As a general rule of thumb, when Alex Ovechkin speaks, listening carefully is a good idea.
The 34-year-old has shelves of awards, may be the best goal scorer of all time, and not only knows exactly what it takes to win the Stanley Cup, but how easy it is to fall short. That’s why it meant something when he declared the Toronto Maple Leafs unready to summit the mountaintop.
“They’re still a young group of guys,” he said as he spoke to the media on Tuesday. “I hope they’re going to learn, but it’s up to them how they want to do it, if they want to play for themselves. If they want to win the Stanley Cup they’re going to have to play differently.”
It’s an interesting proclamation to come from a guy who’d been criticized for selfish play earlier in his career and who many theorized wouldn’t be able to claim hockey’s ultimate prize despite his talent. It’s possible that Ovechkin sees some of his team’s past in the high-flying Maple Leafs, who have yet to find playoff success in the Auston Matthews era. After all, for many years the Capitals put up 100-point regular seasons like clockwork only to fall flat in the spring.
“We made mistakes and the coaching staff made mistakes,” Ovechkin reflected. “But when he had a chance to take it to another level we all came together and it worked.”
On a surface level, Ovie’s claim is 100 percent correct. Sitting at 6-5-2, the Maple Leafs are not playing well enough to win the Stanley Cup right now. Any argument to the contrary would rely on unbelievably twisted logic. The more interesting question is whether Toronto is icing a squad that plays for themselves too much and is too selfish overall, as opposed to in the current moment.
That’s a really hard question to answer. What does playing for yourself look like on the ice? Is it taking a shot when there’s a better pass available? There are guys on the team that do that from time to time, but it’s far from a chronic problem. If anything, Mitch Marner is famous for passing up shots in favour of dishes and the team takes flak for making complicated plays when a simple shot will do.
If playing for yourself is cheating for offence and neglecting defensive responsibilities, that’s certainly come into play for the Maple Leafs, especially Matthews. There’s an argument to be made that’s poor risk management as opposed to selfishness, but you could understand how it’s attributed to a lust for personal success over team success.
Ultimately, it’ll be impossible to prove whether the Maple Leafs play for each other enough or not, but an all-time great suggesting they don’t is worth noting — and they certainly aren’t proving him wrong with their play lately.
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