As the Washington Capitals gathered one more time as a team Monday before dispersing for the summer, Alex Ovechkin was asked how he evaluated himself this season. The star winger replied with a retort that was indicative of the dual nature of his year and, on a larger scale, career.
“Which position?” Ovechkin asked. “Goal scorer or plus-minus?”
Every year, no matter what Ovechkin does, the focus is on what he doesn’t do. So this season, while Ovechkin earned the Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer (51) for the fourth time in his career, as much or more attention has been paid to his mind-boggling minus-35 rating, the third worst in the league.
Ovechkin, 28, is accustomed to the scrutiny. “It’s part of my job. I’m captain of the team and of course I have to take responsibility,” he said. “I have to take criticism.”
The plus-minus rating, an admittedly flawed statistic that doesn’t take into consideration all the missteps by players that lead to an even strength or shorthanded goal against, provided the latest launch pad to dissect Ovechkin’s defensive wherewithal or lack thereof.
Ovechkin has acknowledged that his plus-minus is alarmingly low but is quick to remind that he’s far from alone. Of the players that finished the season on Washington’s roster, only eight have even or plus ratings, including Dustin Penner, who played only 18 games as a Capital after arriving at the trade deadline.
But given Ovechkin’s role as face of the franchise, captain and that he’s under contract through the 2020-21 season, Coach Adam Oates sees improvement in becoming a strong all-around player as imperative for the star winger.
“I think for Ovi, the minus was a lousy stat this year. It’s a shame because he does do so much for our team. I talked to him and it’s one of the things that we have to address for sure. He can’t score 50 goals and a minus-35. It’s obviously counterproductive,” Oates said. “I told him that that is something that for him, for the rest of his career has to be one of his focal points, that [he has] to continually grow as a player because I feel he’s our identity.
“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 continued. “He brings the electricity, he’s our No. 1 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.”
As Ovechkin likes to say, though, he is paid to score goals. He excited the NHL because of his unbridled enthusiasm for scoring goals. It’s still challenging, Oates has said, to convince Ovechkin to value the other plays and contributions he can have as much as putting the puck in the back of the net.
Ovechkin doesn’t want to change his role as goal-scorer-in-chief, though.
“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.”