Saturday, August 6, 2005

The Washington Capitals yesterday cemented into place one of the building blocks they hope will lead the club consistently deep into the playoffs.

The Caps have come to terms on a three-year contract with left wing Alexander Ovechkin, the budding Russian superstar who, according to independent scouts, might be the best European forward ever to play in the NHL.

There was no indication when the contract actually would be signed. Calls to Don Meehan, Ovechkin’s agent, were not returned.

Terms were not announced but Ovechkin, drafted first overall in 2004, comes under the rookie salary cap in the old collective bargaining agreement. It is believed he will make an annual base salary of $984,200 and receive a yearly signing bonus of about $320,000. He also will be paid for reaching various plateaus, earning bonuses with the ceiling possibly as high as $4million.

“Alexander is an incredibly gifted young player, and we are excited to have him join our club,” said Washington general manager George McPhee. “He has played at an elite level for several seasons and is ready to prove himself in the NHL. We look forward to having him in a Caps uniform for many years. He has an infectious style of play and displays an exciting combination of speed, finesse and power.”

Washington won the right to select Ovechkin by finishing with the third worst record in the league during the 2003-04 season, then winning the draft lottery. The team was so confident about its chances of winning the lottery that it didn’t even have a representative present when the lottery was held.

Ovechkin, the son of prominent Russian sports figures, had signed a contract to play this season for Avangard Omsk in the Russian Super League but had an “out” clause whereby he could leave without penalty to play for the Caps if the NHL and the players’ association reached labor accord. They did, and the 19-year-old exercised his option July20. Had he stayed, he would have doubled his money, making $1.8million this season tax free, plus a condo and car.

Washington now appears to have two-thirds of an explosive offensive line in place. Besides Ovechkin, the Caps have another highly skilled Russian wing in Alexander Semin, who last season elected not to report to Portland, Maine, in the American Hockey League and decided to play in the Super League for Lada Togliatti, where he was among the team leaders. He was suspended by the Caps for failure to report, a meaningless gesture because it was not enforced by the Russians.

What the Caps need is a creative center who can draw the best out of the two wings. Washington has Dainius Zubrus returning, but he is a converted right wing and might not be creative enough for the pair. In his favor, he speaks fluent Russian and would have no problem communicating.

Another problem might be which player plays where. Both Ovechkin and Semin are right-handed-shooting left wings, but both have been described as versatile individuals who can adjust. It is a problem a lot of coaches would love to have.

“I have spoken to Zubrus and Semin,” Ovechkin told the Caps yesterday. “They say Washington is a wonderful city and there is a great atmosphere around the team. I know the rest is up to me.”

Ovechkin had been on every team’s radar for years because of his talent, his ability to play both ends of the ice willingly and his leadership on and off the ice. He has been playing for Dynamo Moscow in the Super League since the 2001-02 season, when he was just 16, and last season led his club to the Russian championship.

The wing was named the best forward in last year’s World Junior Championship in North Dakota, collecting seven goals and 11 points in the five full games he played. He suffered a shoulder injury in the first period of the championship game against Canada and played only one shift in the second period before retiring to the bench.

All told, Ovechkin missed 23 games last season for Dynamo Moscow because of the injury and appearances in tournaments with Russian national teams but still had 13 goals and 26 points in the top European league, where scoring is much tougher than the NHL. He was among his team’s leaders in goals, assists and points.

In the 2005 IIHF World Championships in Austria he led Russia to a bronze-medal finish with five goals and eight points, both team highs.

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