Ovechkin confident of his arrival

TORONTO -- Alexander Ovechkin stood out among the dozens of top hockey prospects who were milling around the NHL combine on Friday.

It wasn't because of anything he did in the battery of fitness tests, and he was simply a spectator while others were put through the paces.

No, Ovechkin stood out because he seemed like the most relaxed guy in the room.

Almost everyone else was on edge. Cam Barker, a defenseman with the Medicine Hat Tigers and the
second-ranked Canadian Hockey League player eligible for this year's draft, was a good example. Barker was walking stiffly around the halls in a new suit, looking like his starched shirt collar might cut his throat. He and others were busting a sweat just trying to look relaxed.

Meanwhile, Ovechkin was as casual as casual could be. And against a backdrop of conservative suits, he was wearing fire-engine red jeans, matching wrestling shoes and a stretchy t-shirt that looked like it had been painted on. He also had some sort of suspenders -- not on his shoulders, but hanging down loosely -- that must be the height of fashion somewhere.

There's no dress code for prospects at the draft, but if there was, well, a presumptive first overall pick is either exempt from it or gets to write his own. Going red might just have been Ovechkin's way of flaunting it.

While other prospects at the combine looked like they were sitting in a dentist's waiting room, Ovechkin looked like he was waiting for his ride to a party. While a few North American kids were being pushed through combine testing, Ovechkin was catching up with a couple of other Russian prospects, telling them about his trip to Tampa for the Lightning's 4-1 victory over Calgary in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.

He described the experience as "incredible, great hockey, great fans." He also said that he wants to play in the NHL next season.

"It's the best hockey there is and I think I'm ready to play there, wherever I'm drafted," he said. "I talked to Alexei Yashin and Oleg Tverdovsky, and they told me to get that I should go [to the NHL] right now.

"I think that there won't be any problem with the adjustment from the European game to the [smaller] NHL rink. I had a chance to play in North America at the world juniors last year and the ice surface wasn't a problem for me then. We won the tournament. I think that my game is good for either game. It has always been my dream to play in North America and in the NHL."

A lockout threatens to delay Ovechkin's dream becoming reality. Ovechkin, a center, said that if the NHL is shut down, for either the short term or the long haul, he'll return to his team in the Russian league, Moscow Dynamo.

"There are still things that I can work on with Dynamo," he said. "I'd rather be playing there than not playing at all. I always want to be playing hockey. It's what I love. Hockey, hockey, hockey."

Just as he couldn't sneak up on anybody in his red outfit at the combine, he didn't sneak up on any NHL scouts the past two seasons. He established himself at the 2002 Under-18 World Championship in Slovakia by leading the tournament with 14 goals and 18 points in eight games. Since then, he has been touted as the best in the class eligible for the 2004 draft. That's not to say that his game hasn't changed.

The Ovechkin of two years ago was a well-rounded, two-way centerman, unusually sound defensively for such a young player and more likely to share the puck than some of his teammates. But in the time since, Ovechkin has taken a more aggressive tact. He has looked to score more frequently than just creating chances for others.

The last season wasn't the best for Ovechkin. After starring for the gold-winning Russian squad at the world juniors in Halifax two years ago, his team stiffed at this year's under-20s.

Ovechkin has never been in danger of losing his status as the No. 1 at this year's draft. For more than two years, scouts have reckoned that he separated himself from the field. But this winter, Evengi Malkin, another Russian forward, established himself as the clear No. 2. Many scouts believe that through the season, he made significant ground on Ovechkin and sometimes outshone him when they played together for Russian teams in international tournaments.

Said one NHL scout: "Ovechkin has developed into a player like [Atlanta's Ilya] Kovalchuk. Malkin is comparable to Joe Thornton. To scouts, Ovechkin looks like the obvious No. 1 but who do you want to build your team around? What type of player is more important to you winning? Those are the tougher questions."

The rumble around the combine was that the Russian league teams that Ovechkin and Malkin played for this past season might play hardball with the NHL teams that draft the prospects. Agreements between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation lay out specific rules and transfer fees for draftees, but a few Russian hockey officials believe that possession of the player is nine-tenths of the law. They've made life difficult for players and NHL clubs alike.

That's how it played out several times over the past few seasons with some top-ranked Russian prospects. Anaheim had to wait a season while Stanislav Chistov was held up by his Russian league team -- and the Russian army -- after the 2001 draft. Columbus was embroiled in a protracted hassle with another Russian league team over Nikolai Zherdev, selected by the Blue Jackets with the fourth overall pick at last year's draft.

One rumor has Dynamo looking for $3 million to secure Ovechkin's release. It seems farfetched, but any rumors about a cold war over top Russian draftees became a lot more credible when Malkin's team didn't allow him to attend the NHL combine. The team's move could prove pointless. The NHL is negotiating with the International Ice Hockey Federation on a new contract and has told the organization that it will not negotiate a separate player exchange deal with the Russians.

For now, NHL executives are downplaying the chances of a fight over either Ovechkin or Malkin. The Washington Capitals own the first overall pick, and general manager George McPhee wasn't sounding worried at all about getting Ovechkin into the fold.

"I don't think it will be a factor at all at the draft table," McPhee said Friday. "It all comes down to who the best player is. What has to be done to get that player to the NHL when he's ready is going to get done."

Maybe it's true that McPhee and the Capitals have a little more wiggle room on salaries and bonus payouts to rookies, now that the team tossed Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and Peter Bondra overboard. Nonetheless, the ability to sign a first-rounder is a consideration for NHL teams on draft day -- if not the deciding factor, certainly something that's discussed. And if it would be discussed nowhere else, it would be a topic of conversation in the war room of the Pittsburgh Penguins, owners of the second overall pick.

If Malkin's club is looking to squeeze a franchise, it couldn't pick a worse candidate than the Penguins. The salary dumps forced on Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick have been too numerous to count in recent seasons. Even last year's demotion of 2003 No. 1 pick, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, could be put down as cost-cutting and bonus avoidance.

Ovechkin wasn't thinking about any of this at the combine, mind you. If his game resembles Ilya Kovalchuk's, so does his brashness. At one point, a North American prospect (who'll remain nameless) was about to lose his lunch after struggling in the VO2-stationary bike test. Ovechkin was walking by him and said in perfect, unaccented English: "Way to go. Really good." The poor, weary kid looked puzzled and might well have been thinking that crimson-clad Ovechkin was with the Red Cross.

There was no sympathy test at the NHL combine, but even if Alexander Ovechkin put up nothing but zeroes, it wouldn't shake him off his perch at the top of the draft.

Gare Joyce is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine.