Three months of mystery and speculation ended Saturday when the Washington Capitals used their No. 1 overall pick in the NHL entry draft to select Russian forward Alexander Ovechkin, heralded by scouts and general managers as the best prospect since Mario Lemieux.
Ovechkin, 18, could play on Washington's top offensive line next season, providing an instant boost to a team in need of help at every position except goaltender. Ovechkin is the second Russian-born player chosen first overall; Ilya Kovalchuk was taken by Atlanta in 2001.
A 6-foot-2, 212-pound right-handed-shooting left wing, Ovechkin topped nearly every team's list as the best player available -- a fact evidenced by how often Capitals General Manager George McPhee's cell phone rang in the days and hours leading up to the draft. McPhee said he fielded inquiries from at least 15 teams, three with serious offers, including one Saturday morning. But it wasn't enough to dissuade him from hanging onto the pick, which was the first of the seven selections Washington made at RBC Center.
"We were lucky to win the lottery, and then to have a player of [Ovechkin's] ability sitting there," McPhee said. "He was number one on our list. He makes the difference in the big games."
Ovechkin said he wanted to be number one.
"If you are second, you are second. If you are first, you are first," Ovechkin said. "I always want to be first. My mom and dad always said [whether] you play hockey or football, you always want to be first."
Ovechkin's youth and relatively low cost also fits with the direction the Capitals have undertaken since trading away eight established players last season. That wide-ranging salary purge yielded returns late in the first round when they picked two defensemen: 6-6, 212-pound Jeff Schultz (27th overall) and 6-1, 198-pound Mike Green (29th). Washington acquired Schultz's pick from Boston in the Sergei Gonchar deal on March 3 and Green's pick from Detroit in the Robert Lang swap on Feb. 27.
With the 33rd pick, Washington took Chris Bourque, the 18-year-old son of Hall of Fame inductee Ray Bourque. The younger Bourque is a 5-7 ½, 170-pound center from Cushing Academy (Mass.) who has committed to Boston University next season.
"Not too many people are going to live up to the name Bourque," Chris Bourque said. "If I have half the career my dad had, I still will have had a pretty good career."
The Capitals also selected Russian winger Michail Yunkov (6-0, 180 pounds) with the 62nd pick and Finnish defender Sami Lepisto (6-0, 176 pounds) 66th overall. Then they made their only trade of the day, swapping next year's third-round pick to Dallas for this year's 88th, which they used to grab 6-2, 205-pound defenseman Clayton Barthel. McPhee said it was the only swap the Capitals contemplated Saturday.
While the Capitals must hope the players drafted after Ovechkin develop into NHL regulars several years from now, they are certain they got one star who will begin shining immediately.
"This is my fifth draft, and I haven't seen any consensus around the number one pick in those five years as I saw with this pick," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. "Time will tell whether this was the right decision, but right now it feels pretty good. When he stood next to me [on stage], I honestly could feel his heart pumping, which is what everyone has been saying about him -- his engine runs at higher RPMs."
Ovechkin is a powerful skater, skilled stick-handler, committed defender and doesn't shy from contact in the corners. Last season he was dominant at times while playing for Moscow Dynamo of the Russian Super League, widely regarded as the second-best league in the world behind the NHL.
Ovechkin also has been tapped to play for Russia in the World Cup, which features the best NHL players. The last 18-year-old to play in that tournament was Eric Lindros of Team Canada.
Although the large contingent of Capitals fans at RBC Center roared their approval for choosing Ovechkin, it may be a while before they see him in a Washington jersey. Commissioner Gary Bettman gave no indication Friday that there has been progress in negotiations with the players' union toward a collective bargaining agreement. The current one expires Sept. 15, and an owners' lockout is expected to disrupt next season. On top of that, the player transfer contract between the NHL and International Ice Hockey Federation also has expired. Russian hockey officials want no part of a new deal -- instead they want to negotiate independently with NHL teams, a move that could cost the Capitals millions of dollars for Ovechkin's rights.
McPhee and Ovechkin's agent, Don Meehan, expressed optimism this weekend that getting Ovechkin, who is under contract to Dynamo for another year, in a Capitals uniform won't prove too difficult.
McPhee, however, said he will not be in a rush to sign Ovechkin, who likely will earn the rookie maximum of $1.3 million dollars per season for the next three years if he is signed under the current bargaining agreement. Performance bonuses could allow him to earn several million more.
"There's some uncertainty regarding the CBA, so we'll wait until that becomes clearer before we make some decisions," McPhee said. "Same goes for the IIHF. It's our understanding that the league is working with the IIHF to get an agreement, and we're hopeful that, by September, both things will be taken care of. And then we act."
Washington will make six more picks Sunday, when rounds four through nine are held beginning at 9 a.m.