Only rarely during his NHL career has Alex Ovechkin lined up anywhere on the ice other than left wing. Occasionally, because of a specific matchup with an opposing defenseman, he would find himself on the opposite side for a few shifts or maybe even an entire game, but it was always a short-lived experiment.
During the first two days of Washington Capitals training camp, though, Ovechkin skated as a right wing instead of his usual left. It’s unclear how long he’ll stay there, but the switch could inject more variety into Ovechkin’s game and help him continue to evolve as a player.
Ovechkin, 27, brought up the idea to Coach Adam Oates in an offseason meeting, and the first-year bench boss encouraged the star forward to consider his willingness to make the move.
“We talked about it and then he asked me to think, do I want to do it or no?” Ovechkin recalled. “I said yeah, let’s try it. I think it will give new looks for me, new looks for different teams to try [to] cover us.”
Over the past two seasons as Ovechkin’s point production dipped, his game was routinely criticized for being too predictable and easy for opposing defenses to counteract because he continued to lean heavily on a few favorite moves.
The most familiar is when Ovechkin carries the puck into the offensive zone from the left side, slashes through the high slot and tries to shoot while using a defenseman as a screen. While it still can work, opponents learned how to pressure him into turnovers or low-percentage shots.
“A lot of times if he’s on the right side he won’t be able to come through the middle and take that shot in the middle, so he may have to more often go wide and beat his guy wide,” veteran center Mike Ribeiro said. “It’s just an adjustment. He needs to get used to it and find other ways to [get] open ice.”
To be clear, Ribeiro isn’t worried about Ovechkin’s ability to acclimate.
“Guys with skill will always find ways to create or score,” Ribeiro added. “I think defensively it might help him more along the boards and with chipping it out, but he’s so good that he’ll . . . find a way to figure out how to play right wing.”
While Oates was an assistant in New Jersey the past two seasons, the Devils moved Ilya Kovalchuk to the right side from the left. That situation was a little different: The Devils wanted to put Kovalchuk, a right-handed shot, on a line with Zach Parise, who was locked into the left wing spot. It didn’t last long in the 2010-11 season, but during the Devils’ run to the Stanley Cup finals last year, Kovalchuk played primarily on the right side, except on the power play where he played the left point.
Two days into training camp, Ovechkin has played on a line centered by Nicklas Backstrom with speedy Marcus Johansson on the left wing. It makes for a fast top line with strong offensive instincts, and Oates believes the configuration can also help balance the forward lineup.
Oates wants to ensure Ovechkin is at ease wherever he plays, however, especially if it’s a new position that will require him to adjust some habits.
“I think with the way our defense is going to be is going to allow him to do it and make him feel more comfortable doing it,” Oates said. “We’re going to use him every way we can and try to utilize him. He’s a force in this league. He’s very important to us, and I want to make sure that he knows that I’m going to do my best to let him be successful.”
Oates said earlier that earning each and every player’s trust, including Ovechkin’s, is one of the largest challenges he faces as a new coach. It takes time to develop that relationship and build a strong rapport, but so far it seems as though Oates and Ovechkin are off to a positive start even as the face of the franchise tackles a new position.
“I feel trust is most important thing [to have] from him,” Ovechkin said. “And I know he going to give me that opportunity to be who I am, and I’m going to do my best to play for him.”