October 13, 2011
The criticisms of Alex Ovechkin(notes) have been piling on for the last few seasons, from his effectiveness as a leader to his abilities in perform in the clutch to his body mass. The more the Washington Capitals underachieve, the more intense the critiques. Such is life as the star captain of an NHL team.
But there's another, underlying critique of Ovechkin that's nearly inconceivable in its accusation: That a player who was considered on the fast-track to becoming one of the League's legendary offensive stars has lost his fastball.
That, at the ripe old age of 26 years old, we may have already seen the best of Alex the Great.
It's an easy accusation to make following a season in which Ovechkin's numbers declined dramatically across the board. In 2009-10, he had a 1.51 points-per-game average to lead the NHL; in 2010-11, Ovechkin's PPG was down to 1.08. He lead the NHL in goals per game average and goals created per game average from 2007-10; those numbers dipped dramatically last season too.
Why the decline? Everything from extra weight to injuries (Ovechkin was receiving cortisone shots) to a new defensive philosophy from Coach Bruce Boudreau to Ovechkin's own changing perceptions of the value of the regular season were put forth. They probably all factored in.
But Dan Daly of the Washington Times thinks this is the new norm. That the Ovechkin of last season — inconsistent, unable to take games over, not playing with the same comet-like velocity as he once did — is what to expect. From Daly:
They expected Ovechkin to come out blazing in these first few weeks, to prove that last year's drop-off to 32 goals was just an aberration. But so far he's looked like the same player, like this is the new normal for him. And if that's the case, [insert primal scream here].
Yes, Ovie missed some time before the opener because of the death of an uncle. And yes, the season is still young. Heck, in other years we wouldn't have given it a second thought if he hadn't put the puck in the net in the first two games. But this isn't like other years. This is the year after he finished 14th in the league in goals — he had never been out of the top four before — and only managed seven on the power play.
Ovechkin's famous boast is that "Russian machine never breaks." But "Russian machine" may, at some point, start getting fewer miles per gallon. Are we at that point now? Is Ovie no longer an unstoppable force of nature? Has he devolved into a lower life form — from superstar to very good hockey player?
Some of this is motivated by Boudreau's own critique of Ovechkin this week:
"I think he's got a long way to go to get to where he needs to be and should be," Boudreau said after Ovechkin was a minus-2 in the Capitals' wild 6-5 shootout win over the Lightning. "He's our No. 1 player, but he can be better, there's no doubt about it."
Most of this is conjecture based on one bum season, filled with mitigating circumstances for Ovechkin. But there's no denying that opposing defenses have changed their tactics while Ovechkin, by and large, hasn't.
If anything, he's looked to pass more in the last two seasons than he had during his meteoric rise; but is that a symptom of having his scoring options limited?
The strategy is simple enough: Keep Ovechkin from gathering speed in the first place, which is precisely what the Canadiens did in last year's playoffs. In hockey parlance, the tactic is known as gapping-up, or stepping up to challenge the puck carrier near the neutral-zone redline instead of the defending team's blue line.
Teams also instruct their forwards to apply intense back pressure on Ovechkin, challenging him simultaneously from the front and back whenever he touches the puck. This makes it difficult for him to gain momentum and cut to the middle of the ice, where he can use his speed to blow by defensemen. "You want to make sure you've got him angled to the boards at all times," said John Torchetti, assistant coach of the Atlanta Thrashers. "You don't want to give him the middle of the ice."
Neil Greenberg of Russian Machine Never Breaks did a stats-based projection for Ovechkin in 2011-12. Based on an improved Capitals power play (in theory) and the percentage of goals scored at even-strength for which Ovechkin in a factor, he speculated that Ovechkin "has roughly a 46 percent chance at 40 goals or more and almost an 11 percent chance to exceed 45 goals for the year."
Most players would perform voodoo rituals for those numbers, yet they're still south of Ovechkin at his best.
Question is, in 2011, if the best is still yet to come.