The sky of the modern NHL shines brightly with many young stars. Players like Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Paul Stastny, Pavel Datsyuk, and Jordan Staal are some of the fresh faces that hockey fans are getting to know via highlight reel footage on their local sports news program.
Amidst all of these burgeoning studs, there’s one young player whose skill and playing style places him at the top of the pile. Just like the actual night sky has Polaris (the “North Star”), which shines more brightly than any other star, the NHL’s “sky of youthful talent” has a Polaris as well. Sit down, Sidney Crosby, I’m not referring to you. The best young player in the NHL (and best overall skater since Mario Lemieux, in my opinion) is obviously the dynamic and prolific Alexander Ovechkin.
Ovechkin was drafted 1st overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2004 entry draft, but didn’t skate in his first NHL game until the next year as the 2004-’05 NHL season got locked out. Before being drafted, Ovechkin had been projected as the 1st overall pick for two years, and was billed as the next Mario Lemieux. Out of sight and out of mind due to the locked-out season, many hockey fans, including myself, forgot all about the coveted young Russian sniper that the Caps had landed… but not for long.
After the lockout, most hockey fans were focused on the pending draft lottery that would give a lucky team the opportunity to draft another projected superstar, Sidney Crosby. Crosby had been touted as much, if not more than, Ovechkin was prior to being drafted. Canadians, easily the most devoted and knowledgeable ice hockey fans, saw “Sid the Kid” as their next Wayne Gretzky-an athlete that would dominate “their” game and restore their historic reputation as the country producing the most talented ice hockey players.
As it turned out, the Pittsburgh Penguins wound up winning the lottery to draft Crosby, which they promptly did. Two years earlier, these Penguins had chosen Evgeni Malkin, another highly touted Russian star with the second-overall pick following Washington’s selection of Ovechkin. Crosby’s ability was apparent as he jumped right into the NHL game with a great deal of fanfare and attention, and his presence, along with Malkin (who was literally smuggled out of Russia to play his first NHL season after the locked out ’04-’05 campaign), instantly returned the struggling Penguins franchise to relevance and respectability.
Over the past three seasons, as most ice hockey pundits and announcers (many of which happen to be Canadian) have drooled over and praised the play of Crosby, Ovechkin’s game and presence has been gaining momentum like a snowball rolling down a mountain slope. The son of former professional soccer player Mikhail Ovechkin and two-time Soviet basketball Olympic gold-medalist Tatyana Ovechkin, Alexander’s play, even in the sleepy market of Washington D.C., was demanding attention. He broke the record for most shots on goal by a rookie in the ’05-’06 season with 425, and set the record for points by a Russian-born NHL rookie with 106.
However, it was an unbelievable goal (since dubbed “The Goal”) scored on January 16th of the 2006-2007 season that catapulted Ovechkin into the awareness of hockey fans everywhere. Driving to the net against the Phoenix Coyotes, Ovechkin got checked to the ice in the slot. Sliding on his back across the slot, Ovechkin hooked an incredible blind shot past Coyotes keeper Brian Boucher with the blade of his stick. One of the most incredible goals in hockey history by many accounts, Ovechkin began solidifying his title as the best player in the NHL.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are many young players in the league with ability that is comparable to Ovechkin’s. However, none of these fresh stars-not Malkin, Kane, Staal, and especially Crosby-plays the game with the intensity and edge that Washington’s number 8 brings to the ice every shift. As with most NHL superstars, Crosby and the others are great for a clutch goal, lightning skating speed, incredible passing, and superb ice vision. Unlike the other superstars, however, you can count on Ovechkin for a huge hit, a spirited fight, and defensively responsible play.
Sidney Crosby has built a reputation for crying to the refs after being obstructed or taking a cheap shot on a play; Alex Ovechkin has built a reputation for taking numbers and effectively handling his own business on the ice.
Although Ovechkin has Donald Brashear for protection, just as Crosby and Malkin have the fierce Georges Laraque in the Steel City, Ovechkin often protects himself with a physical, hard-nosed game seldom seen in players of his caliber. He skates like a young Eric Lindros, only Ovechkin’s offensive ability is much more dynamic than the hulking Lindros’s was.
Watching the Washington Capitals this season has provided the treat of seeing Ovechkin fly around the rink every shift he is on the ice. Every time he gets control of the puck, it seems like something magical is about to happen. He picks up a head of steam in a heartbeat, and goes coast-to-coast for scoring chances almost at will. This isn’t to indicate that Ovechkin is a glory-hounding stat hog; he often uses his status as the most dangerous player in hockey to draw the defense’s attention and thread a pass to Alexander Semin or Nicklas Backstrom for an easy tap-in goal. It’s no accident that he currently leads the league in two of the three scoring categories with 65 goals and 112 points.
Consider that for a moment… 65 goals! That’s a Washington Capitals record, boys and girls. He’s 22 years old, and it seems like his game improves exponentially with each passing season. He’s the first player to put the biscuit in the basket 60 times in an NHL season since Lemieux did it as a seasoned vet in the ’95-’96 NHL campaign! By the way, there’s two games left to play and it’s not unrealitstic to consider the possibility that this kid could get five more for an even 70.
Whether or not the upstart Capitals, who are in the playoff race after a dreadful, coach-firing start to this season, make the post-season this year, Alex Ovechkin should easily be the league’s Hart Trophy winner for MVP. Some hockey pundits are penciling in Malkin as the MVP, likely due to his ability to carry the soaring Penguins to their division lead in the absence of a frequently injured Crosby (and, perhaps, also due to his proximity to “Golden Boy” Sidney Crosby), but this option is giving the award to a less valuable skater based on the performance of a team that is much more talented overall.
I’ll say it one more time…Alexander Ovechkin is the best hockey player in the NHL today. There are many excellent choices in young, talented players to follow and revere, but for me the choice is easy. I want the guy who will beat you in the stat sheet and against the boards. I want the kid that gets so excited for every goal, you’d think he never scored before. I want the player that takes over games and wills a sub-par club into the “W” column.
Give me Alexander Ovechkin any day of the week.