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Friday, February 22, 2008
Is Ovechkin poised to be the next Gretzky?

By Scott Burnside and Damien Cox
ESPN.com

Editor's note: In our "Friday Face off," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!

This week's topic: Is Alexander Ovechkin poised to be the new Gretzky, the player all the others will be chasing for years to come when it comes to goals?

Scott Burnside: Hello, Damien. Have you stopped working on the fallout from that massive Jaroslav Modry-for-a-third-round pick deal that rocked the GMs meetings in Naples, Fla.? I was looking at the stats the other day and saw that Alexander Ovechkin, running away with the goal-scoring lead, is the first player since Jaromir Jagr did it more than a decade ago, to score 40 goals before the end of January. Is Ovechkin poised to be the new Gretzky, the player all the others will be chasing for years to come when it comes to goals? Is he that good?

Alex Ovechkin
Alexander Ovechkin has 48 goals and 30 assists in 61 games for the Capitals.

Damien Cox: In goes Modry, out goes Jim Vandermeer; Peter Forsberg isn't coming and now he is; and poor Simon Gagne's season is over. Crazy stuff in Philly these days, man. It's funny, but wasn't it just last season that Ovechkin looked like an unhappy puppy in Washington? While Sidney Crosby surged to his first MVP title, Ovechkin seemed unable to keep pace with his former rival. Now, with Crosby out, Ovechkin is looking like he's gunning for the Hart Trophy. I guess the moral of the story is that every NHL season is a bit different. What makes guys like Bobby Orr, Gretzky and Mario Lemieux special is they didn't do these things once or twice, it was year after year after year.

Scott: I'm not sure if you saw the Capitals' lineup last winter, but I think I might have an inkling of what was bothering Ovechkin. While Crosby looked around and saw Ovechkin's buddy Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone, Ryan Whitney and the playoffs looming, Ovechkin saw a bunch of empty seats and little hope. And he still had 46 goals and 92 points. He has a better supporting cast now (something Orr, Gretzky and Lemieux after the first couple of years in Pittsburgh always had). Plus, I'm not sure there's a player who plays with more enthusiasm than Ovechkin, and I'm not sure we can always say that about the game's great talents like Mr. Lemieux, Jagr and others.

Damien: I'd agree Ovechkin's effervescence is definitely back, and that's great stuff for the NHL. I think what's needed here, at a time when goal scoring has yet to return to where it was immediately after the lockout, and with NHL general managers declaring war on goalies again this week, is for Ovechkin to shoot for the moon and do something special. If you're like me and you're tired of the same 3-2 games night after night, a 70-goal scorer would be truly welcome. Yep, you read that right. Seventy, not just 60.

Scott: We often hear people bemoan the lack of a dynastic team, a team that captures the imagination of the hockey world. Do you think a single player can have that effect? We all know Crosby has proved himself to be special early on, but his high ankle sprain is going to cost him back-to-back MVP awards and league scoring titles. But if Ovechkin got to 60 or 65, do you think that would be some sort of catalyst to great excitement that transcends the normal?

Damien: Nope. Not while he's in Washington. I know that won't make the millions of Capitals fans across the world happy, or owner Ted Leonsis, or GM George McPhee, but the fact is, having Ovechkin not only in D.C. but in the Southeast Division just isn't going to afford him the profile he deserves. At least not in the near future.

Scott: But wouldn't you have said the same thing about Pittsburgh before Crosby arrived? Doesn't one player have the potential to change an entire franchise's profile as long as the team keeps pace even a little as the Caps are? Trust me, I'm not all that popular with Caps fans after having suggested on more than one occasion during the Pittsburgh sale problems that Washington was among a handful of NHL cities that deserved to lose their teams ahead of Pittsburgh. But fans have slowly started to respond to what the Caps have done since coach Bruce Boudreau took over. Don't you think if the Caps make the playoffs, with Ovechkin leading the way, that attention will be directed their way?

Damien: In an ideal world for the NHL, I think Crosby would have landed in New York or Chicago or Philadelphia or Toronto. Pittsburgh, however, is not bad, and the league has done a decent job of promoting that team and Crosby as a vehicle to heightening awareness about the NHL in general. I just don't see Washington as the same, even if the Caps can start making the playoffs and start making some noise. Don't forget, they did get to the Stanley Cup finals back in 1998, and it ended up meaning absolutely nothing to the franchise. As well, while Ovechkin has undeniable charisma, selling non-North Americans to Americans and Canadians is heavy lifting. Always has been.

Scott: Come on! Didn't you love that Ovechkin/Leonsis commercial with the chip vending machine from last season? Agreed, I remember covering the 1998 finals in Washington and you had to look high and low for any evidence there was an NHL franchise in town, let alone one in a championship series. I think maybe you've hit on the real issue, though, the Euro factor. I think if there is one player who is capable of breaking down those barriers, whether it's language or perception or personality, Ovechkin might be the guy to do it. It's strange, no? Some of the game's top players, at least in recent memory -- Nicklas Lidstrom, Jagr, Miikka Kiprusoff, even a guy like Peter Forsberg -- they've all been eclipsed in terms of profile by players like Patrick Roy, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Gretzky et al. Is the reason just the language or is it something a little deeper, perhaps less savory, like reluctance to embrace the foreign element?

Damien: I don't think it's unsavory. And many of these Euros you speak of are enormous stars and heroes in their own markets. But when you're looking for something bigger, a star to transcend the sport and the league, that's a different thing. Language is sometimes an issue, and many European NHLers aren't even in North America year-round. During the lockout, most headed home. Ovechkin may, in fact, be the exception. But while his English is far better than my Russian, I'd say it would have to become flawless -- like Maria Sharapova's -- if he is inclined to become a greater commercial force in North America. Is it wrong to say that?

Scott: No, I don't think it's wrong, I think it's understandable. You know as well as I that there are many European stars whose discomfort with the language, and hence the media, will always be an obstacle to seeing them become known beyond the hockey world. It's one of the great challenges facing the NHL and the NHLPA and the teams given that close to 30 percent of the league's players hail from outside North America. But I was chatting with someone who knows Ovechkin quite well, and he said the impressive thing about Ovechkin is that he seems to get it. True, he doesn't have Sharapova-like command of the language yet, but I think he might get there and he has embraced the whole North American lifestyle. And he's done it while maintaining the respect of his teammates, without going Hollywood, as it were.

Damien: At the same time, my friend, you can't deny that if he were in a more significant, higher-profile NHL market, he would be a much, much bigger star than he is already.

Scott: Maybe. Do you think, for instance, Ovechkin would have had the impact in Chicago that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have had this season? The Blackhawks had the biggest crowd ever at the United Center last weekend. Would the fans have been there if Ovechkin were doing what Kane and Toews are doing in terms of the team's renaissance, or would it be different?

Damien: Sure. In Chicago, it's as much a team thing as it is coming out to see the stars. Just getting some home games on TV has raised the team's visibility, and don't forget, this was a truly great hockey city not so long ago. So, yeah, if Ovechkin's a Hawk, he's a much bigger deal, bigger than Kane or Toews. Again, for Ovechkin, it's the double whammy of being in Washington and the Southeast Division, a group filled with teams struggling to reach their local markets, let alone anything bigger.

Scott: I'm not sure I agree. The fans in Chicago have latched onto Kane and Toews pretty specifically. I was there in December and there were 3,000 fans lined up on Michigan Avenue on a cold Saturday to get their autographs. Would they have been lining up for Ovechkin? One likes to think so, but I'm not so sure. One thing is for sure, the Caps will have to make the playoffs before we'll really get a sense of just how big Ovechkin could be and just how important he might be to the league down the road.

Damien: I also think there's a disconnect with Ovechkin's home country, Russia, which may be for a variety of reasons, including that country's disinterest in being part of a comprehensive NHL player-transfer agreement. But look at the NBA and Yao Ming and the way in which the league has used Yao as a bridge to the Chinese market. That, in turn, seems to have fueled Yao's popularity and profile in North America. The hockey worlds, on the other hand, seem separate, and so there's no sense of players being personas on a larger world stage. The league's determination, with your blessing, to exit from the Olympics won't help. (Sorry to bring up past arguments.)

Scott: I knew we'd get around to it being my fault. It'll be interesting to see just how big Ovechkin has become by the time the 2010 Olympics roll around. Who knows, maybe he's the kind of guy who could wield enough star power to help close the gap between the twin solitudes of the NHL and Russia and save the NHL's participation in the Olympics for you. Until next week? Now, you'd better get back to that Modry/Vandermeer opus. The hockey world awaits.

Damien: Modry, Vandermeer and Burnside. Sounds like a moderately successful law firm. Glad to see we were unable to solve anything at all for a 43rd consecutive week. Next week: Who won the trade deadline? Until then, watch for falling trees in Atlanta, dude.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."