- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Last season Alex Ovechkin lost his center and mentor at the trade deadline, days after losing his other linemate to injury.

He also admitted yesterday that firing his agent before the season kept him from being in optimal physical and mental shape when the year commenced. While Ovechkin’s production slipped from his rookie year, he still managed 46 goals — good for fourth in the league — and 92 points.

Now the question is: What is a more focused Ovechkin paired with more skilled linemates capable of?

“I will start practice, and I will be in best shape of my career,” Ovechkin said. “Last year I was not in good shape because I fired my agent and I was in shock with the situation. My mind was not good. Right now I feel good. This year has to be better for me.”

While Ovechkin still earned first-team All-Star honors, losing Dainius Zubrus in a trade to Buffalo and Chris Clark to a shoulder injury — which forced Caps coach Glen Hanlon to shuffle his lines — affected his performance. Ovechkin had 19 goals and 38 points in 28 games between November and December. But in February and March, also a span of 28 games, he tallied only 11 goals and 20 points.

After a remarkably consistent rookie campaign, he went through slumps for the first time. Four times he went at least three games without a point. During a nine-game stretch in February, he mustered one goal and one assist.

“Everybody was tired because we lose lots of games,” Ovechkin said. “We still have young team, but we signed experienced guys. They all played in playoffs last year and have lots of experience.”

With the additions of Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov, Ovechkin is assured of playing with two highly skilled players. Coach Glen Hanlon will be able to deploy two legitimate scoring lines, thus keeping opposing teams from always playing their best defensive players against Ovechkin’s unit. Adding Tom Poti as a facilitator on the power play also could boost Ovechkin’s production.

While Ovechkin might not know with whom he will skate until training camp, he certainly was paying attention the past few days while at home in Russia.

“I watch my computer, and I call my friends in Washington constantly,” Ovechkin said. “Every time Washington did something I had people calling me. I am very excited, yeah.”

Nylander noted his family’s familiarity with the area, his relationship with Caps general manager George McPhee and the potential to play with Ovechkin as the reasons he chose to sign with the team Monday.

“Throughout the couple years [Ovechkin has] been here they’ve been developing great. I see even more potential here,” Nylander said. “Of course, Ovechkin is a high profile player in this league, and it is a great opportunity. … It would be fun to play with a goal scorer like Ovechkin, but it is the coach’s decision.”

However, before he signed with the Caps, an Edmonton radio station reported Monday that Nylander was going to sign with the Oilers. While Nylander ended up signing a four-year, $19.5 million contract with the Caps, the Oilers were not happy with the process and reportedly have complained to the league about it.

“On Sunday, July 1, 2007, Kevin Lowe, Oilers general manager, and Mr. Mike Gillis, certified agent for Michael Nylander, negotiated and agreed to a multiyear NHL standard players contract, starting in 2007-08,” the Oilers said in a statement to the Associated Press. “Mr. Gillis confirmed same to the Oilers in writing.

“However, while the Oilers were expecting the returned signed agreements from Mr. Nylander and Mr. Gillis, the Oilers discovered through public announcements made midafternoon on July 2 that Mr. Nylander had subsequently entered into a long-term contract with the Capitals.”

The Caps had no comment about the situation.

Should there be no change in Nylander’s contract status, he likely will pair with Ovechkin on the team’s top line. Nylander has plenty of experience setting up a superstar. He played with Jaromir Jagr both here and for the New York Rangers.

Ovechkin will travel to St. Petersburg later this month to train for the upcoming season. Among the players he will work out with are Alexander Semin, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar, Nashville’s Alexander Radulov and his newest teammate, Kozlov.

“[Kozlov] is tremendous guy. He works hard and is unbelievable player,” Ovechkin said. “He is very funny guy, and he knows what to do. We understand each other well. I think he will be a big help.”

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