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One Piece of the Puzzle
Alex Ovechkin is a once-in-a-generation talent, but as an NHL forward, he's off the ice more than he's on it. Last season, he averaged 21:37 per game.

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."

Ovechkin's name often is mentioned alongside Mario Lemieux's. They were drafted first overall exactly 20 years apart, and both won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie while playing for last-place teams.

Lemieux continued to languish on bad teams in Pittsburgh as the Penguins slowly brought aboard key players, such as Paul Coffey, Tom Barrasso and then Jaromir Jagr, who was drafted in 1990. Then, the following year, GM Craig Patrick acquired Ulf Samuelsson, Grant Jennings and Ron Francis in a blockbuster trade with the Hartford Whalers. That spring, the Penguins went on to win the first of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.

"The [best] process has always been to add better players as you go along," McPhee said. "Focusing everything on one player has never been how it's worked. It can't be done overnight, at least not effectively."

Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon, a former NHL goaltender, concurred.

"You can build a team around one player, but you can't win a championship with one player," Hanlon said. "You need support players, but you have to have that great player. Look at all the dynasties: Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, they all had help."

So when is help going to arrive for Ovechkin?

"You have to get to the hump before you can get over it," McPhee said. "We'll add the right pieces at the right time. We'll have to see when that time comes, whether it's late this season or early next season."

In other words, for the foreseeable future, Hanlon must work with what he has been given, which outside of Ovechkin, Kolzig and the new additions Alexander Semin, Richard Zednik and Brian Pothier, isn't much in terms of proven NHL talent.

After examining several options, Hanlon said he decided the best way to maximize his team's potential is to spread out his skilled forwards over two lines, rather than stacking his three most potent offensive threats on the same line. By spreading out the talent, Hanlon hopes to make it more difficult for opposing teams to concentrate on stopping Ovechkin.

"I know the fans want everything structured around Ovie," Hanlon said. "But it's not that easy. You have to look at how everything trickles down. If you put your best guys on one line, where do you go from there? Who comes up next? Who kills penalties? It's way more complicated."

One way Hanlon can get Ovechkin on the ice more is to dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen, which would allow the coach to use his star on more than one line.

Ovechkin said he understands management's plan and is content, for the moment, to patiently watch it unfold.

"I feel our team must not build around me," Ovechkin said. Because of the size of the rebuilding project, "we must grow up together."

He quickly added: "It's not my job to build team. My job is go to ice and play hockey. We have great people in our organization, and they know what they do. My work is score goals."

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