Alex Ovechkin didn’t have to buy into the change Washington Capitals rookie Coach Adam Oates asked for at the start of training camp in January — shifting from left wing to right to revitalize his all-around game.
On Saturday night, months after making the transition his coach requested, Ovechkin’s reemergence as one of the NHL’s elite talents was recognized when he was awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
“They put me on the right wing,” Ovechkin said in remarks that aired on NBC Sports Network. “It was kind of hard, but as everybody knows I like challenges. It was big challenge for me and for coaching staff, but we make it, so thank you very much."
It’s the third time Ovechkin, 27, has won the Hart Trophy, but since this one followed a year of gradual — and sometimes painful — progress to improve his game, it made it that much more rewarding.
“This one certainly means more to him than the first two,” General Manager George McPhee said. “The first two he was expecting it. This one may have caught him off guard, but it means a lot to him because of what he’s been through. He’s been criticized a lot the last year and a half and unnecessarily. To accept switching positions and having been a two-time MVP to switch positions and win a third at the new position is pretty remarkable.”
Ovechkin becomes just the eighth player in NHL history to earn the honor three or more times, joining Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Bobby Clarke, Eddie Shore and Howie Morenz.
Ovechkin edged Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby in a close vote, totalling 1,090 points to Crosby’s 1,058. The award is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. The Washington Post does not allow its writers to vote on awards.
The winger is in Moscow and was not made available to comment Saturday. He is scheduled to speak with reporters Sunday morning.
Ovechkin, who previously won the Hart Trophy in 2007-08 and 2008-09, accepted the award via videotape Saturday evening before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals. Ovechkin was beaten out by Crosby for the Ted Lindsay Award, given to the most outstanding player as voted by his peers.
Ovechkin recorded 56 points and a league-best 32 goals in the lockout-shortened, 48-game regular season, but it wasn’t until the second half of the season that he truly found his stride. He scored 23 goals and had 36 points in the final 23 games and was the main force behind Washington’s surge from the worst team in the NHL to first place in the Southeast Division and a playoff berth.
In addition to the Capitals’ overall struggles assimilating to a new coach and new system in the abbreviated season, a significant portion of Ovechkin’s sluggish start can be attributed to his learning curve at right wing. The new angles, reads and routes didn’t come naturally after he spent his entire career on the left side.
Early on he would drift back to the left wing, even collide with a teammate as he crossed through center ice and misplay or overpass the puck. Even when things weren’t going well and pucks couldn’t find the back of the net, though, Oates’s encouragement was unwavering. There was progress — more touches, more space, better opportunities — and Oates, a Hall of Famer, understood what it meant for a player such as Ovechkin to take a leap of faith and alter his game.
“We’re talking about a guy who won the award twice as the best player in the world, and he was willing to change his game, his position, his security blanket for the organization,” Oates said Saturday night. “He believed in it enough that it would help him, and for the good of the organization he took a shot at it. He didn’t have to, but he did, and that’s why I’m glad he got rewarded. He checked his ego at the door to do that.”
By mid-March the changes were readily noticeable as Ovechkin found a comfort level on the right side. He was making better use of his linemates to create scoring opportunities, contributing to the play in all three zones and becoming much more of a consistent factor shift-to-shift.
Critics point out that Ovechkin’s dominance was limited to half the season, but Washington’s captain demonstrated his ability to improve and help his team after decreasing point totals the previous two seasons.
“It helped us, it helped him and I thought it would, but still he was willing to change,” Oates said. “We’re talking about a superstar who was willing to change, and that’s rare, and you know what? I’m glad he had success, and I’m glad it worked out.”