Thursday, July 21, 2005

Alexander Ovechkin, a 19-year-old budding superstar on hockey’s world stage, took a huge gamble yesterday, and the Washington Capitals are a much happier and probably much better team because of it.

Ovechkin, potentially the best forward prospect to come out of the draft since Mario Lemieux in 1984, yesterday exercised the “out” clause in his contract with Avangard Omsk in the Russian Super League and hopes to play for the Caps next season.

The 6-foot-2, 212-pound left wing was selected with the first pick overall in the 2004 draft, a pick the Caps won in the draft lottery.

“Yes, it was a difficult decision and one that he put a great deal of time into,” said Don Meehan, Ovechkin’s Toronto-based agent who confirmed that the forward had decided to opt for the NHL over the Russian league.

The decision will be costly, at least for the time being. Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement that is now in the process of ratification, Ovechkin can make $850,000 next season, plus hard-to-achieve incentives in the NHL. In Russia, his tax-free salary was reported to start at $1.8 million, plus bonuses, a car and a condo.

Members of the NHL Players Association are scheduled to vote on the new CBA today, and league owners will vote tomorrow, Day 310 of the lockout. After one canceled season, passage of the CBA with a salary cap is expected.

“We’re still under the restrictions put down by [commissioner Gary Bettman], so I can’t say anything,” Caps general manager George McPhee said when told Meehan had confirmed Ovechkin was leaving Russia.

Negotiations between the Caps and Meehan probably will start Saturday morning and conceivably could be done that day. With tough restrictions in the CBA, there’s not a lot to haggle about.

Ovechkin, who will turn 20 on Sept. 17, has been a standout playing in adult leagues against top Russian competition for the past three seasons. His resume indicates he is a well-rounded player, not an individual who goes just one way. His plus-minus was an amazing plus-26 this season for Moscow Dynamo, the club he led to the league championship.

He was named the top forward in the world junior championships last winter even after he was injured early in the title game against Canada. In five full games, he had seven goals and 11 points.

Ovechkin is the youngest of two children (a third brother was killed in a car accident). His father was a long-time player and coach of the Russian national soccer team, and his mother won two Olympic gold medals playing basketball for Russia.

“They had a very large role in the decision-making process,” Meehan said. “It’s a very close-knit family, so all family members played a role in making the decision that Alex made.”

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