Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The “agreement in principle” reached yesterday between the NHL and its players may have come too late for the Washington Capitals to get Alexander Ovechkin under contract for the season.

The talented left wing, just 19 years old and already considered a superstar in his native Russia, signed a one-year deal to play this season with Avangard Omsk in the Russian Super League. Ovechkin played last season with Moscow Dynamo and led that team to the league championship. He was named the top forward in the world junior championships and also played in the senior world championships.

Ovechkin has the standard language in his Omsk contract — an “out” clause if the NHL returns and he signs with the Caps. But according to the terms of the contract, Ovechkin must sign with the Caps by Wednesday or spend the season with the Russian team.

Time is not on the Caps’ side. While the NHL’s new collective-bargaining agreement awaits ratification by both sides, the restrictions laid down by the league when the lockout started remain in effect, meaning contact between teams and players or their agents is forbidden. The Caps can’t contact Ovechkin or Toronto-based agent Donnie Meehan until after the CBA is approved, and the chances of that happening before Wednesday are remote.

Washington general manager George McPhee said yesterday he has talked to Meehan only once, when the agent “made a courtesy call” a few weeks ago to inform him of Ovechkin’s pending contract with Omsk. He confirmed the dates in question “to the best of my knowledge” but said he had seen nothing in writing because of lockout restrictions.

The Caps selected Ovechkin with the first pick overall in the 2004 draft. The player was billed as potentially the best European-born forward ever to head for the NHL, and he has lived up to all the club’s expectations. He was the star of the team’s postdraft party, greeting each guest with a bow, a warm handshake and “hello.” (The Russian teen speaks limited English.)

Washington planned to rebuild its team around players like Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Jakub Klepis. But unless the ratification process proceeds at a much faster pace than the CBA negotiations did, it may have to start rebuilding without its cornerstone.

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