“First of all, thanks for all the fans who voted for me,” Ovechkin said Wednesday. “I know it’s a tough decision, obviously. I like to be part of all the events, but right now I think that time of the year and my age we decide to take a one-week break. It’s hard, but it’s better for me.”
Every team is required to have at least one player representative, and when the all-star rosters were announced Wednesday evening, Capitals defenseman John Carlson was selected for the first time and goaltender Braden Holtby was selected for the fourth straight year. After a career year last season in which he led all NHL defensemen in points, Carlson has six goals and 32 assists in 37 games, tied for third in scoring among blue-liners. Holtby, who won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender in 2016, has a 2.84 goals against average and a .912 save percentage.
If Washington is still leading the Metropolitan Division at the halfway point of the season later this month, Coach Todd Reirden will coach the division’s team.
While Ovechkin participated in the past two All-Star Games, he missed the 2016 version in Nashville because of an undisclosed “lower-body” injury. He chose not to go in 2012 because the event was going to fall in the middle of his three-game suspension for an illegal hit.
With the Capitals coming off a Stanley Cup run, Ovechkin’s offseason was a month shorter than in past years, which left him less time to recover from playing 106 games, including the playoffs. At 33, he is at least 10 years older than the three other division captains who were fans’ top choices, Toronto’s Auston Matthews, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid.
The nod was deserved, with Ovechkin leading the league with 29 goals and on pace for his best season since 2009-10, when he was 24. But Ovechkin’s average ice time of 21:09 is a minute higher than he was skating last season, and it’s the most he has played per game in eight seasons. Ovechkin said he spoke to General Manager Brian MacLellan and Reirden to get their blessing, and then he told teammates of his decision Wednesday morning.
“It’s all the little things right now,” Ovechkin said. “You can take the short offseason, a long [playoff] run, but right now my body needs a rest. I’m not saying it’s sore or something, but for us I think it’s the right decision.”
Reirden said Ovechkin is not injured, but added, “can you say he’s 100 percent? Well, most players aren’t 100 percent at this point, so you can’t really say he’s 100 percent.” After going on a career-best 14-game point streak that included 17 goals with back-to-back hat tricks, he hasn’t scored in six games. In Wednesday’s practice, Reirden changed up the top-six forward corps to have Ovechkin beside center Evgeny Kuznetsov and right wing Tom Wilson, Washington’s top line in the playoffs last season.
“It’s his decision, and organizationally, we support him on that,” Reirden said. “He’s played a lot of minutes. He’s had a lot of wear and tear for the last year and a half. I think that allows him to get the type of rest that he needs in terms of pushing us forward in the second half of the season. He knows his body and what’s best for him, and I expect him to come back stronger than ever. . . .
“He’s been wrestling with this for a while, and he knows the honor of being voted in by the fans and all that. He’s thinking about our team and what gives our team the best chance to have success after what we did last year. It’s a tough one, but we’ll decide what game it is he misses as we get closer to that.”
Matt Niskanen could play in St. Louis
Defenseman Matt Niskanen has missed the past two games with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury, but the Capitals are optimistic that he’ll be back in the lineup against the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night. Niskanen has averaged more than 22 minutes per game this season, playing in all situations and typically matched against opponents' top forwards. He got hurt last week, when he awkwardly crashed into the boards during a game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Niskanen said he was evaluated for a concussion, but that’s not what his injury is.
“I would say based upon today’s practice, we’re heading in the right direction, so we’re getting closer to getting him back out there,” Reirden said. “I’ll wait and see and how he reacts on the flight and everything to see how he is tomorrow. We’re hoping to [have him play] tomorrow.”