Adam Oates made a point at the end of every exit meeting to tell players that while the season might be over, he’s still available to them. Whether they want to talk about their individual goals, hockey in general or anything else. Count Alex Ovechkin among those who took the coach up on his offer.
They exchange texts daily, Oates said in a phone interview earlier this week, with topics ranging from who will win that night’s Stanley Cup playoff game to joking about that picture of Ovechkin in a judges’ stand that his fiancé, Maria Kirilenko, tweeted during the French Open. It’s a sign of how strong a relationship Ovechkin and Oates built during the shortened season and the coach is excited about how he can continue to help the star winger excel.
“I think it’s great. I think it shows that it was something that was missing in his life,” Oates said. “He’s got confidence in me now. He had, I guess you could say, a bounce-back year, he felt good about himself at the end of the year he played hard, he’s got a chance to win MVP. He’s back on top, feeling good, and that allows me to tell him, ‘I think there are still some things that you can do better to keep growing as a player.’ He is our leader, that’s a fact. If he can continue to get better then it sure makes it easier to coach every other guy.”
Ovechkin is a finalist for both the Hart Memorial Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award, the winners of which will be announced at Saturday night at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Network prior to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
It marks the fourth time he has been a finalist for the Hart, which is awarded to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team as voted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, and the fifth time Ovechkin has been a finalist for the Ted Lindsay Award, which is presented to the most outstanding player as voted by their peers.
Ovechkin, who is in Russia and will not be in attendance for the presentation, has won the Hart twice previously (2007-08, 2008-09) and the Lindsay Award three times (2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10).
This season brought out a different side of Ovechkin as he reestablished himself among the NHL’s elite forwards. He recorded 56 points and a league-best 32 goals in the shortened 48-game regular season, including an unparalleled outburst of 23 goals in the final 23 games.
It wasn’t the goals so much as he found different ways to score and improved his play in the other two zones in a new spot on the right wing. By no means was there consistently flawless execution, especially when it came to tracking back in his own zone, but it was clear that Oates conveyed to Ovechkin that what he did in the other zones would ultimately better his game.
Ovechkin showed progress in becoming a more effective all-around player in the regular season, but there’s certainly room to grow. From continuing an evolution away from predictable play offensively – some of which surfaced and were easily thwarted by the Rangers as Ovechkin was held to only two points in the series – to helping the 27-year-old make the other elements and contributions in other zones more instinctual.
While Oates doesn’t like to divulge the specific elements he works on with any individual player, he believes Ovechkin is ready to take another step forward.
“I think he’s in a good place where he’s got tons of hockey left, he’s got tons of room to improve, much more to his game in him and I think he feels good,” Oates said. “I think he feels happy about it and excited about it.”