Barry Trotz had watched Alex Ovechkin often flash across NHL highlight reels — shots from his beloved left faceoff circle, shots that came after he toe-dragged and embarrassed a defenseman, shots he somehow managed while falling down. He was always shooting, and so when Trotz became the Washington Capitals’ coach four years ago, he assumed there wasn’t much more to the team’s captain than that.
“Ovi is an underrated passer,” Trotz said. “I just thought he was a pure shooter from afar. And then you start to see some of the plays that he can make.”
By the time this season is over, Ovechkin will likely have scored a 600th goal and played in a 1,000th game, milestones that highlight the two qualities that are most associated with Ovechkin’s greatness, his lethal shot and his durability. His resurgent season — 26 goals through 41 games — has him on pace for the eighth 50-goal season of his career. Hall-of-Famers Johnny Bucyk, Bobby Hull and Phil Esposito, as well as the still-active Jaromir Jagr, are the only players to score 50 goals in a season at Ovechkin’s age of 32 or older.
But he’s closest to a milestone that seems counter-intuitive for the NHL’s greatest goal scorer of this generation. Ovechkin is poised to become the second Capitals player to tally 500 assists in his career.
“Every milestone is something special,” Ovechkin said. “You know, it’s something cool to get. I don’t know how many assists I have right now.”
“Yeah, so six assists,” Ovechkin continued. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to get there. Maybe at one point I’ll get there.”
“He’ll get there,” Nicklas Backstrom said with a chuckle.
Backstrom is the only other player in Washington franchise history who’s reached that marker, doing so this time last year, and he’s been Ovechkin’s center for the majority of both of their careers, assisting on 225 of Ovechkin’s 584 goals. So, what does the Capitals’ best setup man think of Ovechkin’s ability to pass the puck?
“When you watch him, you don’t really watch for him to pass it,” Backstrom said. “You don’t really care about the passing. But I feel like he’s a good passer. He can really find those seam passes everywhere, I feel like. That’s absolutely something you aren’t really aware of, but he’s a good passer, too.”
Defenseman Brooks Orpik was guilty of underestimating Ovechkin’s passing ability when he was often tasked with defending him as a longtime Pittsburgh Penguins player. It wasn’t until Orpik regularly practiced against Ovechkin as Capitals teammates that he realized other facets of his offensive game are perhaps underappreciated. Ovechkin is most dangerous on the power play, but on Washington’s loaded unit, he’s able to use the considerable attention paid to him as a way to free his teammates. The same could be said at even strength, just when an opposing team starts to crowd Ovechkin, he’ll happily dish it to someone else for an open look.
“When you play against him, obviously what you game-plan against is his shot and his one-timer, his ability to create shots,” Orpik said. “A lot of times goalies and defensemen, with him you think shot-first, and he’s really good at selling the shot, freezing the goalie and getting you to kind of commit.”
Ovechkin’s assists numbers over the past two seasons have been their best since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, when Ovechkin was 27 years old and averaged a whopping 1.17 points per game through 48 games. As Ovechkin’s goal production slipped last season to 33, a good year for most NHLers but a bad one by Ovechkin’s lofty standards, he tallied the most assists he’s had in an 82-game season since 2010-11, when he was 25 years old. That was also the season he scored the fewest goals of his career (32), so this season is somewhat an anomaly, the first time he’s expected to finish with 50-plus goals along with 30-plus assists in nine years. Ovechkin had at least 46 assists in his first six seasons.
As the talent and depth of Washington’s roster took a hit because of salary-cap constraints, the organization asked Ovechkin to take his offseason conditioning seriously and consider making some changes to increase his production. The Capitals are back atop the Metropolitan Division at the season’s midpoint after some early struggles, and Ovechkin has scored roughly a fifth of the team’s goals this season, a greater share than any other player for any other team.
“I don’t think it’s a statement,” he said on Thursday. “I’ve been in this position before. I don’t need to prove to someone that I’m as good as I am. It’s most important thing that I know who I am and I know how I have to play to be on that level.”
Ovechkin’s critics have long derided him for being a selfish superstar. But of players drafted in the 2004 class, only Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin has already tallied 500 assists. Of players drafted since 2000, Ovechkin will be the first winger to reach the milestone.
“To be honest with you, I don’t care what people think,” Ovechkin said. “I care what my teammates think and if they’re ready for my pass, sometimes it’s not that perfect. I’m kind of a different player than if you take Backy or [center Evgeny Kuznetsov] or somebody else. I like to shoot the puck more than anybody in the league. If my partner is in a better position, I give it to them.”
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