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Penguins Inside the NHL: Think Fleury pick was special one? Just wait until next year

Sunday, June 29, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Big a deal as it was for the Penguins to land Marc- Andre Fleury in the NHL Entry Draft eight days ago, it might be even bigger if they end up with the top pick again in 2004.

Just ask Fleury.

"Oh, man, he's really good," Fleury said, shaking his head. "He does everything. He shoots, passes, hits, backchecks ... just everything."

The player of whom he speaks is Russian right winger Alexander Ovechkin, and Fleury is far from the only one to use offer such a superlative description.

"Everything that you've heard about him ... he's all that and probably more," said Mark Kelley, the Penguins' European scout. "He is special, just special."

How special?

Kelley wants no part of any comparisons between Ovechkin and any prospect drafted in the two decades before the time Ovechkin will be taken. Not even Eric Lindros of 1991.

"No way," Kelley said. "Lindros was as good a prospect as you could want in terms of size and talent, but he never had the passion for the game that Ovechkin has. Not even close."

So, who was the last player to impress Kelley this much?

"You have to go back to 1984."

Mario Lemieux.

Ovechkin is a potent package. He is 6 feet 2, 200 pounds, and not timid about using his frame in workmanlike fashion, delivering crushing checks or dropping to block shots. But he is no grinder. Scouts already feel he has a better collection of speed, skill and poise than other Russian standouts at the same age such as Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny. He is compared by some to Ilya Kovalchuk, except that he has far superior passing ability and no issues with defense.

His numbers from the past season support the reviews:

He had eight goals and eight assists in 40 games as a rookie with Dynamo Moscow in Russia's Superleague, which traditionally is low-scoring. The numbers were considered amazing for a 17-year-old among older professionals.

He had six goals and an assist in six games at the World Junior Championships for players 20 and under in January, registering hat tricks against the United States and Switzerland before helping Russia past Fleury's Canadian team for the gold medal.

Four months later in the World Under-18 Championships, competing against players closer to his age, he had nine goals and four assists in six games as Russia won bronze.

"One of the funny things about Ovechkin is that it's often hard to gauge how good he is because he has played way above his age group for the past three years," Kelley said. "Well, at the Under-18 tournament, he was with his own, and he just dominated."

The consensus at the draft in Nashville last weekend was that Ovechkin would have been chosen first had he been eligible. And that almost was the case. He was born Sept. 17, 1985, two days after the cutoff date to be part of the 2003 draft class.

An indication of the eagerness with which Ovechkin alreayd is coveted was the Panthers' strange ploy last weekend to try to take advantage of this close-call birthday.

Florida General Manager Rick Dudley attempted in four different rounds to draft Ovechkin, arguing that, if leap-year dates were taken out of the equation, Ovechkin actually would turn 18 four days before his recognized birthday and thus have been eligible for 2003. The NHL rejected the Panthers all four times, but the league did comply with Florida's request to make the final one in writing. This way, if it is ruled that the Panthers were in the right, they could justify a claim on Ovechkin.

Dudley said team management hatched the idea a month ago, and he acknowledged its limited chance at success.

"It's a long shot," he said. "But, if it's a viable long shot, we would be a very happy crew because he's a special player."

The Penguins would figure to have as good a crack as any team at Ovechkin next year, given that they will employ perhaps the youngest and cheapest lineup in the NHL. But not even the worst record in the league will guarantee them the first pick. Each of the past four years, the worst team has failed to get the pick because another team won the draft lottery and moved up.

This much is certain: The team with the No. 1 pick next year will not be trading it away.

Icy chips

From one No. 1 to another: Alexandre Daigle, the top draftee in 1993, advises the Penguins not to use Fleury next season: "Why would they do that? Really, there's no reason. They've got plenty of good goaltending. Just wait."

Lorne Molleken, new man on Eddie Olczyk's staff, offered a hearty thumbs-up for the team's second-round draft pick, tough winger Ryan Stone: "He's an in-your-face kid who can score. Kind of a Scott Hartnell type."

Pascal Vincent, Fleury's coach in Cape Breton, on his other player drafted by the Penguins, seventh-round center Stephen Dixon: "Great pick for Pittsburgh. He was our No. 1 skater, a terrific scorer. He carried our forwards."

Doug Shedden, one-time king of the garbage goal in Pittsburgh, is moving up after a successful run in the low minors. The Maple Leafs have hired him as head coach of their AHL affiliate in St. John's, Newfoundland.

Add the Coyotes, Mighty Ducks, Sharks and Kings to the growing list of teams instituting rookie camps in the summer. They will conduct a joint tournament in California in early September. The Penguins, despite all their young talent, still have no such plans.

Who should stay and go when the NHL deadline to qualify free agents hits at 11:59 p.m. tomorrow: Put Ramzi Abid, Milan Kraft, Matt Bradley, Rico Fata, Dick Tarnstrom and Sebastien Caron in the stay file. Put Daigle, Kent Manderville, Hans Jonsson, Jamie Pushor and Shawn Heins in the go file. Put Joel Bouchard, Ville Nieminen, Richard Lintner and Mathias Johansson in the stay-tuned file.

One possible rule change making rounds in hockey circles is designed to prevent goaltenders from roaming too far to play the puck. Johan Hedberg, one of the NHL's smoothest at the skill, balks at this: "That's not the right way. Reduce our pads if you want. Don't tell us we can't play our position."

Hedberg said he has a gut feeling Lemieux will return, based on a chat they had three weeks ago. He is not the only one close to Lemieux who feels this way. The answer should be known this week, no later than Friday.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.

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