October 4, 2017 at 3:29 PM
Alex Ovechkin spent his August mornings skating with teammates at the Washington Capitals' practice facility with the same signature toothless grin and yellow laces on his skates. There, everyone was watching. Fans and media fixed on him as he rumbled up and down the 200-foot-long ice, and everything from Ovechkin's early return to town two weeks before training camp to his potential weight loss was scrutinized after the captain went into another Stanley Cup-less offseason with a charge to get slimmer and speedier. In the afternoons, after the crowds and questions receded, his actions went largely unnoticed. That was when he quietly would slip over to a nearby high school and circle its track.
The greatest NHL goal scorer of this generation is coming off a down year with the second-lowest goal total (33) in an 82-game season of his career. And as the Capitals try to rebound from yet another devastating playoff ouster at the hands of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, there's concern the decline in production could be the start of a new normal for the 32-year-old as he enters his 13th season. So in conversations over the summer, the Capitals encouraged Ovechkin to be dedicated to his conditioning, to make some changes and adapt to a changing league.
Ovechkin downplayed it all to the media, saying little about his weight, training routine or diet or whether they differed from years past. But Ovechkin brought his Russian trainer to Washington with him, quietly engaging in two-a-day workouts in the weeks before training camp. Teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov joined him, but while those two could enjoy actual obscurity, Ovechkin was still being watched running at Arlington's Washington-Lee High.
"There was a couple times when people kind of recognized Ovi," Orlov said. "Everybody knows him."
The attention will amplify with the start of the 2017-18 NHL season this week. Ovechkin and the Capitals hope to continue their pursuit of a first Stanley Cup with an altered supporting cast. The salary cap and expansion draft scourged Washington this offseason, and with the roster seemingly weakened as a result, the team's postseason hopes could hinge on whether Ovechkin can continue his elite performance level and defy the age curve for professional hockey players.
To do so likely will require more drive and more discipline to carry a team that lost 66 goals because of those summer departures and will feature a less-experienced defensive corps, all while keeping his body in peak condition. It will require a recognition that both he and the NHL have changed since the first dominant seasons of his glorious goal-scoring career, when the game seemed to come so easily. It also will require a hunger for a title that Washington's players, coaches and executives insist exists but Ovechkin's critics always are quick to question whenever he's slow on the backcheck or seen floating in the offensive zone.
For the Capitals to challenge for a championship, this season likely will demand a version of Ovechkin that again outpaces the expectations of a star his age. Is that a realistic prospect in a league that emphasizes youth and speed more than ever?
"He's going to be good," Orlov assured, his answer highlighting the fact that, at some point, that became a question.
'You don't really understand'
Teemu Selanne started crying when he was on the bench, looking up at the clock winding down as his first championship was about to become official. He started screaming when he hoisted the Stanley Cup. And then he started thinking, "Now I can die in peace one day."
"I was thinking many times, 'You know what, I don't know if I'm ever going to have a chance to win,' " Selanne said. "But when I won that and had to wait that so long time — 15 years — I think it tasted better, you know?"
Selanne, one of the NHL's all-time great goal scorers, won his first Stanley Cup at 36 years old. Steve Yzerman was 31 when the Detroit Red Wings won. After 11 seasons in St. Louis, Brett Hull became a Stanley Cup champion with the Dallas Stars at 34 years old. Luc Robitaille was 34 when he joined a star-studded Red Wings team in 2001 and won the championship at the end of that season. Ray Bourque lifted the Stanley Cup when he was 40, playing in the final game of a 22-season career.
They're all Hall of Famers, with Selanne the most recent inductee, and they all experienced that burden of athletic mortality, wondering whether their careers could last long enough to add a championship to their legacy.
"It was stressful," Selanne said. "If I can choose that if I win the Stanley Cup in the first couple years or later in my career, there's nothing like when you have to wait for that. So for the guys who haven't won, don't lose your faith. Your satisfaction is going to be so much bigger when you win."
When Selanne was selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the 1988 draft, he knew that team wasn't going to be good enough to contend for a championship. When he was traded to Anaheim in 1996, he thought the Ducks were a playoff team but not a Stanley Cup-caliber one. "It's kind of a frustrating thought because before every season, you know you're not going to win," he said.
Selanne then tried to force the issue. He and longtime teammate Paul Kariya joined the Colorado Avalanche before the 2003-04 season because they thought that team would give them the best chance to win. But Colorado didn't make it out of the second round that postseason, and the lockout washed out the following year, marking another lost opportunity for Selanne.
He was 34 at the time and coming off one of his worst seasons with 16 goals and 16 assists in 78 games. He realized he had reached the age where he had to be more diligent with his diet, his rest and how often he went for massage therapy. When he won with the Ducks in 2007, two years after that lockout, he scored 48 goals with 46 assists, his most productive season in nearly a decade.
"I changed everything," Selanne said. "Even in the summertime, I tried to be more disciplined about the training and doing the right things. . . . Sometimes when you're young, you don't really understand that because you think that you're going to have many chances."
Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan was on the Calgary Flames team that won the Stanley Cup in 1989. Lanny McDonald was 35 at the time and one of the team's two captains. The right wing who had once scored 66 goals in a season was often out of the lineup during the 1988-89 campaign with 11 goals and seven assists in 51 games. What stayed with MacLellan most was how a star player such as McDonald was willing to take a diminished role to win his first championship.
"I mean, he was sitting out, he was in the lineup, he played fourth line, he played third line, just looking for ways to contribute to the team," MacLellan said. "So you have to put your ego aside at some point and say, 'Yeah, if the team is going to win, I just want to be part of it.' He did that."
Ovechkin has heard those stories of winning late in a career, the ones where the star plays a pivotal role and the ones where he fills a lesser one. His takeaway: "If you're going to look at history, you can't wait."
Defying the aging curve
As Ovechkin turned 28, 29 and then 30 years old, he put up three straight seasons with at least 50 goals, roughly twice what the typical NHL aging curve predicts for a player of his caliber. Scoring in the league has declined, but for years, Ovechkin seemed to be frozen in time with goal-scoring numbers unattainable for pretty much everyone else in the modern NHL.
With 33 goals last season — a career low of 16 at even strength — Ovechkin inched closer to expectations for his age. Staving off Father Time has become even harder as young players entering the league are faster than ever, making Ovechkin look slower when he has tried to create separation and unfurl his potent shot. Ovechkin averaged 3.82 shots per game in 2016-17, another career low.
"It's an important year for him," MacLellan said. "It's kind of like a hump. Where is he going here? Is he the 33-goal scorer, or does he still have a higher level of production? I think he's aware of it."
Some of Ovechkin's decreased production can be attributed to less ice time. The Capitals had the luxury of playing him 18:22 a night rather than 20-plus minutes because the lineup around him was so skilled and deep. But players such as T.J. Oshie, Kuznetsov and Orlov got big pay raises this summer, which caused Washington to part with two top-six forwards in Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, who combined for 48 goals last season.
A team that had the league's best regular season record for two straight years now has significant holes in the forward corps and on defense. With Ovechkin still the highest-paid player on the team at a $9.5 million cap hit, much of the burden to replace the lost production of the offseason departures falls on him. His minutes likely will tick back up this season, which is Ovechkin's preference anyway.
"Those guys have drive," MacLellan said. "You know, you watch [Penguins center Sidney] Crosby and you watch these elite guys, they survive and they evolve as they get older. He still has a passion to score, so I mean, maybe he has to learn a couple different ways to score. Go to the net more, get more tips, rebounds — ugly goals versus his spot."
Those types of goals require a grind. There's more punishment around the net, and there's more effort required than lurking near the left faceoff dot and rifling a slap shot into the net. The process will be taxing. And it's fair to wonder as well about the psychological toll Washington's latest playoff ouster has taken on this team. The preseason was filled with low-energy performances from many Capitals. While the results do nothing to hinder Washington's pursuit of the playoffs, they likewise do little to dispel concerns the team has been fatigued from repeatedly falling short of its championship aspirations in heartbreaking fashion.
The Capitals don't doubt Ovechkin will remain productive on the power play, where he has scored anywhere from 16 to 25 goals since 2012. But if he is to reach 50 goals, which Coach Barry Trotz has referred to as "the bar," he has to find a way for his power forward style to be effective in this new, speedier league. The NHL Network recently ranked the current top players, and Ovechkin had slipped to 18th place, behind teammates Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom.
"I think 18 is pretty good," MacLellan said with a laugh.
"I think with his talent, he's capable of being in the top group," Trotz said. "Now he's got to produce. You can say he's top five, but if you don't produce in the top five, then they'll push you down."
Officially, Ovechkin came to training camp weighing 235 pounds, down four pounds from the start of last season. "When you get older, you have to work a little bit longer and harder," he said of the summer. His training involved less weightlifting and more running, such as all of those afternoons at the Washington & Lee track.
While players in other leagues are molding strict diets to extend their playing careers, such as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's electrolyte-heavy "TB 12 Method," Ovechkin's changes were more subtle. He hardly wanted to advertise them, even as his conditioning was thrust into the spotlight. Why?
"I'm still young," Ovechkin said with a smile.