By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
DALLAS, Jan. 23 -- Alex Ovechkin has accomplished so much in his first 17 months as an NHL player. His name already is engraved on a major trophy. He has scored an amazing goal from his back, and on Wednesday, he'll start for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game.
But the remarkable statistics and extensive collection of highlights aren't enough for Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon and General Manager George McPhee. They want more from their prodigy -- much more, in fact. What they seek, however, won't always be reflected in box scores or celebrated on sports highlight shows.
"He's already proven to a lot of people that he's an elite player," McPhee said. "But he wants to win a Cup. Our objective is to find how he can help us get there. Look at a player like Steve Yzerman. For years, he scored lots of points, but he really needed to learn how to play defense in order to win a championship."
Yzerman, Mark Messier and, more recently, Rod Brind'Amour, have hoisted the Stanley Cup. The Capitals believe that such a moment could be in Ovechkin's future. But before Ovechkin can deliver a Cup to Washington, he must work hard to evolve into a complete player, one who dominates in more than just the offensive end.
"It's crucial that he learns to play two ways," said Messier, who won five Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and another with the New York Rangers. "It's going to make him a player that's dangerous in every situation because the coach can rely on him, especially in big games, and regardless of whether it's short-handed, the power play or the end of a game. A guy with that talent who can play in every situation, at crucial points in the game, that's a huge plus for his team."
Ovechkin ranks sixth in goals with 29 (one behind the leaders) and tied for third in points with 65. Yet he's 16th in ice time per game among forwards, behind players such as Carolina's Brind'Amour, Atlanta's Marian Hossa and Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson, all of whom are exemplary on both ends of the rink.
Everyone agrees that the 21-year-old Russian's defensive decision making is better than it was a year ago, when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. But there's a reason Ovechkin has been limited to less than 19 minutes 12 times this season, less than 18 minutes on seven occasions and has a plus-minus rating of minus-6. Hanlon said he wants to play his franchise winger an average of about 24 minutes.
"If it's a 2-1 hockey game in the third period, you're not ever above the puck, ever," Hanlon said. "You can't assume someone else is going to get the puck out. If you aren't exactly where you are supposed to be, it throws everything into chaos. That's why when the game is on the line, there are certain guys who are out there. We want Ovie to be one of those guys, every single night."
Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig, who often has the clearest view of who is in the proper position, was more critical of his teammate.
"It's not blowing the zone to get a head start on a defenseman," Kolzig said. "It's not about cheating. It's playing the system and playing it right in his own end. He's made strides, but then he takes a step back. He's got to remind himself every game that it's defensive zone first. Because you win championships with defense. And he's the kind of guy who can help us win a championship, but he's got to be committed in his own end."
Although Hanlon praised Ovechkin earlier this season for his progress, that progress has been inconsistent and at times has appeared to plateau, frustrating both coach and player. But his attitude has remained positive as he struggles to adapt to the North American game, which puts more emphasis on systems play and defense.
"I want [to] improve my defense," Ovechkin said. "That's my goal. I try to concentrate and do my best in defensive zone, because that's what Coach tell me and I trust Coach. If I don't listen, I don't play much. For me, team results is more important than score goals. I want to win Stanley Cup, but it's hard. I must pressure myself to do that."
The Capitals don't want to rush Ovechkin, but with the team in contention for its first playoff spot since the 2002-03 season, they are becoming increasingly demanding. It's particularly important for a team rebuilding on a small budget because it must maximize the abilities of each player, especially those at the top end of the pay scale.
"It develops over time," McPhee said. "You can explain it to players, but it's a process. You come in, prove to people you're a good player, get lots of points, do exciting things. But when it comes to winning championships, other things are required. Whether it's Messier, or Yzerman or Gretzky, they all had to learn how to play away from the puck."
McPhee paused, then added, "That comes with experience and commitment."
Ovechkin's evolution into a two-way player, if it occurs, has another effect: It makes Hanlon's job easier.
"It makes the whole system work because how can you go to a 10-minute player and say you've got to do it this way if your 20-minute guy isn't?" Hanlon said. "When your top players are accountable all over the ice, it makes it very easy on the coach."
It's possible the word "defense" won't be mentioned at American Airlines Center, as the game's top players enjoy an exhibition that resembles pond hockey and will likely feature a combined score in double digits. But when Ovechkin returns to Washington on Thursday, it's going to be back to the serious challenge that's been put before him.
"The player wants to do it," Hanlon said. "If you play a certain way, and you are praised and you're idolized and you're drafted first overall and get all this stuff; it's all directed towards scoring goals. You don't draft Selke winners [an award to the league's best defensive forward] with your first overall pick. You get this type of player and mold him."