Dainius Zubrus

‘Worth the price of admission’: Ovechkin made presence felt in NHL debut

GR8NESS: OVI’S CHASE FOR 700: As Alex Ovechkin approaches 700 career NHL goals, PHT is going to examine all aspects of his goal-scoring prowess. We’ll break down and provide context for his amazing stats, project if he can top Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894, and take a look at his most important goals.

It was puck watching at its finest. Alex Ovechkin’s first NHL goal came due to an incredibly bad defensive breakdown by the Blue Jackets. 

As Dainius Zubrus skated toward the corner, four Blue Jackets were caught watching the puck, all while the Capitals rookie phenom waited between the circles. What happened next was goal No. 1 by a future Hall of Famer.

The debut of a ‘special player’

Oct. 5, 2005 was an historic night for the NHL. All 30 teams played on the same day for the first time in league history, a big way to return after the season-long 2004-05 lockout. Ovechkin made his debut for the Capitals and we saw the first ever regular season shootout when the Senators beat the Maple Leafs 3-2.

For Blue Jackets goaltender Pascal Leclaire, that night was meaningful as well. It was the first time in his young professional career that he began the season in the NHL. The No. 8 overall pick in the 2001 draft spent parts of three seasons with AHL Syracuse. He made two starts in Columbus in 2003-04 but earned a bigger workload in 2005-06 as he shared the net with Marc Denis.

The scouting report the Blue Jackets had on Ovechkin was that he was an explosive player, one to certainly keep an eye on. But as Leclaire told Sportsnet in 2017, hev was focusing more on his own game and they weren’t expected for the Russian rookie to make his presence felt that soon into the start of his career.

“I think right off the bat you could see he was a special player,” Leclaire told The Washington Post in 2016. “For me, I’m not surprised at all that he’s had the career he’s having so far. It just made sense. Special players are special players and you can see it pretty early on how good they are.”

[MORE: Ovechkin’s chase for 700 continues vs. Avs Thursday on NBCSN]

The memorable first shift

While the offensive side would show itself later, Ovechkin first NHL shift gave us a glimpse into the physical presence he possessed. 

A Rick Nash shot caromed around the boards and deep into the Blue Jackets’ zone 30 seconds into the game. Ovechkin saw he could potentially win the puck so he began sprinting from his own blue line to beat Radoslav Suchy. The Columbus defenseman had possession for about two seconds before the Capitals rookie laid a big hit, knocking loose a stanchion behind the net.

Not done yet

It took Ovechkin 441 seconds to record his first NHL goal. We didn’t have to wait long for No. 2 as 270 later he delivered the first of his 259 power play goals.

“He was worth the price of admission tonight,” said Blue Jackets head coach Gerard Gallant afterward. “He was real good.”

Now here we are — fifteen years and 696 goals later. Ovechkin is on the cusp of history and a legitimate threat to break Wayne Gretzky’s NHL goals record of 894. He’s reached 50 goals eight times (this season will more than likely be the ninth), hit 60 once, and the fewest goals he scored in one season was 32, which he reached twice, including during the lockout-shortened 48-game 2013 campaign.

Oct. 5, 2005 was the beginning of something special. Ovechkin has his Stanley Cup, his Richard Trophies, his Harts. No. 895 is possible as he rises to the occasion.

“He’s pretty well been groomed for this,” said Capitals head coach Glen Hanlon via the Washington Times in 2005. “The bigger the moment, the bigger he’s going to play.

“He thrives on it — as all the great ones do.”

MORE OVECHKIN:
By the Numbers: Ovechkin’s 698 NHL goals
Stunning Numbers as Alex Ovechkin closes in on 700 goals 

My Favorite Goal: Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’ as a rookie in 2006
NHL Power Rankings: Ovechkin’s top 10 goals
Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Zubrus clears waivers, is ‘surprised’ by buyout

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After going unclaimed on unconditional waivers, Dainius Zubrus is no longer a member of the New Jersey Devils and that reality has caught him off guard.

He would have been better prepared for this had it happened during the normal buyout window in June, but at this point he didn’t see it coming. The 37-year-old is hoping that another team will give him a chance to extend his career though.

“At this point, it’s the NHL or nothing. I’m training for the NHL,” Zubrus told NJ Advance Media. “Honestly, I still dream of winning the Stanley Cup. That dream is still there. When summertime training gets tough, I push myself hoping that it will happen.

“I hope to be on a team that makes a good run and gives me a chance.”

He had a chance to talk to Devils GM Ray Shero and understands that this was about clearing up a roster spot. At the same time, Zubrus is aware that he had a “terrible year stats-wise.” He finished with just four goals and 10 points in 74 contests in 2014-15.

He is a veteran of 1,243 games and went to the Stanley Cup Final with Philadelphia in 1997 and New Jersey in 2012, losing both times.

Shero: Buying out Zubrus creates flexibility to add forward

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While nothing is imminent, the New Jersey Devils’ decision to buy out Dainius Zubrus has set the table for them to make a trade or free agent signing.

“It really wasn’t about Dainius himself,” Devils GM Ray Shero told The Record. “It was more about the roster spot/flexibility moving forward. … If something comes along and we don’t have a roster spot – not so much the 23-man roster, but up front in terms of let’s say you’re carrying 13 forwards, 14 forwards and you don’t have any spots – then you can’t do anything.”

It certainly wasn’t about freeing up cap space given that Zubrus’ $3.1 million cap hit for 2015-16 will count fully against the team’s books even after the buyout because he was a 35-and-over signing. The Devils are still saving roughly $1 million of this way, but Shero insisted that this wasn’t a financial decision.

There are still teams that are looking to get into a better cap position, such as the Chicago Blackhawks, that Shero might have his eye towards as he clears some room on the team’s roster. There’s also some noteworthy free agent forwards left, including Stephen Weiss, Martin Erat, Tomas Fleischmann, and Jiri Tlusty.

Failing that it gives the Devils an opportunity to have one of their younger players on the roster as New Jersey looks to show signs of progress offensively after spending three straight seasons in the bottom-five in the NHL in terms of goals per game.

Zubrus on unconditional waivers for purpose of terminating his contract

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The New Jersey Devils are parting ways with Dainius Zubrus.

The club made the announcement today, saying that the 37-year-old forward had been placed on unconditional waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract.

Zubrus was set to make $3.1 million in 2015-16, after which he would become an unrestricted free agent. He had just four goals and six assists in 74 games last season.

The Devils did not say they were buying out Zubrus, only that his contract was being terminated. New Jersey would not have received cap relief anyway if it was a buyout, as Zubrus’ contract was of the 35-plus variety. The team would have saved around a million bucks in actual salary, however.

It’s possible there was a mutual agreement to terminate Zubrus’ contract, a la Damien Brunner in 2014.

Update: It’s a buyout:

The Devils were afforded an additional buyout window as they had two arbitration cases this offseason.

Elias: I’m not willing to play on the fourth line

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Patrik Elias is a two-time Stanley Cup champion who has reached the 70-point mark on five separate occasions and is the Devils’ all-time leader in goals (403) and assists (608). He’s also roughly a month away from his 39th birthday and time is catching up with him.

His role with the Devils is naturally diminishing as a result, but there is a limit to what he will do. With Dainius Zubrus and Stephen Gionta currently serving as his linemates, Elias made it clear where he will draw a line in the sand.

“If they want to play me on the fourth line, I’m not willing to do that,” Elias told NJ Advance Media. “I think that’s a conversation I’m going to have after this season. I know what I’m capable of.”

What would happen if he was assigned to a fourth-line role in 2015-16 even after talking with the Devils over the summer?

“I probably wouldn’t (accept) that because I don’t consider myself a fourth line player and I wouldn’t be useful for this team to play that role. Simple,” Elias said.

He also defended his lackluster numbers (10-18-28, 56 GP) by pointing out that the 2014-15 Devils aren’t a high-scoring team.

He’s finishing off the second campaign on his three-year, $16.5 million deal. He’s confident there would be teams interested in him and what remains of his contract if the Devils don’t want him anymore.

For his part, Devils GM and interim coach Lou Lamoriello defended Elias’ role.

“Right now, look at what he’s doing. He’s playing against the top line of every team every night,” Lamoriello said of Elias. “That says a lot for where he is today. Why are we worrying about tomorrow?”

Related:

Elias says Devils never approached him about a trade