Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin always were considered the top two players entering the 2004 NHL Draft in Raleigh, N.C.
What appeared to be a difficult decision on paper wasn't so much for the Washington Capitals front office. Ovechkin was the player they targeted all along, and they never wavered in their decision to make him the No. 1 pick.
The leading advocate to select Ovechkin at the time was Capitals director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney. He has proven prophetic; not only has Ovechkin scored more points than any player selected in the 2004 draft, but on Sunday against the Ottawa Senators, he became the fifth-fastest player in NHL history and first Russian-born to score 500 goals, doing so in his 801st game.
"Ovechkin was a pure goal-scorer, and what's one of the hardest things to do in the NHL? It's score goals," said Mahoney, now Capitals assistant general manager. "Ovechkin and Malkin could both skate and handle the puck and they were big and strong, but, for us, Ovi was our guy. He initiated a lot of contact, liked to finish checks, and had this ability to score goals, a lot of goals.
"No disrespect to Malkin because he's certainly become a special player, but in our mind Ovechkin was the best player."
Mahoney, director of amateur scouting in Washington for 16 seasons, remembers many memorable viewings of Ovechkin representing Russia in international events leading up the draft.
He had 14 goals and 18 points in eight games to lead Russia in the 2002 IIHF World Under-18 Championship; nine goals and 13 points in six games at the 2003 World U-18 Championship, and seven goals and 11 points in six games at the 2005 World Junior Championship. In 18 games at the WJC, Ovechkin had 18 goals and 25 points.
Malkin had eight goals and 25 points for Russia in 18 games at the World Juniors.
"Ovechkin was the favorite to go first, but then Malkin came along and had a strong year and seemed to close the gap," then-Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "I remember when we won the lottery for the first overall pick and I immediately called [Mahoney] and he was unequivocal that it had to be Ovechkin. He was just so convinced that he was the guy, and there's really not too much gray in Ross' world. There was more debate because you have to have those conversations, honestly, but Ross was right because he was just so unique, just a different kind of player."
NHL Central Scouting also had Ovechkin ranked ahead of Malkin in their final rankings of international skaters. But it was close.
"Ovechkin was the complete package; Malkin was 95 percent [the complete package]," said Goran Stubb, NHL director of European Scouting.
McPhee said Ovechkin's ability to score goals at an incredible rate while playing a consistent brand of physical hockey had everyone on board prior to making the No. 1 selection.
"There are lots of talented, skilled players that come along, but to have one come along like this, it's just a combination that's really hard to come by," McPhee said. "There are guys like [Eric] Lindros and [Cam] Neely and all the way back to Gordie Howe, but there aren't many like this. He was not only going to make the team better, but he was going to make the team a very entertaining team to watch."
The decision to draft Ovechkin ahead of Malkin, who went No. 2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, has proven to be everything Capitals owner Ted Leonsis could have imagined. Ovechkin not only has become a fantastic NHL player but a role model for fans in the community and worldwide.
"Obviously we had some scouts that watched him grow up and play, and everyone thought he would be special mostly because of his motor," Leonsis said. "That's what all the scouting reports and all of the 1-on-1 discussions were about. His energy level, his passion, love of the game, and how as the game wore on while other players were dipping, he was going."
Capitals fans got their first good look at the future generational talent when he walked on stage.
"The first time I met Ovi was at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament [in 2001]," Mahoney said. "I was just outside between games and saw this young man come towards me with his Russian jacket on and I pointed to my roster to ask which number he was and he pointed to his name, shook my hand, said 'Hello,' and all the while had this big smile on his face."
Ovechkin was an international phenomenon for HC Dynamo Moscow of the Russian Super League for four seasons before joining the Capitals in 2005-06. He'd score two goals in a 3-2 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets in his NHL debut on Oct. 5, 2005, on the way to winning the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year that season.
"I remember how big his hands were for a young kid and thought, 'This is why he can shoot the puck like he does,'" Mahoney said.
The only thing Malkin has that Ovechkin doesn't is a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the 2008-09 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In that season, Malkin had 35 goals and 113 points in 82 regular-season games and 14 goals and 36 points in 24 postseason games. Ovechkin had 56 goals and 110 points in 79 regular-season games, and 11 goals and 21 points in 14 playoff games.
"Hopefully we can [win the Stanley Cup], but in no way does us not winning it reflect on Ovi and what he has meant to this organization," Mahoney said. "Looking at the numbers, the trophies, what he has done for this city on and off the ice, he's been everything and more we'd thought he'd be.
"He's going to go down as one the greatest players in NHL history when all is said and done."