LAS VEGAS – Swarmed by cameras in this sun-splashed city, Alex Ovechkin flashed that familiar gap-toothed grin as he confronted another offseason of change. No reporter bothered to ask about why Ovechkin was actually here, accepting his fourth career Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer at Tuesday’s awards ceremony. Instead, the brief Monday afternoon respite from dancing and dining brought the Washington Capitals’ captain back into the world of hockey, where queries about a new coach, new general manager and new regime awaited, and were answered with a smile.
“I’m just going to chill right now and do what I can do,” Ovechkin said.
In a way, his trip to Las Vegas was a business one, too. On Saturday, Ovechkin ate dinner with Barry Trotz, hired in late May as Washington’s new coach. Trotz, who was fired by Nashville following 15 seasons as the franchise’s only bench boss, has spent the past month visiting his new players and calling them on the phone. None served a greater purpose than his flight to meet the face of the franchise.
“We talked about lots of good things, lots of bad things,” Ovechkin said. “He see what he can change with the team and what he can change with my game. It’s the first talk. When you have first conversation, of course it was kind of nervous, you didn’t know what to expect. But at the end of all, I feel pretty good.”
Missions to see Ovechkin are nothing new for Capitals coaches. In 2013, Adam Oates entered his second season by flying to Russia, where he and Ovechkin skated together, watched soccer and dissected film.
But Trotz’s charge was more straightforward, a meet-and-greet for both parties. Trotz, who had never coached a 40-goal scorer with the Predators, had called Ovechkin, who has accomplished that feat six times, while Team Russia was celebrating its victory over Belarus in the IIHF World Championships gold medal game.
Carrying a reputation as a players’ coach, spouting equal parts candor and care, here was a chance for Trotz and Ovechkin to align their perspectives for the summer months and beyond. Ovechkin declined to divulge details of the conversation — he admitted they talked about his left wing/right wing usage, a hot-button issue in recent seasons, yet stopped short of saying exactly what came from that — but emerged impressed with the man for whom no one seems to have a bad word.
“He’s a straightforward coach,” Ovechkin said. “Honest man. That’s probably the best thing to expect from a new guy. It’s something new again for me. He’s worked with one team only. He’s going to bring some new stuff for me and for my teammates.”
This offseason marks another fresh start for Ovechkin, the star forward who has faced so many fresh starts this decade. Trotz, who reached the playoffs eight times in a nine-season span with the Predators but never advanced past the second round, became Washington’s fourth coach since 2011. The Capitals also declined to renew the contract of general manager George McPhee and promoted assistant general manager Brian MacLellan.
“It’s going to be new season and it’s going to be brand new day for me,” Ovechkin said. “New coach, new GM. We’ll see what’s going to happen with the team, the system, all that kind of stuff. Going to be an interesting year.”
At his introductory news conference at Verizon Center, Trotz preached the importance of building trust with Ovechkin, so his advice will stick. “I know going against him, what he does well,” Trotz said then. “But I need to know Alex the person.”
In Las Vegas, during a brief private interview after the media scrum dissipated, Ovechkin said his position as team captain, entering his 10th season with the only NHL franchise he has known, thrust him into the position of rolling out the welcome mat on behalf of the players.
“I have to be with him, close enough, to feel how he wants to do,” he said. “It’s a tough thing, for him and for me. For him, he was in one city for his whole career, then he moves to a different one. He didn’t know the players, he didn’t know their personality. You have to see how it’s going to work.”
After the awards, Ovechkin said he would return to his native Russia to visit family and friends. A right-leg injury suffered at the World Championships, which required Ovechkin to wear a brace for the gold medal game, is still roughly two weeks away from reaching full strength, though Ovechkin cracked that at least the limited mobility still allowed him to dance. And he wants to maintain an open dialogue with Trotz, who left Las Vegas on Sunday to close his purchase of a new home in the Washington area, knowing full well their relationship will dictate how the Capitals transition into another new era on the bench.
“Of course,” Ovechkin said. “It’s a situation where he’s going to tell me what he wants me to do and I’m going to listen to him. That’s it.”