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Ovechkin, on verge of 1,000 points, has been well worth the money for Caps

When the Washington Capitals signed Alex Ovechkin to a $124 million, 13-year contract eight years ago, the long-term commitment and first nine-digit deal in NHL history represented a significant risk.

Owner Ted Leonsis and former general manager George McPhee’s concerns were about possible injury. But now that Ovechkin is one point away from 1,000 for his career, he has eased their concerns.

Few players over the past decade have been as durable or productive as the rough-and-tumble 6-foot-3, 245-pound superstar, who hits almost as much as he scores.

“I never had any issues about whether the fire would die,” McPhee said by phone Tuesday. “I never, ever thought he would cheat us on effort because he was such a hard-working kid on the ice. … The only concern was, `What if he gets hurt?’ And that’s everybody’s fear with long-term deals. But in terms of ability and desire, I never worried about that.”

A year ago Ovechkin became the fifth-fastest player to 500 goals, and if he reaches 1,000 in his 880th game Wednesday against longtime rival Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, he’d be the second-fastest active player to that milestone behind Jaromir Jagr, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Crosby, who’s at 982 points in just 740 games, could bump him to down the list very soon.

While concussions interrupted Crosby’s prime, the 31-year-old Ovechkin has never missed more than 10 games in 12 NHL seasons despite countless bumps, bruises and assorted other injuries. He played through a broken foot in the 2013 playoffs, came back with no ill effects from a knee injury in 2014 and battled a back injury on the way to scoring 50 goals (again) last season.

As McPhee put it, Ovechkin “plays through everything.” The now-Vegas Golden Knights GM remembers Ovechkin needing several stitches to close a bad skate cut on the inseam of his leg during a game in Pittsburgh in December 2007 and then surprisingly playing two nights later in Ottawa and scoring four goals.

Former coach Glen Hanlon said Ovechkin at 80 percent is still great, which is why his scoring prowess has continued into his 30s against the trend of most goal-scorers.

“When we signed Alex to the 13-year deal, did we anticipate that he would remain an elite goal-scorer now going into his 30s, and the answer’s obviously yes,” Leonsis said before this season. “We had great confidence in him. What I’ve been surprised at is that he’s continued his physical play and still has remained a great goal-scorer. His durability has really positioned him as a really historic player.”

Ovechkin will become the 84th player to reach 1,000 points, a mark that he said means he’s “getting older.”

“I remember my first year, my first game, like it was five minutes ago,” Ovechkin told The Canadian Press after a three-point night Monday in Montreal that helped the Capitals win their sixth consecutive game. “Time move forward and time move quick, so you just have to enjoy every second and every moment and when you have an opportunity, try to do something special.”

Coach Barry Trotz said it would fitting if Ovechkin would hit 1,000 at home since Washington is on a three-game home stand against the Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. It would be even more fitting if Ovechkin gets No. 1,000 on an overtime goal to pass Jagr for sole possession of the most in history.

Ovechkin has 19 OT goals among his 544 and his production at such a high level for so long has defied convention, especially with the reckless abandon the Russian winger has played with his entire career. McPhee said Ovechkin among maybe only 10 players in the history of the game with the blend of toughness and scoring – like Gordie Howe, Cam Neely and Eric Lindros.

“When Ovi is best on his game, he’s got the unique ability to play a physical game like no other star in the league can,” Trotz said. “He has the ability to shoot the puck as good as anybody who’s ever played the game, and he can be a force. He has those two elements.

“When he’s imposing his will, he’s skating, he’s using his big frame to be a hard guy to handle. When he’s got all those things going, he’s very, very unique. There’s not too many guys in the league that have all those elements.”

 

Penguins shouldn’t rush to replace Bonino

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

Nick Bonino was an important player for Pittsburgh the past two years. So when he signed with Nashville on July 1, it was natural for Penguins fans to want an immediate replacement.

But for GM Jim Rutherford, finding a new third-line center may take some time. The Penguins might even start the season without knowing who it will be.

What Rutherford wants to avoid is panicking and being forced into a mistake. All the other general managers are well-aware of what he needs. He’s probably been thrown a few anvils already.

“There’s a couple of guys I could acquire right now,” Rutherford told the Post-Gazette on Wednesday. “I feel like there’s another group of guys that could possibly be available here soon. Kind of just waiting to see if that happens. Something could happen in the very near future or this could drag on for a little while.”

If nothing is done by the start of the season, the Penguins could give someone like Jake Guentzel a chance to take over Bonino’s role. Or, if they’d prefer to keep Guentzel in the top six, maybe a youngster like Daniel Sprong or Zach Aston-Reese would be game to try, at least on a temporary basis.

It should be noted that Rutherford has proven a savvy mid-season trader. In 2015-16, he brought in Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley, a couple of veterans who played big roles on the way to a Stanley Cup title. And then, last season, he acquired Ron Hainsey, who likewise played a key part in a championship.

Perhaps owing to that experience, Rutherford says he’s more comfortable waiting to unearth a solution than “trading for somebody where I’m not sure whether they can help us or not.”

In fairness, it’s not easy to just replace a productive third-line center whose salary was a bargain. The Penguins had Bonino for a cap hit of just $1.9 million, and he turned his time in Pittsburgh into a four-year, $16.4 million deal with the Predators.

One potential target that’s come up in speculation is the Maple Leafs’ Tyler Bozak, who just so happens to be Phil Kessel‘s good friend and former center.

Bozak, 31, has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent, a status that naturally lends itself to trade speculation.

But with a $4.1 million cap hit, making room for Bozak could be a challenge for the Penguins. And on top of that, the Leafs are bound to ask a fair bit for a guy who had 55 points (18G, 37A) last season.

That’s why it’s so hard to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in today’s NHL. The Penguins were lucky to bring back mostly the same roster last season.

Things will be different in 2017-18.

Related: Matt Murray discusses the ‘new look’ Penguins

Tavares says ‘no rush’ to sign extension with Isles

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John Tavares keeps saying all the right things about his future with the New York Islanders.

But that doesn’t change the fact he still doesn’t have a contract extension in place.

Tavares, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, spoke with Newsday yesterday, telling the newspaper he was in “no rush” to sign and that he’s comfortable to just “let the process run its course, keep the lines of communication open, keep it all internal.”

It’s been reported that the Isles’ uncertain arena situation could be complicating matters. It’s still not clear where the team will call home for the long term.

On that topic, Tavares chose to avoid making any definitive statements.

“The possibility with Belmont and that RFP coming out, there’s great potential there,” the 26-year-old said. “We’ll see where it goes. A lot of those things are out of my hands. Some things I don’t try to worry about them too, too much. I’m just a hockey player. I try to be as best prepared as I can be. It’s a big decision obviously because it’s eight years of my career, really entering into my prime years and a great opportunity for myself to achieve what I set out to achieve when I was a kid, making it to the NHL, wanting to win a Stanley Cup and wanting to do that with the Islanders.”

There’s more in the interview, including his thoughts on the Isles’ offseason moves. Click here to give it a read.

Tavares also spoke with Newday about the thumb surgery he had in April. All’s well on that front, according to the captain.  

“I felt I didn’t want this reoccurring and the recovery time was only six weeks,” he said, “so it was the right thing to do once the season ended.”

Related: Tavares open to signing contract extension this summer

Under Pressure: Derrick Pouliot (again)

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For the second straight year, Derrick Pouliot is our pick for the Pittsburgh player under the most pressure heading into the season.

Perhaps we should just focus on someone else, but the Penguins gave the 23-year-old defenseman a one-year contract extension in July. The eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Pouliot knows time is running short to prove Pittsburgh didn’t make a big mistake.

It should be compelling to watch how he fares.

“I’ve got to make an impact right away and show that I belong in the NHL,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “It’s been three years now. I haven’t fully established myself yet. I want to take it one step at a time and build as the year goes on.”

Pouliot felt he had a strong finish to his AHL season, and perhaps that will help his confidence heading into camp.

But it’s worth noting that he’s no longer exempt from waivers. So unless he earns a spot, that could mean a change of scenery, with the Penguins either losing him for nothing or trading him for pennies on the dollar.

Pouliot could feasibly crack the opening roster as Pittsburgh’s eighth defenseman, behind Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Chad Ruhwedel and new addition Matt Hunwick.

He could then languish on that roster until an injury gives him a chance to play.

The first step, though, is coming into camp and building off the back half of last season.

“For me to establish myself as an NHL defenseman, a regular guy in the lineup, it’s kind of playing how I ended the season: solid defensively, consistent in that regard,” Pouliot said, per the Tribune-Review. “That’s been one thing that’s always been brought up about me, inconsistency. So I think it’s starting with that and building each game.”

Looking to make the leap: Zach Aston-Reese

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

With a number of departures from a roster that won back-to-back Stanley Cups, it’s imperative that the Pittsburgh Penguins get a push from some of their prospects in 2017-18.

One of the top candidates to earn a regular spot is forward Zach Aston-Reese, a 23-year-old who just wrapped up an impressive career at Northeastern University.

Aston-Reese signed with the Pens in March, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow undrafted NCAA products Chris Kunitz and Conor Sheary.

In a twist, Kunitz is one of those departed players that Aston-Reese may help replace.

“He was a college free agent, too, and kind of a goal scorer his last couple years in college,” Aston-Reese said of Kunitz, per NHL.com. “Just made a career for himself playing with good guys and being able to put the puck in the back of the net.”

Aston-Reese scored 31 goals in 38 games for the Huskies last season, making him a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

But despite all the accolades, he knows he’s still just a prospect, with a lot left to learn, and a lot left to prove.

“Whether we start up top or down in Wilkes-Barre, I think it’s important to be in the same mindset that, you’re trying to get better every day you show up to the rink,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “If we do get that opportunity, we need to have a good mindset, produce and do what they ask of us.”