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The first time Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis spent meaningful time with Alex Ovechkin was after the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Ovechkin, who had been drafted No. 1 overall by the Caps in 2004, arrived at Leonsis’ house to spend a day with the family.

Leonsis’ wife, Lynn, made lunch. Leonsis was impressed that the Russian superstar, then just 20, helped pick up dishes afterward and brought them to the kitchen.

Afterwards, they played basketball with Leonsis’ kids and a few friends. “He was an unbelievable basketball player,” said Leonsis. (Ovechkin’s mom, Tatyana, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in basketball). They then went swimming. “He was like a torpedo in the pool,” Leonsis recalled. “I’m not kidding, that’s what it felt like.”

Then the two men sat in the pool and talked. “Alex was making eye contact with me, and really listening,” Leonsis said. “I explained how hard this was going to be for him. The reason we were able to draft him No. 1 is that we were a really bad team. It was going to take a really long time to be a good team. Our goal was to win the Stanley Cup, but also for him to live a full self-actualized life and grow up with us.”

Ovechkin remained a captive audience. Leonsis then got philosophical.

“My belief was that communities fall in love with a young player,” Leonsis told Ovechkin. “And then they often get their heart broken when the young players want to leave.”

Leonsis ended his spiel with a pitch: “Alex, trust me. Let us trust you. Let’s do this together.”

Ovechkin said, “OK.” He was in.

Last week, the Capitals announced a new contract for Ovechkin: five years, with an average annual value of $9.5 million. The deal will take Ovechkin through age 40; should he average 33 goals per season, it will also include him breaking Wayne Gretzky’s all-time NHL goal-scoring record of 894.

Ovechkin negotiated the deal himself, emblematic of the trust he and the organization have forged over nearly two decades together.

“The idea of him playing in Russia, or playing for another organization, just didn’t make sense,” GM Brian MacLellan said. “It was important we brought that tone into the negotiations that we were going to try to make it work. We wanted him to finish his career here, be happy about the contract, be happy about the term, and go out the right way.”

Here is the story of how it all came together.

Ovechkin has been a superstar ever since he stepped on NHL ice. He scored 52 goals as a rookie. Two years later, he was named league MVP. He was MVP the next season, too.

Leonsis was right: it would take a long time to reach their goals. Despite making the playoffs in 10 of his first 13 seasons, it took until 2018 for Ovechkin to help lead the Capitals to the organization’s first ever Stanley Cup. Ovechkin’s impact off the ice was felt well before that.

“When I bought the team [in] 1999, I paid $85 million, and we struggled to put fans in the stands,” Leonsis said. “We had 2,900 season ticket holders in a 20,000 arena. The year before I bought the team they had gone to the Finals and couldn’t sell out playoff games. The following year, they didn’t make the playoffs and renewals were terrible.”

After Ovechkin’s first MVP season in 2007-08, the first under coach Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals sold out the playoffs. “The next season we sold out every game. And we’ve sold out every game since,” Leonsis said. “Now we’re a top-10 revenue team, and a top-six or eight ticket-selling team. We’ve become a destination. Now I would say the Caps are worth a billion dollars.”

The Caps realized the power of Ovechkin by the time his three-year, entry-level deal was expiring in 2008.

“When it was time for his second deal, there was a standard deal template,” Leonsis said. “[Sidney] Crosby had signed a five-year second deal, and we could have done something like that too.”

Team president Dick Patrick had other ideas. In a meeting with Leonsis, Patrick said: “I’m very conservative, and I’m very skeptical. And when you give players long-term deals for a lot of money, sometimes they change, sometimes their love of the game changes. I think there’s something special here, though. So why don’t we do something radical? Why don’t we tell Alex we want to negotiate your bridge contract, your B contract, and your free-agent deal all at the same time?”

At the time, Tatyana Ovechkin was serving as her son’s agent. Leonsis brought the idea to them of a long-term contract, and explained the Capitals were the ones assuming the risk. If Ovechkin got hurt, he’d still get paid.

The benefit of a long-term deal: if Ovechkin lived up to what the Capitals hoped he would be, it would work out for both sides.

The negative: there could be someone else in the industry that gets paid more in that span, as the salary cap grows.

“What I admired about Alex is, he never once compared himself and his deal to anybody else,” Leonsis said. “He never asked to be traded. He never said fire a coach. It’s just a remarkable personal journey for him.”

And so in 2008, Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million deal. It was the NHL’s first $100 million contract.

Sometime in the middle of Ovechkin’s 13-year contract, Leonsis met Wayne Gretzky at an event. The two men sat down and talked.

“Alex is the only player I’ve ever thought could break my record,” Gretzky told Leonsis. “He loves the game. He has such a great relationship and comfort in D.C.; don’t ever break that.”

Leonsis promised Gretzky: “I won’t.”

Soon after, Leonsis saw the 30-for-30 documentary about Gretzky’s trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles. “And I laugh,” Leonsis said. “Because the Oilers won four Stanley Cups but the only thing the owner is known for is trading Wayne Gretzky.”

As Ovechkin’s 13-year deal was nearing expiration this season, Leonsis often joked during talks with other team officials: “They’re not going to make a 30-for-30 about us.”

During the pandemic, ESPN released “The Last Dance.” Leonsis was riveted.

“It was 10 hours about Michael Jordan’s greatness,” Leonsis said. “But also about how they did not feel loved or connected to the team.”

Leonsis didn’t want to be that guy. He already felt like he was on a good track, though.

Because Ovechkin had signed a long-term deal in 2008, teammate Nicklas Backstrom followed by committing to 10 years in 2010.

“Alex not only made the commitment to us, but made it to Nick, then they embraced John Carlson,” Leonsis explained. “Keeping Alex, keeping Nick, keeping John Carlson, building a 20 to 25-year journey with these guys, with Alex as the bedrock, was the right thing for us to do. It’s a wonderful story.”

Backstrom’s deal expired in 2020. He chose to negotiate his next deal himself.

“Nick is very analytical,” Leonsis said. “He sat down with us, and said ‘This is how many years I’d like to play, I’d like to play my whole career here. I want to play with Alex my whole career. I want to play in front of this crowd my entire career. This is what we need to do to win the Stanley Cup, and this is how Alex is going to break Wayne Gretzky’s record.’

“He literally went season by season, of what we needed to do and how he’d have to play, with five-on-five goals and power play. He landed on five years [for his contract]. It was remarkable how the two of them — unlike Lennon and McCartney, instead of breaking up, they were totally in sync.”

Contract negotiations for Ovechkin’s new deal began informally. Ovechkin talked to MacLellan throughout the season. The captain and GM met a few times, often at hotels on the road.

“He’d go back and talk to his family, and a few advisors,” MacLellan said. “Then he’d come back to me and we’d talk again. It went on for quite a while.”

The first discussions were philosophical. Ovechkin wanted to hear the direction of the Capitals. He wanted to know what MacLellan envisioned and what types of moves he planned on doing.

“Then term became important,” MacLellan said. “He zeroed in on five years, and that became very important. He liked the term of five years; he has some personal goals in mind.”

Once five years was determined as the term, the two needed to hash out the average annual value.

“His main goal wasn’t to make as much money as possible,” MacLellan said. “He probably would get a shorter term at a higher AAV if he wanted to go outside [of the Capitals]. Probably could have made more money going back home to Russia, I would assume, there are probably some tax advantages there. We had discussions: ‘Here are your career earnings. Is a higher contract going to affect your standard of life going forward, or is it about finishing your career out the right way?'”

At $9.5 million — just a shade lower than the $9.54 million AAV on his last deal — the Caps and Ovechkin felt like they could keep the team competitive. (That Ovechkin’s contract has nearly the same cap hit it had 13 years ago is an interesting indictment of the NHL; Leonsis says it is a direct byproduct of the NHL still being driven more by local revenues than national revenues).

Just as the Capitals finished Ovechkin’s deal, they also traded defenseman Brenden Dillon to the Winnipeg Jets.

“We had to get a $4 million player out,” MacLellan said. “You go higher than that, we probably have to move another player out. You get thin quick when that cap isn’t going up. So that was an important factor keeping it at $9.5 [million].”

Conversations between the Capitals and Ovechkin continued as the captain returned home to Russia for the summer. They hashed out final details on the phone, and via text, before finally landing on the deal.

“It was a bummer we weren’t able to do it in person,” MacLellan said. “But we all felt really happy about it. He was excited. He’s an emotional person. I think he was excited about knowing what he would be doing for the next five years.”

On Thursday, the Capitals held a press conference announcing the deal. And shortly after that, Leonsis was pulled into talks regarding the NBA’s Washington Wizards, a team that he also owns.

“We had a superstar player with the Wizards, he had an opportunity and wanted to be traded to the Lakers,” Leonsis said. “And I was dealing with that as we were announcing Alex. I couldn’t help but self-reflect on what a difference it is. Here’s a great player in Russell Westbrook, played in OKC, wanted to be traded, went to Houston, wanted to be traded, came to D.C., wanted to be traded and is now in L.A. He’s an unbelievably great person and an unbelievably great player. But that’s the difference between the NBA and the NHL, I suppose.”

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Sources: Phils add RHP Walker for 4 years, $72M




Sources: Phils add RHP Walker for 4 years, M

The Philadelphia Phillies and right-handed pitcher Taijuan Walker have reached agreement on a four-year, $72 million contract, sources told ESPN’s Jeff Passan on Tuesday.

A day after reaching a blockbuster deal with shortstop Trea Turner, the Phillies add to their rotation with one of the top pitchers left on the free agent market.

Walker joins Philadelphia after one of the strongest seasons of his career in 2022, when he started 29 games for the New York Mets and posted a 3.49 ERA, 2.6 bWAR and a 1.19 WHIP in 157 innings pitched, striking out 132 batters while walking 45.

The Phillies mark the fifth team of Walker’s major league career, including the Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks, Toronto Blue Jays and Mets.

The 30-year-old righty served as a dependable back-of-the-rotation starter for the Mets throughout the course of the season before declining his $7.5 million player option for 2023, taking a $3 million buyout to explore free agency. The Mets declined to offer a qualifying offer to Walker.

Walker previously underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018 and missed the entire 2019 season. His 2022 campaign marked his most successful on the mound since undergoing treatment on a partial tear of a UCL in his right elbow.

Walker is the second pitcher to leave the Mets’ rotation, after Jacob deGrom signed with the Texas Rangers. New York subsequently responded by signing Justin Verlander to a two-year, $86 million deal.

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Pirates win 1st MLB draft lottery, right to pick first




Pirates win 1st MLB draft lottery, right to pick first

The Pittsburgh Pirates secured the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft on Tuesday, during Major League Baseball’s first ever draft lottery. The next five picks, respectively, went to the Washington Nationals, Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics.

MLB and the MLB Players’ Association agreed to a draft lottery in the new collective bargaining agreement, whereby the 18 teams that did not reach the postseason would vie for the first six selections. Odds, based on 2022 winning percentage, ranged from 16.5% (for the Pirates, Nationals and A’s) to 0.2% (Milwaukee Brewers).

The A’s went in tied for the best chance at the No. 1 overall pick and finished with the No. 6 selection. The Twins took an even bigger step in the other direction, starting with the 13th-best odds and ultimately picking fifth.

The Nos. 7 to 18 picks in next year’s draft – slated for July from Seattle, site of the next All-Star Game – will be slotted by reverse winning percentage, followed by how teams finished in the postseason (the World Series-champion Houston Astros, for example, will pick 30th). Rounds 2 through 20 will navigate entirely in reverse order of winning percentage and postseason finish.

MLB placed more picks up for grabs than any other major spot in its first draft lottery. Only the first four picks of the NBA’s draft are attained through the draft lottery. In the NHL, it’s just the first two. The bottom three teams were all given the same odds for the No. 1 overall pick in an effort to disincentivize tanking for the worst record. Large-market teams (defined as those who do not receive revenue sharing) are prohibited from entering the draft lottery in back-to-back years; small-market teams can’t enter it three straight years.

MLB Network announced the results of the lottery inside a ballroom from the Hyatt hotel that is staging this year’s Winter Meetings, with executives from the 18 eligible clubs sitting at nearby tables and outfielder-turned-MLB-executive Raul Ibanez reading the results. But the process took place hours later, when a collection of sealed balls arrived in a suitcase and 1,000 four-number combinations were assigned to the 18 teams (the higher the odds for the No. 1 overall pick, the more combinations assigned to the team). Bill Francis, who helps run the MLB Draft, selected the six four-number combinations that determined the order. PricewaterhouseCoopers oversaw the process.

The top three players in next year’s draft, based on rankings from ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel in July, are: Wyatt Langford, a center fielder from Florida; Jacob Wilson, a shortstop from Grand Canyon; and Max Clark, a center fielder from Franklin Community High School in Indiana. This will mark the sixth time the Pirates select first overall. They did so as recently as 2021, selecting catcher Henry Davis out of Louisville.

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Haniger to Giants; 3 years, $43.5M, sources say




Haniger to Giants; 3 years, .5M, sources say

The San Francisco Giants agreed to terms with outfielder Mitch Haniger, the team announced Tuesday, filling a hole in the Giants’ outfield as they continue their free agent pursuit of American League MVP Aaron Judge.

The deal is for three years and $43.5 million and includes a player opt-out after the second year, sources told ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Haniger, who turns 32 later this month, has posted star-caliber numbers in the two seasons he has been healthy, but has struggled with injuries throughout his major league career, most of which he spent in Seattle. With the Mariners last season, he hit .246/.308/.429 with 11 home runs and 34 RBIs in 57 games, helping propel the team to its first playoff berth in two decades.

One season earlier, Haniger showed the sort of talent that led the Giants to consider a multiyear deal at $14.5 million a season. He hit 39 home runs, good for fifth in the AL, and drove in 100 runs while posting 3.9 Wins Above Replacement over 157 games, according to Baseball-Reference.

The Giants’ offseason began with outfielder Joc Pederson accepting a $19.65 million qualifying offer. It continues with Haniger and could include Judge, who last year spent a majority of his time in center field but has played most of his career in right. Along with Haniger and Mike Yastrzemski, Judge could be part of the outfield while Pederson spends most of his time at designated hitter.

Long a fan favorite and leader in Seattle, Haniger joined the Mariners in November 2016, when Arizona — which drafted him in the first round of the 2012 draft — traded him along with Jean Segura for infielder/outfielder Ketel Marte and pitcher Taijuan Walker.

Haniger immediately produced for Seattle, putting up an OPS of .843 in his first season. His best year came in 2018, when he played 157 games and hit .285/.366/.493 with 26 home runs and played well above-average defense in right field.

The next season, in 2019, Haniger suffered a ruptured testicle after a foul ball took an unfortunate carom. The injury kept him out for the remainder of the season, and he missed significant time with back and core injuries, not playing in 2020.

His 2021 return was hailed in Seattle, where Haniger helped steer the Mariners to the cusp of the postseason with a bevy of clutch hits. He’ll now slot into the middle of a Giants lineup that ranked 11th in baseball in runs scored but lost three-quarters of its infield — first baseman Brandon Belt, shortstop Brandon Crawford and third baseman Evan Longoria — to free agency.

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