The evidence would suggest Capitals captain/franchise player Alex Ovechkin is in decline. In this case, the evidence is circumstantial. If you think Ovechkin has lost his standing as an NHL superstar, think again.
As a close observer of the Washington Capitals for many years, I remember watching videos of Alex Ovechkin in 2003 and early 2004 before he was drafted as he played for the KHL’s Russian Dynamo team and in international play. I recall comparing the projected No. 2 pick, Evgeni Malkin with Ovechkin and, as talented as Malkin was, Ovechkin was a clear No. 1 pick for the 2004 NHL Draft. To me, the Capitals, with the first pick that year, had no choice but to draft Ovechkin.
Ovechkin’s first season in 2005 included many moments of flash, despite the Caps’ losing ways. Ovechkin that season had 52 goals, 106 points and was the obvious recipient of the Calder Trophy. In the ’07-’08 season, the Capitals fired then-coach Glen Hanlon in November and hired Bruce Boudreau. The team came back from the depths of the Eastern Conference and came back to win the Southeast Divsion, putting them into the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. Their valiant efforts resulted in a first-round matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers, losing in overtime in Game Seven.
After last season and the early portion of this season, Ovechkin began to lose some of his followers. His numbers declined to his lowest beginning last season. With linemate and teammate Nicklas Backstrom coming back and performing this year, but Ovechkin’s numbers still declining to be even worse than last season, people began to wonder if Ovechkin was on the downside of his career — if he really will ever be great.
It certainly hasn’t helped that over time, comparisons to Sidney Crosby became less relevant as both players’ careers advanced. With Crosby having already won a Stanley Cup, a gold medal, having beaten Ovechkin in the playoffs (even in the WJC tournament before they were drafted, having lost the gold medal to Team Canada) and being what some would describe as being the right type of player to be captain of a team, Ovechkin’s value fell further when it was noted he had no medals, no Cups, and no important victories over Crosby. With Ovechkin now at a far second place from Crosby, along with Stamkos, Toews, Giroux, the Sedin twins, among others having caught up, Ovechkin looked even worse, considering he was supposed to play the role of second-rate superstar.
Were the expectations unfair? To a degree, yes. To have Crosby-Ovechkin live up to a Gretzky-Lemieux level of hype was unfair, as the latter developed over time with Mario Lemieux’s possibly unthinkable closeness to Gretzky’s points production. There was no time to develop the comparisons between the two new players, especially with the two being almost completely different players and the NHL’s game being different as well.
But were the expectations for Ovechkin himself unfair? At the same time, no. After scoring “only” 92 points his second year, he bounced back in ’07-’08 with 65 goals and 112 points. That year, he won his first Hart, Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies — his second Hart and Richard trophies came the following season in ’08-’09.
Now in 2011, Ovechkin only has 10 goals and 22 points — 48th and 64th in the league, respectively. However, in the last few games, he has shown that the “old Ovechkin” isn’t gone — and could be back very soon.
With the new coach, Dale Hunter, around, it was possible that Ovechkin would become a better player under a better system. With Hunter’s
propensity to let his best offensive players go, it would bode well for Washington’s skilled core to get back to their best hockey.
In Hunter’s first game with the Caps against the St. Louis Blues, a change already seemed to have occur for Ovechkin. To respond to the complaint that Ovechkin makes the same move too many times when entering the offensive zone, instead of riding the boards all the way into the zone, Ovechkin moved laterally, cutting to the other side of the ice. From there, without two defenders on him, he made a nifty pass to Nicklas Backstrom, who was open for the shot to score the first goal of the game. Still, the Caps lost 2-1, and extended their losing streak to four games.
In a game against the Ottawa Senators, the Capitals were tied at two with the Sens after Backstrom saved a lackluster two period effort that had Washington down 2-1. However, the Caps still looked dead.
Alex Ovechkin had the puck along the boards entering the Senators’ zone. He took the puck around the net, only to hit the brakes past the right faceoff circle, creating a shower of snow. He stops and starts, heads toward the net, before taking snap shot that whistled through Craig Anderson’s legs for the go-ahead goal. Ovechkin then roared a sigh of relief. Following the goal, three different Caps players scored, giving Washington a 5-3 comeback victory, snapping an eight-game losing streak and getting the team the confidence that was lacking offensively — as if everyone was just waiting for him to score.
Last Friday, Ovechkin followed up his highlight reel goal with a strong performance against the Maple Leafs. He earned an assist on Wideman’s second goal, giving him points in back-to-back games after his goal in Ottawa. Ovechkin also led the team in shots with eight, and only had three blocked shot attempts. He moved down the ice with the ease that audiences hadn’t seen in the last season and a half, and forced the defense to take him down, forcing some of the penalties that Toronto took.
People seemed pleased with Ovechkin’s play on Friday. The past season and a half, though, what many people overlooked and criticized was Ovechkin’s play away from the puck. When everyone else was having an awful game, Ovechkin was the one making all the hits, playing defense, and creating room for other players, such as in the Caps’ 4-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets in November, where the crowd chanted, “Ovi! Ovi!” But that’s not what Ovechkin is known for, and with his whole team struggling offensively, if he is to lead with his play as captain, he would need to jump-start the offense.
Ovechkin chose to change his style in 2010, according to “Transition Game: The Story of the 2010-11 Washington Capitals”, written by Ted Starkey, a long-time sportswriter whose work on the Caps has been in The Washington Times and AOL.
The book makes mention that after his suspensions in 2009-10, Ovechkin became concerned about the perception that people thought he was trying to hurt people, as told by former Caps’ Vice President of Public Relations, Nate Ewell. As a result, Ovechkin significantly scaled back his physical play (Starkey, 75).
The big move for Ovechkin that same year, however, was when he first obtained the “C” as captain of the Capitals. Seeing the failures the Caps have had in the past, he tried to put less emphasis on the regular season and his own individual (pg. 75, 82) success, as, to him, his own success wasn’t doing much to help the team as a whole.
This season, the criticism has been even harsher, because now Ovechkin’s struggles didn’t seem like a fluke if they kept happening. Some around the league blame him for the Capitals’ failures. Despite being placed with many difference line combinations, as well as Mike Green’s constant injuries and concussions keeping him from returning to quarterback the offense, the entire team’s offensive struggles, a few nagging injuries, there were only so many things the Russian superstar could do on his own. he was unable to give the offense a spark.
Now it seems that the 26-year-old Russian is making both his offensive performance, physicality and play away from the puck just as important.
Still there are things Ovechkin needs to do to get back to his old self.
George McPhee weighed in Michael Farber’s Sports Illustrated article, “When Ovie came into the league the game almost came easy to him,” McPhee said. “Like [Teemu] Selanne or [Alex] Mogilny, guys like that. At some point you have to start making adjustments because the league’s made adjustments to you.”
McPhee continued on Ovechkin’s game, “Ovie’s [Ovechkin] been guilty of relying too much on the outside shot and not going to the net enough, [the place where] most goals are scored.”
Nonetheless, with the Caps and Jets in a scoreless tie Thursday evening, Ovechkin proved his worth, scoring with what seemed like ease with 1:14 left in the game as he came up on the right side and put away a drop pass from Marcus Johansson. The goal lasted as the game’s only score giving the Caps a 1-0 win over Winnipeg on the road.
Again, there is still a long way to go for Ovechkin — and the rest of the Capitals — to return to the same stardom that existed prior to last season, but he has shown his skill is still there and it will be only a matter of time before it comes back out in full force.