To these eyes, Alex Ovechkin looks like a worn-down, defeated man. On and off the ice. The same player who used to play like a man possessed now gains the neutral zone with almost no speed. His body language is terrible. Even when he scores he barely raises his stick over his head.
The demise of Alex Ovechkin has to be one of the saddest, least anticipated developments of the last couple of seasons. I don’t believe for a second that Ovechkin doesn’t care. “I’m a passion guy,” he always used to say early in his career. That passion is still there, but even the most passionate people can get despondent and descend into a sinkhole of hopelessness.
And I believe that’s what’s happening now with Ovechkin. In a 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night, Ovechkin had just two shots. Two shots. This is the same guy who once took 528 of them in one season. That year, he averaged 6.7 shots per game. This year he’s averaging 3.1. He plays much more on the periphery than ever before. And the same guy who at one time was the most exuberant, refreshing and candid player in the league actually said, “It is what it is.”
If this were a short-term slump, that would be one thing. But I fear Ovechkin is slipping away. He has to take some of the responsibility for that, to be sure. Yes, he has become predictable, but wasn’t Wayne Gretzky predictable, too? Everybody knew he was going to set up shop behind the net, but they were powerless to stop it. Everyone knows Ovechkin has that outside-inside move, but when you’re as big and strong and talented and driven as he is, shouldn’t he still be able to pull it off sometimes even when teams have watched the tapes? That would require Ovechkin to go to the net, to the dirty areas where players are going to crosscheck him in the back and whack him in the back of his legs.
He did just that a couple of times in the third period against the Maple Leafs and made some things happen, but with the Capitals looking for the tying goal in the last minute, Ovechkin took the puck and skated around the outside of the Leafs zone, not once but twice, before turning it over. Clearly if Ovechkin wants to get out of this funk, it’s going to take some serious soul-searching, and perhaps the kind of off-season dedication to expand his game that players such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have displayed in the past.
But the Capitals had better get a hold of this thing as well, if for no other reason than they’ll be paying him a total of $79 million over the next eight seasons. So if it’s truly a case of as goes Ovechkin, so go the Capitals, then it’s time that organization leaned on him a lot more heavily and demanded he be their superstar. If it doesn’t work out and blows up, well, really, how much further would they be behind than they are now?
Take the game against Toronto, for example. The Capitals were doing a conga line to the penalty box through the first two periods. The were shorthanded for a total of 14 minutes and six seconds. That’s 846 seconds, not a single one of which was played by Ovechkin. So far this season, only two teams in the league have spent more time shorthanded than the Capitals have. And of the 57:59 in which the Capitals have spent down a man (or two), Ovechkin has played just 3:02 of that.
“In the second period I play only power play,” Ovechkin said after the Toronto game, “and we get a couple of penalty kills and I’m sitting and I was kind of not in the game.”
New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer has brought out the best in Ilya Kovalchuk because he has leaned on him in a big way. He plays Kovalchuk more than 26 minutes a game and has him out in all sorts of situations, including killing penalties. And Kovalchuk has responded by being a valuable and engaged player who has responded positively to bearing the burden of responsibility.
Why not do the same with Ovechkin? Put him out on the first penalty kill and demand that he prevent a goal. Put him out in the last minute of a game in which you’re leading by a goal. And of course, put him out again and again when you want to create offense. And then see how he responds. My guess is that you’ll get the best out of Ovechkin. In Mike Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom you have two of the most creative centers in the league and you’re playing Ovechkin with Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb?
When the Capitals look at the standings this morning, they’ll see they are the worst team in the NHL. Are they really that bad? Of course not. But they’re not going to get any better until they start demanding more from their superstar and he starts delivering.
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. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.