Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

Washington Capitals’ woes? They start with an 8

Though they won Monday night to open their homestand, the Washington Capitals have mortgaged their strong start to the season with passionless play over the past month, exemplified by Saturday night’s listless effort in Toronto. The Caps had lost seven of their last 11 games before coming back against Phoenix, mixing in the occasional stand with a lot of malaise. So naturally, all the tired cliches are being dragged out for Coach Bruce Boudreau.

“He’s lost the locker room.” Really? Did the players and their cubicles magically go poof, like a misplaced set of car keys? “They’ve stopped playing for him.” I’m imagining a players-only meeting ending with the team captain proclaiming, “That’s it; we all agree: We need to lose one for Coach tonight.”

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The truth is, only one person is emotionally missing from the Capitals’ locker room, and everyone inside that cocoon knows who it is. It’s the guy who looks like a shell of his former self, who before getting an assist Monday hadn’t score in four games and often doesn’t even look interested in playing hockey. Until Alex Ovechkin finds himself, finds the electrifying player he once was and backpacks this team to the Stanley Cup finals, everyone’s employment with the organization is in jeopardy.

Boudreau might go first. If not, then they jettison Alexander Semin, Ovechkin’s friend and Russian countryman whose mercurial ways seem to be rubbing off on Ovi more than his adrenaline and fire have ever influenced Semin. Sasha was a fourth-liner the other day at practice, was scratched Monday night and could be on his way out of town after that.

If the Caps can’t win it in two years’ time, more players will either be cut or shipped out, until George McPhee, Ted Leonsis’s general manager for life, finally walks the plank.

If that were to unfortunately happen, McPhee would rightly be mad as hell he could never get the right coach or right mix of players to lift the grail with Ovechkin — face of the franchise, the $124 million man, the NHL’s most dynamic, eye-catching player since Wayne Gretzky.

Yes, No. 8, The Great Frustrate.

“When Alex was fighting with [Sidney] Crosby as the best player in the world, I thought Alex was one of the hardest-working players in the world,” said ESPN analyst Barry Melrose, when I spoke with him earlier this month. “I don’t know if Alex is one of the hardest-working players in the world right now.”

Adding that Ovechkin needs to alter his game, Melrose added: “I’m not slamming Alex; I love him. But when I talk about great players I always say, ‘To those who are given the most, the most is expected.’ When you are given as much as Alex, being average isn’t good enough, and right now Alex is average.”

When I told Ovi this on Sunday after practice, he dismissed it, saying he had not heard that and that he didn’t wish to comment.

He should listen to the criticism, internalize it and let it fuel him instead of being in denial about his lack of productivity lately. He is on pace for a career-low 31 goals, one less than a year ago, when he scored 18 fewer goals than the year before.

I saw this stat this offseason, and it bears repeating: Just one prolific scorer in NHL history had his greatest goal-scoring season after the age of 25 and that was Brett Hull, who scored 86 goals at 26 years of age. Gretzky’s record 92 goals in the 1981-82 season, and Mario Lemieux’s 85 goals in 1990-91 came between their 20th and 25th birthdays. Ovechkin just turned 26. He is miles away from the player who scored a career-high 65 goals in 2007-08. Of course the numbers don’t measure the desire needed to win a Cup, but NHL observers are starting to wonder if Ovechkin has another 50-goal season in him.

That’s not because he’s a broken-down memory of the physical wonder he used to be; no, it’s because Ovi is so damn predictable now. Stop me if you’ve seen this sequence before. No. 8 accelerates down the left side, angles toward the middle of the ice. Drags. Curls. Poke check by defenseman. Rush over — without even a clean shot on goal.

Yes, Mike Green is hurt, and never have the Capitals missed his move-the-puck skill more. And Boudreau’s musical-chair lines don’t always change the energy; maybe Ovi should be averaging more than 18 minutes a game, 62nd in the league. Bottom line, though, this team goes as Ovechkin goes. He wants it; they want it. He skates without purpose or passion; they skate without purpose or passion.

Big picture: If Boudreau doesn’t have the opportunity to win a Stanley Cup here, he will coach another NHL team and be just fine once the sting wears off. The same goes for the other coaches and players who couldn’t get it done during the Ovi Era; no one is going hungry or broke tomorrow.

The only guy I would really feel sorry for is Ovechkin. See, Boudreau can get another job; Ovi has only one legacy as a great NHL player. Winning a Stanley Cup is really the only meaningful measure of one’s mettle in hockey.

And he’s blowing it right now, blowing it big time.

If Boudreau doesn’t make it through this homestand or season, Ovechkin is the biggest reason why. And whoever comes in — Dale Hunter, a retread such as Mike Keenan, heck, Barry Melrose — the bottom line is Ovi in six seasons will already be on his third coach, which is one more than his number of Stanley Cup series victories.

Again, Crosby is a bad comparison at the moment, because he’s won a Cup and been to two finals.

I know of another great, young talent who made a struggling franchise matter again. He even worked at Verizon Center, briefly for Leonsis. Enraptured by his boyish exuberance at first, we actually chronicled the big-kid side of him as much as his amazing athletic feat. Until the wow factor gradually dissipated with injuries and immaturity — until Gilbert Arenas never fulfilled his promise and, in fact, ran himself right out of town.

Don’t be that guy, Ovi. Treat yourself better. Treat your teammates better. Treat your coach better.

Play, damn it! Play as hard and fast and determined as you once did. Or your regret is going to last a lot longer than the people who played with and coached you — because they won’t have wasted half as much talent and ability as you have.

 
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