One Piece of the Puzzle

Alex Ovechkin
In hockey, forwards like Alex Ovechkin are on the ice fore only 45-second bursts and for a total of 20 to 25 minutes a game. (Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)

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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 5, 2006

The advertisement shows Alex Ovechkin blasting the puck past a Philadelphia Flyers goalie. A one-word slogan accompanies the photograph: "Unstoppable."

Anyone who watched Ovechkin last season would be hard-pressed to argue with that statement. But the ad underscores the main question surrounding the Washington Capitals this season: If Ovechkin is so good, why isn't the team any better?

One explanation is because in hockey -- unlike other sports such as basketball, where a wunderkind like LeBron James sometimes goes entire games without leaving the floor -- elite forwards are on the ice for only 45-second bursts and for a total of 20 to 25 minutes over 60 minutes. Ovechkin, last season's NHL rookie of the year, therefore has far less control over the game's outcome.

"He's a player who individually can do a lot on his own," Flyers General Manager Bobby Clarke said.

But, as Clarke conceded and history suggests, Ovechkin probably won't be able to put the Capitals in the postseason on his own. It takes a star or two, plus a supporting cast, to ensure success in the NHL.

Ovechkin's second season in Washington begins tonight against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and the 21-year-old Russian remains virtually a one-man show, so expectations are only slightly higher for the rebuilding Capitals than last season, when they finished last in the Southeast Division and 27th overall.

General Manager George McPhee made only a handful of modest upgrades during the offseason. The Capitals still lack a No. 1 defenseman and a playmaking center -- two of hockey's most important and expensive roles -- despite a payroll that's roughly $14 million dollars below the salary cap of $44 million.

The team's front office says the plan is to build a contender through the draft and on a budget that makes sense for a team that ranked 28th in attendance last season. Some outside of the organization, however, wonder why majority owner Ted Leonsis is taking such a conservative approach, considering the Capitals already have the franchise cornerstone in Ovechkin and a marquee goaltender in Olie Kolzig.

The formula for building a championship contender is as old as the game itself. The foundation, general managers said, begins with a star goal scorer, a top-tier goaltender, a dominant defenseman and depth. The Capitals have the first two ingredients but little else.

"If you can have a player at each position who is really dominant, that's really going to help you take the next step," Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell said. "With hockey being much more of a team sport, it's harder for an individual to have success without getting some help from his teammates."

Leonsis made a play in July for defenseman Zdeno Chara, a prized free agent, but bowed out of the bidding when it exceeded $6.25 million per season. Chara ended up getting $7.5 million from the Boston Bruins.

"You have to look at what's the right business model," Leonsis said. "We would lose a ton of money if we spent at the cap."


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