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Saturday, June 26, 2004
Russian picks hang in contractual limbo

By Jim Kelley

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Predicting Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin would be selected first and second in the NHL entry draft was the easy part.

The two Russian-born players were rated well ahead of the prospects eligible for the 2004 talentfest. Both are tagged as franchise players with the kind of offensive skills that left scouts salivating and general managers rubbing their hands in anticipation.

Getting them into the National Hockey League? That could be much more difficult.

"There's a lot of uncertainty regarding the collective bargaining agreement and the IIHF and the league," said George McPhee, the general manager of the Washington Capitals and the man who'll negotiate an NHL contract with Ovechkin. "I know the league is working to get an agreement [on both counts] by September, and if that's the case ..."

McPhee didn't finish his statement, largely because he can't.

The troublesome issue for both McPhee and Pittsburgh Penguins GM Craig Patrick, the man who drafted Malkin, is twofold: The NHL's collective bargaining agreement with the players' association expires on Sept. 15, and it's unlikely a new one will be in place before the scheduled start of next season.

In addition, the expired agreement between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation that governs transfer fees paid for players leaving federation member teams to play in the NHL looms large. In past years, teams needed only to come to terms with the prospect, pay the agreed upon fee (reportedly $200,000 for a first-round pick) and buy the kid a plane ticket. With negotiations for a new agreement under way, the Russians are making not-so-veiled threats about not participating unless the fee is substantially increased and funneled directly to the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, instead of being placed in a pool and distributed among IIHF member federations. The Russians reportedly are seeking in excess of $1 million for a player of Ovechkin's ability.

The NHL and the IIHF are attempting to negotiate an agreement that includes Russia. A failure to do so could lead to chaos, especially if the NHL starts its season on time next year.

Compounding matters is that a new CBA likely will include a more restrictive salary scale for entry-level contracts. But what the dollar amount will be is anyone's guess, which makes signing Ovechkin before a new CBA and IIHF agreement are in place an adventure into the unknown.

Asked whether he would attempt to negotiate directly with the Russians, either in absence of an agreement or the absence of the Russians' participation in one, McPhee said, "I can't answer that. All I can say is that we will do what's in the best interest of our organization and the league."

Not surprisingly Ovechkin, a left winger, and Malkin, a center, both downplayed the hurdle. Malkin said it was of no concern to him.

"My current contract has a specific clause that says I'm free to go to the NHL anytime I wish," he said through a translator. "That does not concern me. There probably is a transfer fee, but I am free to leave."

Patrick said that he did not know that to be the case but that "we're looking into it."

Ovechkin was not nearly as specific. He said it was his dream to play in the NHL and he had dreamed of being taken No. 1 overall for the last three years, but he was cautious about his future and the possibility that there might not be NHL hockey next season.

"If there is a lockout, I will play for [Moscow] Dynamo," he said. "If no lockout, maybe I will be here, we'll see."

Thorny issues aside, there's little doubt the NHL would like to have both players appear in an arena near you -- and as soon as possible.

Ovechkin is an extraordinary talent. Former Florida Panthers general manager Rick Dudley called him "the best player I've ever scouted," and several scouts have said he could be the best Russian-born player in the history of the NHL. Despite his age, he's already been named to Russia's entry in the World Cup of Hockey.

He has size (6 feet 2, 212 pounds), speed, outstanding first-step acceleration and a natural goal scorer's ability, and he doesn't mind playing in traffic. He also has a desire to be the best.

"It was very important to me to go No. 1," he said. "If you are No. 1, you are No. 1. And if you are No. 2, you are No. 2.

"I always wanted to be first. My parents said hockey or football [soccer], whatever it is, always try to be first."

Ovechkin said that he didn't pattern his play after any one player but that he did admire three NHLers -- Mario Lemieux, Jarome Iginla and Owen Nolan. He said that he liked Nolan's physical play and that he was a "strong" hockey player. He likes Iginla's ability to score goals and Lemieux because "he's a superstar and everybody likes his game."

Malkin said he is at least a year away from participating in NHL competition, but didn't completely rule out playing next season. A flashy center, he won't turn 18 until the end of July. While he's a boy among men, he plays up to the competition.

"I need some strength and muscle mass," said the 6-3, 186-pound center. "I don't think I'm ready. There is always a chance."

There is indeed, but you would be hard pressed to get anyone to tell you if it's a big chance or a small one -- at least not until there's a new CBA and transfer agreement in place.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.