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Author: ALAN ROBINSON (AP Sports)Date: 05/29/2004
Russian superteen Ovechkin seen as NHL's next big star

If Alexander Ovechkin is not the next big deal in hockey, then many NHL scouts may be looking for jobs in a few seasons.

The only question is when the NHL will get its first look at what could be the next Ilya Kovalchuk or Rick Nash, No. 1 draft picks who quickly became big scorers even during one of the lowest-scoring eras in league history.

Ovechkin is universally considered by scouts to be the best player available in the June 26 entry draft and it seems certain he will be picked No. 1 by Washington. At 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, Ovechkin is a power forward who plays physically at both ends of the ice, yet also owns the quick, accurate hands usually possessed by elite scorers.

He also doesn't mind playing defense, which was a mere afterthought to Kovalchuk when he was the first Russian drafted No. 1 overall, by Atlanta in 2001.

"He's a great player, but we are different players," Ovechkin said when asked to compare himself to Kovalchuk. "I like to play defense ... and Ilya cannot play defense."

What delights the NHL most of all is that Ovechkin won't be 19 until September, so his career figures to be long.

Already a star in the Russian Elite League, where he had 13 goals and 10 assists in 53 games this season (the leading scorer on his team had only 30 points), Ovechkin has talked for years of wanting to play in the NHL.

Both parents are well-known Russian sports figures: mother Tatiana played on the Soviet Union's Olympic gold medal women's basketball teams in 1976 and 1980 and father Mikhail was a pro soccer player. But it was Ovechkin's late brother Sergei, who was killed in a 2000 car accident, who introduced him to hockey and helped develop him at an early age.

"The NHL is the best in the world, it has the best players. I love the NHL," said Ovechkin, who insists he wasn't nudged by a publicist to talk so glowingly about the league. "All players, it is a dream to play in the NHL and this is my dream."

However, the pending labor lockout that threatens to shut down the league for all or part of the 2004-05 season could postpone Ovechkin's debut. If so, he will return to his Moscow Dynamo team and wait.

Ovechkin already is preparing for his move to America, lockout or not. He watches TV programs, mostly sports highlight shows, to pick up English, and he is comfortable enough speaking the language that he no longer relies on an interpreter.

He made his first visit to North America last week to watch his first NHL game, Game 2 of the Flames-Lightning Stanley Cup final, and attend a gathering of top prospects in Toronto.

Even after Washington goes through the formality of drafting him -- the Capitals beat out last-place Pittsburgh in the April draft lottery -- he doesn't plan to cut back on the long workdays that helped propel him into Russia's top league at a young age.

"I must work hard, if people say I can be a great player I must work hard and prove it," Ovechkin said. "If it is Washington, I will play hard to help this team."

Ovechkin is so coveted that the Florida Panthers drafted him in the ninth round last year, citing a leap year technicality they argued made him eligible. The NHL disagreed.

This year, Russian players most likely will be drafted 1-2, with teenager Evgeni Malkin expected to be chosen by Pittsburgh at No. 2.

Some scouts believe the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Malkin has closed the once sizable gap between him and Ovechkin, though Ovechkin remains the obvious No. 1. The two were teammates during the world junior championships last winter, and Ovechkin was impressed with Malkin. Malkin won't turn 18 until July 31.

"He is a nice player with nice hands, and he sees all the players," Ovechkin said. "If he sees a player open he gives (the puck) back. I think I'm more physical, but he's a very smart player, he is a very good player, a very nice guy."

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