Jim Kelley
Thursday March 6th, 2008

If you truly are judged by the company you keep, then Alex Ovechkin needs to get a custom tailored suit, a hand-crafted pair of shoes, his own limo -- complete with driver -- and perhaps a private jet.

After all, when you are preparing to enter one of the most exclusive clubs in sports you don't want to emulate PacMan Jones pulling up to the Cheetah Club.

The Washington Capitals left winger is on the cusp of entering the NHL's 60 goals club, a room so exclusive that it holds a mere 16 members and hasn't had a welcoming reception since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr visited the old haunt back in 1996. Should Ovechkin get there, he will join fellow homelanders Pavel Bure and Alex Mogilny as the only Russians to make it along with a handful of NHL legends, the majority of whom have achieved single-name status.

Gretzky and Bossy dropped in a record five times each. Lemieux and Esposito each showed up four times. Hull (Brett, not Bobby) made three appearances, and Yzerman and Kurri each did it twice. Among the one-timer with Mogilny, Bure and Jagr are Steve Shutt, Guy Lafleur, Luc Robitaille, Teemu Selanne, Bernie Nichols, and Denis Maruk.

It's all somewhat new for Ovechkin, who had a stunning NHL debut with 52 goals in his first ever NHL season. He "slipped" to 46 last year, but has come roaring back by scoring his league-leading 53rd and 54th on Wednesday in a 3-1 triumph over Buffalo in a game with playoff implications for both clubs. That followed his three-goal performance two nights earlier against Boston (he potted all three in the first period of a 10-goal outing for the Caps). That effort brought Ovechkin to and beyond the 50 mark. He also had a goal in a surprising loss to Toronto two nights before that.

Ovechkin's mini-burst ended a seven-game goal-less slide, his longest of the season and the only misstep in what has otherwise been a relentless march to the top of the goald and points listd and an assault on the team-record held by Maruk (60 goals in 1981-82, three years before Ovechkin was born).

The run has been all good for the Caps who have gone 16-8-3 since the midway point of the season, moving from 14th place in the Eastern Conference to within two points of a playoff berth and three of the Southeast Division lead. Ovechkin has had three hat tricks this season and in two of those outings he posted four goals. The run has him on track for a chance to become the highest scoring left winger in history, bettering Robitaille's mark of 63 set 15 seasons ago with the Los Angeles Kings.

Ovechkin could also become the first player in NHL history to garner three major awards in a single season: the Hart Trophy (MVP), Art Ross (points) and Maurice Richard (goals) though we must point out that the Richard wasn't around until well after Gretzky, Lemieux and pretty much everyone else in the 60-goal club had left the game. In addition, fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh may still have a say in who wins the Ross. Either player will be the first Russian player to do so, and perhaps only the second to win the Hart, a feat accomplished by Sergei Fedorov, who became Ovechkin's teammate at the trade deadline last month.

Ovechkin is, for lack of a better cliché, a goal-scoring machine and he makes no apologies for it. He's not much on the defensive side of the game and no one would accuse him of having the overall skill set of Gretzky, the puck-handling talents of Lemieux, or even the lightning-like release of Bossy or Hull. But put him over the blueline with the puck on his stick and the odds are the rubber will find its way into the net.

"If you don't shoot, you never score goals," Ovechkin said in a recent conference call after he passed the 50 mark. He shoots a lot and is likely to lead the league in that category just as he's done the previous two seasons. He also plays big, showing a physical talent in the corners, the ability to run over opponents when necessary and even has something of a mean streak in that he's not afraid to use an elbow to drive home a point as to who gets what space on the ice.

He's always been that kind of player -- willing to both play hard and put on a show. Intensity is in his makeup, but a part of his drive this season is fueled by the fact that the Caps have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since they made him the league's first pick in the 2004 Entry Draft. Ovechkin did seem to lose some interest down the stretch last season when the Caps had no hope of contention. This time, after starting badly and enduring a coaching change, they are in the hunt and Ovechkin seems to have developed a taste for the kill.

"The last two years, we didn't play for something," he said. "We started thinking about vacation. It's more interesting when you play for something."

The playoffs are the noteworthy goal, but even if the Caps miss, Ovechkin isn't likely to slow this time around. It could all come apart in the last 15 games. Though he has shown himself to be durable, he does have a reckless style, one that lends itself to injury. Malkin, with the help of Sidney Crosby, could still outgun him for the scoring crown and there's an argument among old school hockey types that claims you can't be the league's best player if you can't get your team to the playoffs (something that shouldn't hold merit in a 30 team league). The Caps are still outside the playoff eight.

Yet, Ovechkin has emerged as the NHL's greatest performer, one of a small group that has been showered with riches this season and he has still lived up to the value of his staggering 13-year, $124 million contract. He's a player who clearly loves the stage and his place on it. Should he crack the 60-goal mark and carry the Caps to the playoffs, there will be no doubt.

Much has been made of the question of whether Adam Foote threatened to be a "bad teammate" if he was not traded from Columbus to Colorado at the deadline. I don't make much of it because it was a negotiation: Foote, who deserves his respect in this league, wanted a two-year extension at $4 million for each, a cut of some $600,000 per season. The Blue Jackets offered $3.5 and when neither side would budge, the team honored his trade demand. Since Foote had a no-trade clause, they had to accomodate his wish to go back to the team with whom he had much of his success.

No argument from here. Foote stuck by his position. So did Columbus. Both sides accomplished something out of the options they had left. That's what a negotiation is meant to do.

But contrast that with what Chad Kilger has done. A nondescript forward, Kilger balked at being traded from the also-ran Toronto Maple Leafs to the also-ran Florida Panthers (even though going to Florida meant an automatic pay raise via the tax structures between the two areas). Kilger asked for a leave of absence for "personal reasons" and the Panthers gave it to him with pay.

But after Kilger went back to Toronto, he hasn't been seen or heard and now the Panthers have suspended him without pay. They are within their rights. By refusing to get off the fence, this Chad has left the Panthers hanging. If he doesn't honor the terms of his contract and report, they are out the third-round pick they sent to Toronto in the deal.

This isn't the first time that Kilger has asked for and received a leave for "personal reasons." The Leafs gave him a five-game pass earlier in the season. No one is talking about what's going, and with a wife and three young children, Kilger may have some legitimate reasons for not wanting to report to Florida. We should also take note of the words of his agent, Larry Kelly, who said Kilger's situation is "strictly a matter of personal anxiety." That's a definite red flag.

Still, the Panthers have rights, particularly to expect a player to honor his contract. When Kilger's personal leave time ran out and the team didn't get a clear-cut response as to why he wouldn't report, they exercised their right to fine him.

The difference here is that Kilger appears to be quitting on his new team before he's even arrived. There may be extenuating circumstances, but his silence doesn't really give enough clout, and the fact that Toronto GM Cliff Fletcher is on record as saying there are no issues that he was, or is, aware of that would cause Kilger to not report makes this matter a lot different than the issues that separated Foote from Columbus.

"We've had one playoff win in 10 years. Ownership is angry. We're tired of losing and want to win."

Those are the words that Tim Leiweke, then-president of the Los Angeles Kings and still the right-hand man to owner Phil Anschutz, used in justifying firing Dave Taylor as GM. Two years later, the Kings are the worst team in the NHL, destined to finish last overall. Meanwhile, Taylor has hooked on with the Dallas Stars and that team as gone from mediocre to Stanley Cup contender. Not saying it's all Taylor, but exactly why did he get fired and if the Kings can explain that, how do they explain to their fans why they've managed to get worse instead of better?

Since Dean Lombardi, the man who replaced Taylor, is known to be a good hockey man with a proven track record, one might think that the problem lies with Leiweke and Anschutz.

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