Hockey's Next Big Thing is not really that big--a hair under 6'2"
and perhaps 185 pounds. He has a thick body and soft hands, a
nose for the net and feet quick enough to get him there. The only
part of Alexander Ovechkin's game that needs work is his
birthday. The Russian wing was born on Sept. 17, a date that
turned out fine for Ken Kesey, Hank Williams Sr., and Charles III
the Simple of France but is a hindrance for a player earmarked
for NHL stardom. Ovechkin, 17, came into the world two days
late--Sept. 15 is the demarcation line that determines eligibility
for the NHL draft--so he'll have to wait until June 2004 for some
team to select him. "If he had been born on Sept. 14 instead of
Sept. 17," says Hakan Andersson, director of European scouting
for the Detroit Red Wings, "he might be going Number 1 this year,
Ovechkin has enough to occupy him until that day 20 months hence
when he gets to pose for those grip-and-grin draft-day photos.
He's studying to be a border guard at the Military Institute in
Moscow, even though it's unlikely he'll ever need to do a day's
work checking passports in Pogranichnyy. He also is playing for
Dynamo Moscow in the Russian pro league, literally a boy against
men. Through Sunday he was doing well, with nine points in 16
games. When Ovechkin plays against other boys, he's
overwhelming. In early September he led all scorers in the Four
Nations tournament, which featured the best junior players
(under 20) from the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden.
He had six goals in three games, two more than the entire
Swedish team, even though he was the youngest player in the
field. Ovechkin will be a sideshow, if not the whole show, at
the World Junior Championships in December in Halifax, Nova
Scotia. Nineteen-year-old players generally rule the worlds, but
Ovechkin could be the first 17-year-old to dominate the
tournament since Wayne Gretzky did so in 1978.
"Ovechkin has what hockey people refer to as Russian skills,
which are distinct from Swedish or Czech skills," says Christer
Rockstrom, a European amateur scout for the New York Rangers.
"Russians stickhandle a lot, handling the puck in traffic well.
And they're explosive. But he's not like [Boston Bruins left
wing] Sergei Samsonov, who scores by stickhandling. And he won't
be circling like [Pittsburgh Penguins right wing] Alexei
Kovalev, looking like a ballerina, waiting for the perfect play.
There's more of a Canadian approach that Ovechkin combines with
those Russian skills. He's not reluctant to shoot. He already
has an NHL-caliber shot, and he uses it--wrister, slap shot,
one-timer. He knows how to go high on a goalie."
Ovechkin knows how to aim high courtesy of his mother, Tatiana,
who was a two-time Olympic gold medalist in basketball, having
played for the Soviet championship teams at the 1976 and '80
Games. Assuming NHL players participate at the '06 Olympics in
Torino, Alexander might be precocious enough to gain a spot on
the Russian team and give the family a gold medal hat trick.
"The only thing you wonder about for such an early developer is
if he will keep developing," says Andersson. "If he does, he'll
be a superstar. He's not as flashy as Ilya Kovalchuk [the
fabulous second-year left wing of the Atlanta Thrashers], doesn't
go side to side like him, but inside the blue line he's just as
effective. And he knows the game. You'd see Kovalchuk hanging
around the blue line waiting for the puck, and you'd think that
he was lazy. Not with Ovechkin. You never have the sense he isn't
At that border school Ovechkin is learning to check papers. After
2004, the papers will be checking him.
COLOR PHOTO: IIHF PHOTOS ALEXANDER THE GREAT At 17 Ovechkin holds his own against men in the Russian pro league and dominates other teenagers.
COLOR PHOTO: JIRI KOLIS/BBS (BOX) Zherdev
According to SI's Pierre McGuire, here are the five best
junior-age players (besides Ovechkin) who have yet to be drafted.
Pos., Player, Team Skinny
1. F Nikolai Zherdev, CSKA Moscow Explosive, with outstanding
hands; may be No. 1 pick in
2. RW Milan Michalek, HC Budejovice Smart two-way player; fine
passer; power-forward type
3. C Nathan Horton, Oshawa Generals Physical player, with a big
shot; could play in NHL next
4. D Braydon Coburn, Portland At 6'5", reminds scouts of
Winter Hawks Zdeno Chara, but is better
5. RW Dustin Brown, Guelph Storm Pure scorer, but needs to
improve play in defensive