So far, only the Capitals and Coach Adam Oates have done it. And they did it with a true superstar, not a budding one, and a guy with a $124 million, get-out-of-my-face contract.
“Over his last 40 games, Ovi has been greater than ever,” General Manager George McPhee said.
Hard as it is to believe, in March, Ovechkin was scoring goals at half of the rate of his three best years and was considered on the way to washed-up by many in hockey. Since then, he has won his third NHL MVP award. And, this year, the again Great Eight is on pace to be the first player in 20 years to have a 70-goal season.
“The goaltending is so tough now. It’d be hard, but, yeah, he could,” said Oates, the man who showed Ovechkin, with film and logic, how to fix his game.
Comfy career progressions are rare. Frustrations are the rule. Adaptation is constant. Strasburg and Griffin already have had major surgeries. Last year, Harper couldn’t touch southpaws. Despite hot streaks, Wall has been a bad shooter for all of his four NBA years. Even for high and hyped draft picks, struggle is the rule. For long-term franchise success, search for the coach or executive who can teach and bond with your best athlete.
When the Caps replaced Dale Hunter as coach, “all the candidates said, ‘I can get Ovi going,’ ” McPhee said. “But Oates was the only one who showed how he’d do it: ‘I’d switch his position from left wing to right.’ He brought video of how you do it. He’d worked on position changes with Martin St. Louis and Ilya Kovalchuk.”
The Caps also remembered that in 1998 they suddenly switched top scorer Peter Bondra from one wing to the other for the playoffs and went to the Stanley Cup finals.
Ovechkin’s skid was grotesque. His first two years, he averaged .601 goals per game. The next three years: .734, which would be fifth in history for a whole career. Then everything changed. The next two years he averaged .446, which wouldn’t put him in the all-time top 60. In March, only eight months ago, he had plummeted to .370 — barely half the goal-scorer he had been in those three great years. Since then, he has gone nuts. In his past 43 games, he has 42 goals, including 20 in 22 games (.909) this season, his best rate ever.
In January, Ovechkin and Oates spent three hours watching tape before a game in Toronto, including a single play the game before in Ottawa that Oates believed epitomized why Ovechkin’s career was in a tailspin. Oates won’t specify the play. But Ovechkin probably sped up the left wing, cut to center ice for his trademark shot, using a defender to screen the goalie’s vision. But the Senators, like the whole NHL, knew that move. They had funneled Ovi to the mid-ice spot he wanted. Where their defenders waited.
“You have no chance to succeed” in that spot, Oates said. “You are so good. Why do you want to have no chance?”
For weeks, Oates had tried to sway him. “It was Ovi’s call. If he said no, then it’s going to be no,” Oates said. “I recognize who he is. There are 16,000 number eight jerseys in the building. Is he bigger than the team? No. But if you don’t think he’s the identity of the team, you’re crazy. I just told him, ‘I’m going to try to change your mind.’ ”
Early last season, Ovechkin played both wings on different nights, sometimes talking his way back to the left side. Oates obliged. But that night in Toronto, the light went on.
“Lets try it,” he texted Oates.
“We’ve never gone back,” Oates said.
The New Modified Ovechkin zooms down the right, where he can get off his natural slap shot. He’ll occasionally use a toe-drag to cut back to the middle. And for the first time, he’s scoring consistently by planting his 230 pounds in the crease or scoring off the cycle by beating his man and going to the net.
“Talent can make you great for a while. But star players can get too predictable,” McPhee said. “In every sport the leagues are too good now. They can figure you out. I once asked Evander Holyfield how he beat Mike Tyson. He said he studied film and every time Tyson threw a right hand there was a certain step he took. Whenever he saw that move, he stepped inside. That’s how he frustrated and beat him.”
Star-coach relationship-building is touchy. Part is just chemistry. Oates loves Ovechkin’s enthusiasm, the way he’ll laugh at practice, even though “there are times I have to talk him into the practice. Everybody tests that envelope. I did.” Oates even noticed that the age difference between he and Ovechkin (23 years) is the same as it was between Oates and his father. “Sometimes he gives me a ‘See that, Dad’ look,” he said.
Ovechkin doesn’t hide his gratitude. “Me and Oatsy talked about me being more in the middle of the ice,” said Ovechkin, explaining a tip-in goal Friday. “It’s good when you have that chemistry. That good relationship — owner, GM, coach — it matters.”
Oates sees room for more improvement. Ovechkin led the NHL in power-play goals last year and leads this season, too, planting himself on his favorite slap-shot spot at the left point, But now Oates tells him “never go to that spot except on the power play.” Unpredictability must be learned. Get off that pet spot!
Ovechkin, thought prematurely old last year, suddenly looks like he’s, well, only 28! “If a star and a coach click, they can have some pretty healthy debates and stay intact,” McPhee said. “And that can help the whole team.”
This year the Caps have played no better (12-10-2) than the start of the last two seasons. Bruce Boudreau got fired at 12-9-1. But they know their core: Ovi and Oates.
The day may come when another central figure, a Griffin, Harper or Strasburg, falls as far in the opinion of his sport as Ovi did just months ago. The NHL knew the Caps had a choice: Stick with their star or trade him for the best they could get and change the team’s identity. Deal him or heal him?
It’s hard to fix a huge talent gone sour. But it’s so much harder to find another one.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.