When Steve Yzerman reached the crossroad of his career, he had the option of going one of two ways. He could either continue as a one-way offensive dynamo or he could reinvent himself as a two-way player.
Had he taken the first option, there’s a good chance Yzerman would have never won a single Stanley Cup. Either he would have been dealt from the Detroit Red Wings or he wouldn’t have been able to provide them with the type of play they needed for him to lead them to three championships. Because he chose the latter, not only was he an integral part of three championship teams, but he also cemented his Hall of Fame credentials and his status as one of the greatest leaders and players of all-time.
So it’s rather curious, isn’t it, that now that Alex Ovechkin is being asked to do some of the same things and he’s complying, his career is going down the sinkhole before his 27th birthday? The same things for which Yzerman was lionized Ovechkin is being fed to the lions. This wouldn’t have anything to do with a bias against Russians would it? Didn’t think so.
It must be more a function of the fact that at just more than $9.5 million, Ovechkin carries the highest salary cap hit in the league. But the reality is there are a lot of players in the top snack bracket who aren’t exactly earning their money these days.
Let’s take a look at the top 10 salary cap hits among forwards. Most hockey observers concede that Ovechkin has endured two consecutive miserable, underachieving seasons. But of the players in that group, only Steven Stamkos has more goals and more points than Ovechkin in that time period. Or put another way, would you rather face the prospect of another nine years with Ovechkin’s $9.5 million cap hit or another six years with Vincent Lecavalier at $7.7 million? (Lecavalier’s contract actually runs for another eight years, but the last two years are for salaries of $1.5 million and $1 million, meaning there’s a very good chance he will retire by then.)
Ovechkin has averaged 35 goals and 75 points over the past two seasons, which is by anyone’s standards an enormous downgrade from his salad days. Will we ever see a 60-goal season from Ovechkin again? Probably not. Will we see 50? Debatable.
But under Dale Hunter in these playoffs, Ovechkin has done everything he has been asked. He isn’t exactly a shot-blocking demon, but he’s putting his body in the way of shots. He’s playing both ends of the ice. He isn’t cheating by darting up the ice out of the defensive zone before his team even has control of the puck. And hey, if you’re going to let the game get dragged down by not enforcing the standards and by rewarding defensive play, what’s a guy to do? Ovechkin would have been exposed if he played the way he has in the past.
And we shouldn’t forget that through all of this he’s still leading the Capitals in scoring in the playoffs with five goals and nine points. It would be one thing if Ovechkin were lagging behind his teammates, but has anyone noticed that Nicklas Backstrom has only eight points through 12 games? In these playoffs, Ovechkin is far more a product of his environment than he is the author of his demise.
We can only imagine what GM George McPhee makes of all this. After all, he built the Capitals to be the most exciting team in the new NHL and basically got nowhere in the process. Ovechkin was the crown jewel, the constant go-to guy and the one around whom the entire offensive game plan revolved. That didn’t work out so well.
Now the Capitals are far more turgid, defense-minded and typical of a team that has more success in the playoffs. Ovechkin’s ice time is way down, as is his production and his impact on the game, and the Capitals are one win away from making it the furthest they ever have with Ovechkin in their lineup.
The key for Hunter, if he decides to stay on as the Capitals coach beyond this year, is to convince Ovechkin and some of the other Caps there are rewards in playing this way for the 82 games of the regular season. It’s one thing to have players buy into a system for two months with the Stanley Cup as a tangible and reachable goal. It’s quite another to make them realize the rewards of playing that way on a Tuesday night in the middle of January.
So far, though, Ovechkin has been buying what Hunter has been selling. More importantly, he hasn’t made any of this about himself. Lesser players, lots of them, would have been far more vocal in their complaints by now. And in return, Ovechkin is being written off as an impact player.
It’s not Ovechkin’s fault he’s doing what’s best for his team. He’s an extremely proud man, he’s driven and, contrary to the belief of some people, he cares deeply about winning. He’s also still one of the most dynamic physical talents in the NHL.
That’s not a player I’m ready to write off. Not by a long shot.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.