September 2, 2014

Washington Capitals End-of-Season Roundtable, Part IV: Captain, My Captain

Part Four of our Washington Capitals end-of-season roundtable debates the pros and cons of the Captain, Alex Ovechkin. He seemed to be the national media’s whipping boy much of the season before earning accolades in the post-season for sacrificing his game for the “good of the team”. But was it good for the team?

Once again, our panelists are Dave Nichols (DSP Editor-in-Chief), Abram Fox (DSP Caps Page Editor), Erika Schnure (Ravings of a Rink Rebel and DSP’s Caps minor league contributor), Andrew Tomlinson (DSP Caps contributor) and respected Caps media Ted Starkey (author of Transition Game and Red Rising), Peter Hassett (Russian Machine Never Breaks) and Adam Vingan (NBCWashington.com and Kings of Leonsis).

Click here to see Part I, “Disappointed or encouraged“, here to see Part II, “How did Hunter do?”, here to see Part III, “Overachiever or underachiever?”

So, what was our panel’s impression of The Great Eight?

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Dave: To me, Ovechkin is very much at a crossroads in his career. History tells us that his days as a 65 (or, for that matter, 50) goal scorer are over. It is now up to him to define what type of player he wants to be. Does he go the route of Steve Yzerman, another player in his younger days criticized for “only” being a goal scorer, and adjust his game to retain the mantel of one of the most dangerous players in the game? Or does he continue down the path he seems headed, persistent in attacking the game the way he alwyas has in the past, hoping for better results?

The skill is still obvious. The desire in unquestionable. The commitment, in terms of training and preparation? That is probably the biggest element of Ovechkin’s game that needs refining. Until this point in his career, Ovechkin’s simply been able to lace ‘em up and dominate on the ice. It’s apparent from watching him the last two seasons that those days are over. He needs to be a smarter hockey player.

All the national media focused on Ovechkin’s ice time in the playoffs, and how Ovi was sacrificing for the good of the team. But it’s hogwash. What’s good for this team is Ovechkin dominating physically and on the scoresheet, playing a lot and shooting a lot, and systems designed to prevent that — from his own coaches — reduces one of the world’s natural goal scorers to a decoy.

As for the leadership aspect, I used to think it was vastly overrated. And maybe before, it was. But being around this team as much as I am, there are times this past season I’ve sensed that not everyone was on the same page, regardless of the results on the ice and what players would say in the media. Anytime you put 25 people in a room you’ll have personality differences, and an NHL team is no different. But this team has undergone changes to its social structure over the past five years, and I’m starting to wonder if those changes haven’t dramatically changed the chemistry on the ice.

It might be a good thing the “Young Guns” may no longer exist after the free agency period. It might force those that remain to grow up a bit.

Abram: Poor. It was better statistically than you may think – without world-class setup man Nicklas Backstrom for half the season, Ovechkin still finished 5th in the NHL in goals with 38. His point total was way down because his assists were way down, and again Backstrom’s absence is at least partially to blame for that. When you consider that his 19:48 TOI this season is almost two minutes less per game than his previous career low, his numbers are fair.

That said, Ovechkin showed that he is not much of a leader. In my mind it’s perfectly fine for a captain to lead by actions instead of words, but that doesn’t work well if your game is a one-trick pony and that trick isn’t working. Without any defensive responsibility and without the ability to transition from scorer to playmaker, Ovechkin was ineffective in galvanizing his team. In relying on Hunter to perform that role instead, Ovechkin weakened his own power. It’ll be incumbent on Ovechkin to reassert himself as a leader. If he does that he’ll become a much stronger contributor to this team even when he’s not scoring.
I would also like to see Ovechkin embrace more of a commitment to defense. He doesn’t need to turn into a shutdown player, but I’d love to see him play more of a Anze Kopitar role for the Caps. Not only did Kopitar lead his team in goals (admittedly, with just 25, an unacceptable number for Ovechkin) while also leading L.A.’s forward in shorthanded time on ice. I’d settle for Ovechkin just no longer being a complete liability in the defensive end…I paid close attention to him in the Caps’ zone during the playoffs, and he looked u-g-l-y.

Erika: I don’t think it was as bad as so many were making it out to be. As I keep mentioning, it took a long time for not just Ovechkin, but most of the players to adjust to the new system once Hunter came in. No, it wasn’t quite his 65-goal season of old, but his performance wasn’t necessarily bad, it was just not the numbers to which people were accustomed. He does need to continue to work on his defensive game, but I think Hunter really did help him along with that. But he really turned it on at just the right time — Ovechkin had a great postseason.

Andrew: It is hard to rate Alex Ovechkin’s performance because you have to determine if you are rating it against what he should do or the rest of the league?

Against the rest of the league, he had a very solid season. He scored some key goals and started to make adjustments later in the year. He was passed by other more elite players in the game at this moment , such as Steven Stamkos, but Ovechkin had a very nice season in the grand scheme of things.

All of that said, if you are comparing him to his past performances, it was another disaster of a season. He is failing to recognize that his former moves don’t work and often times looks sluggish, uninterested and just lost on the ice. At the end of the day, the Great-8 is a long way from his Hart Trophy winning form.

Ted: While not one of his better seasons in Washington, the rumors of Alex Ovechkin’s demise are a bit overrated. Playing in a system that wasn’t built to his strength, Ovechkin still was fifth overall in the NHL in goals, and even only playing two rounds, still is tied for 11th in playoff scoring as the Devils and Kings square off in the Finals. While the Capitals’ captain was a bit uneven – and also slowed a bit by a three-game suspension in January – Ovechkin still showed he was one of the better players in the league.

And, as the Devils and Kings showed, it’s usually better to acquire a superstar than to try to get equal return – which the Caps could almost never get thanks to Ovechkin’s salary – just ask the former Atlanta Thrashers and Philadelphia Flyers who saw their former stars help their new teams to a Stanley Cup Finals berth. Talks of a potential Ovechkin trade would just prove to be a disaster to the franchise both on and off the ice, and I would treat any suggestion of the sort as fiction.

Peter: Unfavorable. I firmly believe that Alex Ovechkin hasn’t been “optimized” by his coaches; he’s not getting enough starts in the offensive zone and he doesn’t have the linemates to make it happen. His team switched to a style that generated far fewer shots on goal, which is devastating to a player who rose to glory by leading the league in shots.

But a fair amount of blame lies on Ovechkin himself: he carries the puck too often from neutral into the attacking zone when he should be relying on the pivot to do that; he requests to play on the point of the power play rather than in zones from which he is a more effective scorer; and goodness gracious that cut-to-the-middle-and-use-the-defender-as-a-screen move could not be more played out. Still: all those problems are eminently fixable. We may yet see a rebirth of the Great Eight.

Adam: Offensively, it was his worst season to date; there was a 20-point drop-off between last season (which was his worst season statistically before this season) and this season. Yet, you can see that he tried to develop an all-around game under Hunter. Ovechkin admitted that it was “pretty hard” to adjust, but you could see that he was definitely learning. If Ovi is not going to be the big-time scorer that he once was, adding a more solid defensive game is very important. It still needs work, but he is on the right track.

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Next up, we’ll take a look at the impeding free agents, both UFAs and RFAs, and try to figure who returns and who looks for work elsewhere.

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Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.

Comments

  1. Matt Wilson says:

    Don’t forget that Ovi stopped being effective in a system that WAS built to his strengths.

    • Jerry Rivas says:

      Well Matt, what position do you play? I’d like to buy your jersey! If you build a team around a star, you build to his strengths. If you put in a system on a team built around that star, you put in a system that enhances his strengths. If you do the opposite, then it’s time to get another star. I see two problems with Ovechkin. One he has an ego that won’t permit him to subordinate himself to a system that doesn’t emphasize his strengths and he has a long-term high-dollar contract that the GMGM doesn’t know how to get value for in a trade. My personal opinion is that if Ovie goes, so do half the fans (especially the kids). So, the problem in my mind shifts to the front office, where GMGM doesn’t seem to know how to build/keep a team. Example: Vokoun deemed no value to Caps, GMGM gets 7th rounder from Penguins in trade, Vokoun gets 2-year $4M contract! Some would say that GMGM at least got something for a UFA, but Pens give Vokoun a pay raise! So what does the Pens front office know that GMGM doesn’t? To end, Ovie probably should not be captain, but he isn’t the problem either. When/if Semin goes, it’s going to be interesting to see how Ovie reacts. If you were Kuznetsov, would you want to come here?

      • Matt Wilson says:

        I can’t sell you my jersey because I need it to play in.

        Seriously though, you see Ovie as the problem and so do I. A system ain’t gonna fix that problem unless it involves therapy.

        But hey, if I was 26 with a billion dollars and all I heard was how awesome I was, I’d have some issues too.

    • Fingerman says:

      Saying Ovi stopped being effective in a system built to his strengths isn’t really correct. The team actually changed systems in December of 2010, which was at a time when Ovi wasn’t playing particularly well, and the team itself was in a scoring slump. But it was a slump that had lasted only about 10 games–certainly not a reason to all of a sudden go to a more defensive system. Even Boudreau has since said that was a mistake. This team hasn’t played an offensive style since early in the 2010-2011 season–and has let that Montreal loss change the entire philosophy of the team. And, in the long run, I don’t think it’s for the better.

      • Matt Wilson says:

        The system didn’t change after the Olympics and that’s when our friend fell off.

        I agree with you that changing the system was not addressing the problem. Ovie’s head was the problem and I have no idea how to fix that. I totally agree about the system.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Hunter do?”, here to see Part III, “Overachiever or underachiever?”, here to see Part IV, “Captain, My Captain“, and here to see Part V, “Free agent frenzy,” and here to see Part VI, “Where to [...]

  2. [...] Click here to see Part I, “Disappointed or encouraged“, here to see Part II, “How did Hunter do?”, here to see Part III, “Overachiever or underachiever?”, here to see Part IV, “Captain, My Captain“. [...]

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