No matter how a Washington Capitals season ends, who the coach is, how the roster is constructed or which way the team is trying to play, the majority of the criticism levied upon the organization is directed toward Alex Ovechkin.
Nine seasons into his NHL career, there’s no one more aware of that reality than Ovechkin himself.
“It’s part of my job,” Ovechkin, 28, said Monday in his final interview with local reporters this season. “I’m captain of the team, and of course I have to take responsibility. I have to take criticism.”
Ovechkin earned the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer (51) for the fourth time, contributed 21.7 percent of Washington’s total goal production and became the 11th player in NHL history to reach the 50-goal plateau five times. Yet his defensive acumen is under fire again.
Ovechkin, who has seven years left on a contract that will pay him $10 million annually beginning next season, finished the year with a dreadful minus-35 rating, third worst in the league. That statistic marked the latest flash point for the entire NHL community to debate whether the star winger should focus on becoming better on defense and whether the Capitals should make a split from the player who reinvigorated the area as a hockey market.
For his part, Ovechkin said he would never ask for a trade — beginning July 1 a limited no-trade clause in his contract goes into effect allowing him to list up to 10 teams each year to whom he would accept one — and there’s been no indication Capitals owner Ted Leonsis would entertain the idea of parting with the face of the franchise.
When asked after the Capitals concluded their season having missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07 whether he should eschew his offensive focus, Ovechkin rebuffed the notion.
“If you remember when [Dale] Hunter was here and I didn’t score goals, you guys said, ‘Why don’t you score goals?’ I said, ‘My job to block shots.’ Whole world say, ‘Ovi stop playing what he used to play. He’s gone. We never going to see him again,’ ” Ovechkin said. “I don’t want to turn my back on this kind of position again. I get paid to score goals. I scored 50. You can’t point [at] one guy in position, say he didn’t do his job — look at everybody’s numbers. Watch the video, and everybody have a bad year.”
Of the 16 players who appeared in at least 41 games for the Capitals this season and finished the season with the organization, only five didn’t have minus ratings. Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, the second- and third-highest paid players on the roster behind Ovechkin, posted a minus-20 and minus-16, respectively. Those figures speak to concerns on a team level, not Ovechkin in a vacuum.
It’s also worth noting that plus-minus is widely considered a flawed statistic because it doesn’t take into account a player’s role in allowing an even strength or shorthanded goal against, simply whether he was on the ice.
“His minus stat isn’t all about him not defending well,” Coach Adam Oates said. “There’s moments he can be better for sure, but some of that’s on the goalies, some of that’s on the defense, right? Some of that’s on our forecheck, some of it’s him. It’s all of us."
Still, even Oates called the alarmingly bad minus rating “counterproductive,” and that comment came just weeks after he said Ovechkin “quit” on a play that led to a goal for the Dallas Stars on April 1.
Oates’s approach with Ovechkin continues to be to help the Moscow native continually improve, not only for himself but for the team as a whole — and that includes becoming better at handling defensive responsibility.
While no one expects him to suddenly become a finalist for the Selke Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL’s best defensive forward, the Capitals do want to see Ovechkin uphold the role of any winger in their own zone as part of the team’s overall philosophy and strategy.
“He is our identity. You see it every single night in every building we go. He is the identity. We go as he goes,” Oates said. “He brings the electricity. He’s our number one goal-scorer, plays a lot of minutes, and I need to get him to believe — which he does, we talk about it all the time — that he’s got to get better because the more I can get him to work on his game, then you can do it throughout the lineup.”