On Sunday, The Post took a closer look at how Alex Ovechkin has changed in recent years. Capitals General Manager George McPhee agreed to sit down for interview last week. He was very insightful, but we couldn't fit everything in the article. Below is a transcript with more of McPhee’s comments on his star player:
Ovechkin stayed with you when he moved here. We all change from 19 to 26, but what was he like then and how has he grown or changed since then?
I think one of the great things is he hasn’t changed. He’s still an enthusiastic, effervescent kid who lights up a room when he walks into it — one of those people you’re always pumped to see. He always seems happy to see you. He hasn’t become jaded.
Do you see that often in sport?
Yeah. I think sometimes with other athletes, the novelty wears off a little bit, they become different people. I don’t think Ovi’s changed. He’s one of the most exciting personalities to ever come into the game.
Some teammates say he’s quieter than he was two or three years ago. Have you noticed that?
I haven’t noticed that, but obviously they’re with him in the locker room. I stay out of the locker room.
Was he that way when you first met him, or did he have to get
comfortable in Washington with such a big role?
That’s what was so remarkable about him, to come to a foreign country and step into the NHL in America and in Washington and just absorb everything and be completely comfortable, it seemed, have his personality take over a room — not in an offensive way but in a fun way. It was remarkable how everyone took to him when he first came in.He had that aspect of his personality that you see in some of the great ones.
I remember sitting with Michael Jordan, when he was working here with the basketball club. I spent 20 minutes with him alone one time and my impression when I walked away was, geez, I would’ve loved to have played with a guy like that, who had a great ability but that confidence and that desire to win. I remember seeing just recently the HBO special on Joe Namath, the same sort of thing, that confidence that he had, the extraordinary talent that he had. Geez, would love to play with a guy like that.
Infectious is the word I keep hearing.
Yes, great word. Same way I felt about Alex.
The Olympics, the early playoff exits, suspensions — did
those affect Alex’s confidence?
I think so.
Is that kind of a natural thing?
Yeah. I think he wants success like everyone else. It’s not always going to come when you want it. I think in his case, it will come. It’s not always going to and when it doesn’t come, it’s hard. You’re a guy that really wants to win. You blame yourself. That’s a burden. It becomes a burden.
Is that a temporary setback? Is there a big risk of that becoming a permanent dent in Ovechkin’s confidence?
I don’t know.
On a recent radio interview, you mentioned that his weight had fluctuated, that it was much higher than it is today. Can you clarify that? Was he coming in out of shape and overweight?
He came in a lot heavier. I don’t believe necessarily that he was out of shape. But he wanted to get bigger.
We all go through that in our careers, in terms of training. I think every athlete goes through it. What’s the best way for me to train in the offseason to be an effective player next season? You have to try different things. There are some times – and I went through it — you come back to camp and you feel early in camp or early in the season, geez, I’m not so sure what I did works. I thought it would, I went at it hard.
In Alex’s case, I think he wanted to play, he wanted to get bigger and he didn’t necessarily need to get bigger. I can only talk from personal experience because I was a small player. I wanted to get bigger. One year I came in 12 pounds heavier than what I normally play at because I wanted to be bigger. Early on, I didn’t feel right and just had to go back to what was best to play in, which was a lot lighter.
Alex came in heavier, expecting that it’d make him more physical — and he was — and better. But he wasn’t better. He understands that now. We’ve had the conversations with him. I don’t think we had to have the conversations with him because he understood by going through it.
We think he’s at his best anywhere between 225 and 230. When he came back, I think he was 240 or 242. He was crushing people, but he wasn’t as effective as a player.
He’s still strong at 225—
He’s an extraordinarily powerful guy. He’s a genetically-gifted person who has just incredible power. I think he’s more dangerous at 230 than he is at 240.
When Olie Kolzig talked with us last month, he talked about work ethic and Ovechkin’s rock-star status. When you heard that, did you wince? Or was that a message you felt needed to reach Ovechkin’s ears?
I don’t think it’s a message he needed; he just has to be reminded like a lot of guys. You can have a lot of people are around you being ‘yes men’ and telling you what you think you need to hear. Every once in a while, you need someone who’s going to say, listen, you need to compete harder here in practice, or stay longer here. Lots of people have to be reminded to do different things.
Is it too early to note whether there’s been a change in any of his habits?
Again, it’s not — we weren’t looking for a big change here. Just every couple of months, it’s staying on people and talking about things that keep them grounded. You get celebrities — not only athletes, but other people who live in this rarified environment for too long — it’s not healthy.
The great thing about our sport is teammates and coaches keep you grounded. The status that he has — a lot of celebrities — it can be unhealthy. We’re not afraid to tell anyone that what makes you great is keeping focused and you have to have some people that aren’t the ‘yes men’ in your life.
Nearly everyone I talk with has a different theory about why his numbers and production are down. But one thing I hear – they talk about his game not evolving, teams figuring out his moves. Has his game evolved? Do you see Alex working on things that would make his game different than three years ago?
As with any great athlete, the league will adjust to you. Your opposition is smart. Players and coaches always adjust. Players adjust to new rules quickly, they adjust to players quickly. There’s always a strategy to defend certain players.
We did it [Thursday] night with [Steven] Stamkos, we do it with other players, whether it’s Eric Staal or whoever we happen to be playing. There’s a strategy to use against them. What has to happen is that player has to start adjusting. The league has adjusted to Ovi; now it’s his turn to adjust.
There’s another issue, and that is the league has really changed in the last few years. When we came out of the lockout, it was a more open game, there was more time and space out there. The speed of the game has really increased. And defensive strategies have really changed, such that it’s hard to score off the rush now in our league. The neutral zones are really clogged up. Tampa’s playing a 1-3-1, a lot of teams are playing 1-2-2.
So that’s where Ovi has to make an adjustment. He loves to score off the rush. He’s very effective scoring off the rush. He can score off the rush in ways other people can’t, where he can come down the blue line, go one-on-one with a guy and rifle the puck past you or go by you and score. Not many people have that ability.
So he still has that ability, but it’s not quite as effective as it once was. So what he has to learn to do is get it by defense and go in and forecheck. That’s an adjustment he’s working on. It’s not easy. It hasn’t come naturally. It’s not something he did as a kid. As a kid, it was all puck possession and rushing. Now it’s, make sure you hit it deep in their end and go get it.
We believe he can become one of the best forecheckers in the league because he’s fast and powerful. He can be a holy terror doing it. He can really intimidate the opposition. He has to learn to go in, get it deep, make contact, come up with it and then out-hustle people.
Is it fighting his basic instincts?
Yes, for him, it is. For a lot of guys it is because that part of the game has changed recently.
We hear TV broadcasters say — and some of these are the same ones who criticized him before for being too brash — but they’re saying he doesn’t appear to be having as much fun. Do you notice that?
Well, when he’s not scoring at the pace he’d like to score at, of course, he wouldn’t be as happy or have as much fun. It sure looked like he was having fun [Thursday] night [when Ovechkin scored in overtime against Tampa Bay].
That’s the hard thing about being a goal scorer. There’s a lot of pressure on goal scorers to deliver. If that’s your job and you’re not doing it to your satisfaction, it’s hard. There are some defensemen who just defend, don’t get points and people never notice whether they had a good game or bad game. With goal scorers, there’s a way to measure them after every game: Did you score or not?
It’s a matter of self worth—
Exactly. That’s hard for a goal scorer, when it’s not going in. But careers don’t go in straight lines. All athletes have career-best and career-worst years. What separates the great ones is even in their worst years, they’re pretty darn good players.
More on Alex Ovechkin:
— Sunday story: What’s wrong with Ovechkin?
— Video: From Russia, With Game (2005)
— Washington Post Magazine profile (2006)
— Photos: Ovechkin’s goal celebrations (2009)
— Video: Ovechkin’s top 3 goals (2009)
— Profile: Ovechkin’s need for speed (2010)
— Photos: Ovechkin through the years (March 9)