Alex Ovechkin sat in a hallway at Boston University’s Agganis Arena last week with the weight of the Washington Capitals’ playoff hopes on his hulking shoulders. There is little he wants to do more than find a way to lead his team to its sixth straight playoff berth; that much is clear.
But as the Capitals struggle to remain relevant in the Eastern Conference, Ovechkin continues to grapple with the most significant transition of his career.
Under the guidance of Coach Adam Oates, the two-time Hart Trophy winner is trying to improve and revitalize his game. Oates has switched Ovechkin to the opposite wing and tasked him with greater involvement in all three zones, but through 28 games, the team captain remains a work in progress.
“I’m still learning,” Ovechkin, 27, said. “If it means I will be better for me and the team I will do it. . . . It’s the kind of position where you have to have belief that it will work, trust in it. If it can help my team win, I have to do everything I can.”
The need for an evolution in Ovechkin’s game became apparent over the previous two seasons as his goal and point totals dropped. It wasn’t simply that his offensive output was down — scoring declined across the NHL, to a certain extent — but that the star winger’s once unstoppable moves had become predictable and the once dynamic presence was easily neutralized by opposing defensemen.
“I don’t see him all that differently,” Carolina captain Eric Staal said of Ovechkin. “He’s still a good player — you always have to be aware of him on the ice — but those early years, he was all over the ice. It was everything you could do to try and contain him.”
Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos went from power-play artist to feared natural goal scorer. New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk was a one-man show in Atlanta but became a defensively responsible scorer with the New Jersey Devils. Sidney Crosby, whose Eastern Conference leading Pittsburgh Penguins host the Capitals on Tuesday, added to his repertoire by refining his shot and becoming a better faceoff man.
“Alex is trying to make that transformation now,” NHL Network analyst and former NHL general manager Craig Button said, comparing the circumstances around Ovechkin’s transition to one that Steve Yzerman made in the early 1990s.
Yzerman recorded six consecutive 100-plus point seasons before Scotty Bowman took the helm of the Detroit Red Wings and wanted him to become an all-around talent.
“The franchise asked Steve to score, but Scotty felt that as the team evolved, he was capable of doing more and by sacrificing a little bit of offense, the team would become better,” Button said. “With Alex, there’s no doubt in my mind he cares about winning and wants to win. We’ve got to give it time to really evaluate him.”
Oates wants a complete game from Ovechkin, not just goals.
“I want other things,” Oates said. “I feel he’s getting enough chances — obviously we want to get as many as we can for him — but I also want him to contribute in getting [Nicklas Backstrom] chances and his other wingers chances. He knows it. Sometimes you have to be reminded of it. Everybody does; nobody’s perfect. He thinks his job is to score goals, which it is, but there are other things involved.”
Ovechkin, though, has always measured his own success in goals. Putting pucks in the back of the net is what he expects of himself, and it’s why the Capitals signed him to a 13-year, $124 million contract in 2008.
It’s also what a critical hockey world demands of him, and the lack of production has made him an easy target for criticism by pundits like NBC analysts Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire.
“My job is to score goals. People wants to see goals. They don’t see different plays that I make, when I give the passes to [Marcus Johansson] or when I make the big hits. They don’t see it,” Ovechkin said, adding that he’s trying to tune out the drone of his critics. “They want to see the goals. I understand that, but sometimes I just can’t care what people say.”
Ovechkin demonstrated his ability to do what Oates has asked of him in Sunday’s 5-3 win over the Sabres. He scored a goal, supported his linemates in working the cycle down low throughout the contest and was physically engaged, defending Backstrom when he was roughed up by Steve Ott.
But for every outing with positive examples, there are games when old habits seem to drift in, and Ovechkin can be seen trying to attack an opponent’s defense one-on-three or failing to make the correct play in the neutral or defensive zone.
“I don’t believe he’s a lazy player — there’s a willingness to change there,” TSN analyst Ray Ferraro said. “But to me, the best players have that hockey IQ that when they’re skating 25 mph down the ice they catch something out of the corner of their eye at the last second to make an adjustment and make a better play. . . . I don’t know that Ovi can.”
The alterations to Ovechkin’s game haven’t yielded instant offensive results. Since recording a hat trick against New Jersey on Feb. 23, his only multi-goal game of the season, Ovechkin has just three goals and six assists in 11 games.
He’s recorded 11 goals and 23 points, which would equate to approximately 32 goals and 67 points in a full season. Whether that would be a reasonable output to expect of Ovechkin is difficult to determine, though. Oates and Ovechkin both believe he can reach the 50- or 60-goal plateau again, while others say that isn’t realistic in today’s NHL.
Backstrom agrees that Ovechkin still has that ability, but stressed that the adjustments Oates wants his long-time linemate to make aren’t instantaneous.
“He has the potential; he’s not a different player,” Backstrom said. “If he wants to change him, it takes time. He played one way and you’ve just got to change. It’s a process.”