Tuesday, July 11, 2006

HERSHEY, Pa. — Alex Ovechkin, the face of Washington Capitals hockey almost from the moment he arrived from Moscow nearly a year ago, soon may add another laurel to his growing collection.

Ovechkin yesterday appeared to have the solid backing of coach Glen Hanlon to be Washington’s next captain. The title has been vacant only since Wednesday, when captain Jeff Halpern accepted a free agent offer from Dallas.

Hanlon’s endorsement came during the first day of rookie camp at Giant Center in Hershey. Washington also announced defenseman Shaone Morrisonn agreed to a two-year contract paying $900,000 a year and said center Nicklas Backstrom, the team’s top pick (fourth overall) in the June draft, had decided to stay in his native Sweden next season.

Ovechkin has been in the NHL just one season but has built a solid reputation as a talented, hard-working forward whose only interest is winning. His standing among other players in the league was clearly illustrated when he was one of the top three finishers for the Lester B. Pearson Award, the players association selection as the league MVP.

Ovechkin’s leadership qualities were praised before he arrived in the United States. He had been a leader on his Russian teams and was captain of the Russian national junior team.

The only drawback to being an NHL captain could be his age; the left wing turns 21 on Sept. 17. Only Vincent Lecavalier of Tampa Bay was a younger captain at 19 years, 11 months, and he was a co-captain. The next youngest was Detroit’s Steve Yzerman at 21 years, 5 months.

“The real question is, is Ovechkin ready to do it?” Hanlon said to a small group of reporters yesterday. The coach said “the process has already started,” implying the matter had been under discussion among team officials.

Hanlon cited examples, such as what Calgary did before naming Jarome Iginla its captain by having a substitute temporarily fill the role until Iginla got older.

“Or do you do what we did when I was in Detroit with Yzerman when we had [numerous candidates], yet they named Yzerman captain at 21 and they just worked with him,” Hanlon said. “That’s my thought process, [but] the final decision hasn’t been made.”

Morrisonn was easily the most improved player on the team last year, starting the season as something of a question mark and finishing as the team’s most dependable defenseman. Hanlon said it was almost a situation in which the 23-year-old had no choice but to improve.

“It was an opportunity where we were trying to develop players, and that certainly helped,” Hanlon said. “A lot of guys got the opportunity. It was up to them to be able to handle it. Morrisonn did.”

Morrisonn was Boston’s first pick in 2001 and was traded to the Capitals in 2004 with two draft picks for Sergei Gonchar. He made $669,000 last season and filed for salary arbitration before reaching an agreement.

Backstrom’s decision was not what the Caps wanted. They were counting on the playmaker to move in immediately and center one of the top two lines. Center Kris Beech benefits most from the Swede’s decision to stay home.

“Nicklas feels that he needs another full year of development before coming to the NHL,” general manager George McPhee said. “He would like to do what [Ovechkin] did and come over as a 20-year-old. We appreciate that he was decisive, and we respect his decision.”

There were reports last night the Swedish national hockey federation put pressure on Backstrom to stay home.

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