“We need our best players to carry the team — a hot goalie, Green, Semin or Ovechkin,” McPhee said, emphasizing that, along with Backstrom, those three are still the most gifted Caps. “We have players who can do it.”
Do they? Nobody doubts Backstrom. But the others are now mysteries.
In 2007-08, the fabulous four Young Guns played together for the first time. Backstrom, at 20, was second on the team in scoring. Green, 22, didn’t miss a single game. Ovechkin, 22, won the first of his back-to-back MVP awards. Semin, 23, seemed to be a future perennial 40-goal man. The NHL, and Washington, dreamed of what they might become.
Now, Green, who’s missed 80 games in two years, is back, but covered with rust. Semin has simply dissolved, from 40 goals to 26 to a pace for 21 this year. The Caps have tried everything they know, except “goodbye.”
Ultimately, Ovechkin is the central dilemma. In his first five seasons, his points-per-game average was the sixth best in NHL history, just behind Sidney Crosby. Then, last year, he dropped from 1.51 points per game to 1.08, a level that would still rank 29th best in history next to Hall of Famers Jean Beliveau and Mark Messier. The Caps can still win big with that Ovi.
But this year, Ovechkin stands a preposterous tied for 53rd in the NHL in scoring and tied for 21st in goals. His 0.79 points per game would be 178th in history, next to Valeri Kamensky and Alex Kovalev — pretty good players. But the Caps don’t need the Pretty Good Eight.
Ovechkin still delivers thundering hits, but he coasts in his own end constantly, saving energy or dreaming of breakouts that no longer suit the Caps’ defense-first system under Hunter. His point plummet at age 26 — from 109 to 85 to a pace for 61 — is even more troubling if you look at the careers of the 50 top scorers in history. Find one, just one, who had such a decline in back-to-back seasons, then returned to his former level. I can’t. McPhee said, “None come to mind. I’ll probably think of one.” Yet he not only believes that it’s possible, he thinks it’s coming soon.
“Alex is an exceptional athlete with such great willpower that, at any point, on any night, he believes he can impose his will on the other team and be the difference maker,” McPhee said on Wednesday. “He has the ability to carry this team and no one would love to do it more than him.
“He can still be great and for the next 10 years.”
When a team has four stars and two of them miss 75 games (so far) and the other two perform far below their previous standard, nothing good ever happens. What do you do? You play it out. You retool, but without the aid of high explosives — not yet, anyway. And you come back next year.
“You can’t stop ’em from being young,” McPhee said. “Young teams don’t win very often in this business. It takes time to become good vets, good leaders. Most players don’t win Cups until their late 20s, early 30s.”
Oh, sure, now the Caps change their tune. And don’t forget to renew your season tickets. But there’s no other sensible reaction. In sports, it’s so much easier to destroy than to create — and even easier to regret it.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/