Saturday January 12th, 2008

It wasn't the $124 million that was so slap-you-in-the-face shocking. There are two players in hockey who deserve to back the truck up to the vault, and Alexander Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals sensational 22-year-old winger, is one of them.

It's not even all that surprising to see barrels of cash handed out in a league that was crying poor prior to and during the lockout. Even after tossing around that kind of jack, there isn't an NHL owner out there who has to worry about the cable bill this month. And fighting against the pull of logic, there are indications the cap will go up again next season, just as it has every year since the end of the lockout. Despite more than a few empty seats, business is good, my friends. And the way things are going, Ovechkin could be looked upon as something of a bargain in the not too distant future.

So it wasn't the $124 million. It was the other number. Thirteen. As in the duration in years of this staggering, game-changing deal. And, amazingly, it was done that way at the team's behest after a six-year deal was all but finalized.

If you're a Caps fan, you have to love owner Ted Leonsis for living up to his word and going all in. He didn't just handcuff himself to a player who could challenge Sidney Crosby to define his generation. Leonsis locked in a talent magnet, one of those charismatic athletes that other stars, especially those with championship aspirations, gravitate towards. With their centerpiece all but guaranteed to retire a Cap, this is a deal that firmly asserts Washington as a franchise with a legitimate path to success.

But it's also an overlong agreement through which the Capitals assume all the risk and one that, with a single bad break, could doom the franchise to a decade of irrelevancy.

Think about it. Thirteen years. By the time Ovechkin's term in Washington expires in 2021, Americans will have elected four presidents. Canadians might sit enthralled as testimony before the Royal Commission Exploring Why We Didn't Win Gold at the 2018 Olympic enters its third, riveting year. Shoot, Chris Chelios might even have retired. Point is, a lot can happen in 13 years.

Odds are, most of it will be the sort of legend-making heroics that will stir the masses and turn Caps tickets into Redskin-like hot commodities. Because if anyone can provide consistent value for the money into his mid-30s, it's Ovechkin, who's already crafting his Hall of Fame credentials just 200 games into his career.

Of course, I said the same thing 13 years ago about Eric Lindros.

The strike-shortened campaign of 1994-95 was Lindros' third with the Flyers. A first overall pick like Ovechkin, he quickly emerged as the game's ultimate combination of size, speed and skill. He was on his way to his first Hart Trophy and authored 114 goals and 242 points in his first 172 games. It was just a matter of time before the Next One usurped the throne of the Great One.

Pretty easy to imagine that if their places had been switched and Lindros was leveraging the suddenly power-packed potential of today's restricted free agency, it would have been a no-brainer to offer him the same kind of contract. And we all know how well that would have worked out over the second half of the deal.

Limited to a shorter term though, it would have been a winner. Over the next five seasons, Lindros solidified his place among the game's elite, becoming an All-Star Game regular and providing full value for the dollar with his scoring and robust physical presence.

But after losing the entire 2000-01 campaign to the legendary open-ice hit laid on him by Scott Stevens, Lindros's career began slipping away. He played parts of five more seasons, before retiring last summer to join the NHLPA staff.

And that's why the term, not the dollars, seems so unnecessarily risky. It's hard enough to plan for next season, but eight, 10, 13 years down the road? You're feeling around in the dark, just hoping not to smash your shin into the end table. And honestly, if his play and the economics dictated that he deserved more than $10 million per over the second half of the deal, would there be any chance the Caps wouldn't act appropriately? Of course not.

All that said, if you're going to give that kind of deal to anyone, you want it to go to the guy who's the first to arrive for practice and the guy who turns the lights out when he leaves. A kid like Ovechkin, who inhales hockey and exhales joy, won't approach the game any differently now that he's scheduled to make almost enough to buy his own club.

One thing that will change is his notoriety in the sporting world. When you're the game's highest salaried player, people who might not otherwise notice you tend to pay attention.

Hey, maybe Leonsis knew what he was buying after all.

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