russian] Super League’s Dynamo Moscow and the senior national team.”

* * *

Ovechkin’s star shone so brightly last season that Florida tried to draft him four times, claiming there were four leap year dates between the wing’s birthday of Sept.17, 1985, and the Sept.15 draft date, making him eligible. The league ruled — four times, the last in writing — that it didn’t matter.

Hockey drafts players who will be 18 on or before Sept.15, usually with no intention of using them in the NHL for another three or four years, giving their bodies time to fill out and mature. The NFL and NBA draft players three or four years older with the intention of using them right away.

Washington has two years to sign the player it drafts this year, but if the team hopes to earn a return on its investment, it makes sense to sign him immediately.

However, there are stumbling blocks for the Caps this year. To start, there is a threat of an ownership lockout, and no one knows for sure what will happen to the NHL if it comes to pass.

There are other problems. The contract with the International Ice Hockey Federation that governs player transfer fees from NHL teams to European clubs has expired. As a result, Russian teams, suddenly flush with oil and mineral monies as a result of capitalism, want no part of another such deal. They want to deal independently with NHL teams, meaning the fee for transferring the rights for someone like Ovechkin might go from the customary few hundred thousand dollars to several million.

And that’s not all. Ovechkin’s salary, like that of any newly drafted player, will be governed by the rookie salary cap of about $1.3million. However, easily achievable incentive clauses have been known to be in those deals and can help raise a player’s salary. Ovechkin said his goal is to play in the NHL, but if he can’t get the contract he thinks he deserves he might opt for the Russian Super League for two years and then re-enter the draft. He would be 20 and more mature both physically and mentally.

“You never know what is going to happen in evaluations, physical exams and interviews — that’s why we have them,” McPhee said.

Of course, McPhee said he already has been contacted by four teams who want to trade for the top pick, and that number probably will grow.

He still holds all the cards, and he’ll wait a little while longer before he is forced to reveal his hand.

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