No top pick for Pens, but No. 66 plans to play

PITTSBURGH -- Losing the NHL draft lottery means that the Pittsburgh Penguins probably won't have Russian star Alexander Ovechkin when they next take the ice.

Coach Eddie Olczyk will happily settle for the player the Penguins drafted the previous time they finished last in the NHL standings: Mario Lemieux.

Lemieux, the Penguins' owner and Hall of Fame player, gave Olczyk every indication Tuesday that he will play next season, barring a lockout that would shut down the league. Lemieux missed all but 10 games this season with a hip injury.

Unlike last year, when the Penguins didn't confirm until late summer that Lemieux would play, Olczyk talked openly about what having Lemieux next season will mean.

"Getting Mario back, that's going to fill a void in the way teams play against us, the way teams coach against us," Olczyk said.

The Penguins were 3-4-3 until Lemieux was hurt Nov. 1 -- not a championship pace, but one much better than their final record of 23-47-8-4.

"Again, people don't realize that early in the season when Mario was in the lineup, teams were matching lines, they were changing up," Olczyk said. "That's such an important part to our club and makes us so much better, makes us so much deeper."

Without Lemieux, the Penguins were challenging the franchise record for fewest victories in a season, 16. But a 12-5-3 finish gave them hope that their transition from expensive veterans to lower-priced younger talent was beginning to take shape.

"I saw Mario this morning and we had a nice little discussion, and my perception was he's extremely excited about how we finished," Olczyk said. "He's not only our best player and my boss, he really likes what we did and how we improved."

Apparently, so much so that Lemieux is already planning to return next season, when he'll be 39. Lemieux, who has not talked to reporters since November, did not attend the team's season-ending news conference Tuesday.

No doubt the Penguins would have loved to play Lemieux and Ovechkin together; general manager Craig Patrick called Ovechkin "head and shoulders" above anyone else in the draft. But there is no assurance that the team that drafts Ovechkin will be able to sign him quickly or cheaply.

The player-transfer agreement between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation expires at the end of this season, and the Russian elite league may not take part in any new agreement.

If an NHL team is forced to negotiate with the Russian league for Ovechkin, it might take months -- and, conceivably, lots of money, which the Penguins don't have -- to do a deal.

That's why the Penguins were quick to backpedal after Washington won the lottery, thus assuring Pittsburgh the No. 2 pick. Chief scout Greg Malone said the media sometimes "gets on the bandwagon with a certain player, and it's not even the best player in the draft."

Only this time, Malone's boss is already on record as being on that Ovechkin bandwagon.

"Am I disappointed? No," Olczyk said of settling for the No. 2 pick. "We're going to get a real good player, whether that player is ready now or in a few years from now."

Some scouts consider Russian center Evgenii Malkin the next-best player available. Six-foot-3, 185-pound Malkin had a goal and four assists in six games during the world junior championships; Ovechkin had five goals and two assists.

One worry for scouts: Malkin recently missed about a month of play for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian Superleague with a concussion.

Other prospects who could go in the top five are Czech forward Rostislav Olesz and Kyle Chipchura, a center for Prince Albert (Western Hockey League) ranked No. 1 among North American forwards by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau.