In the NHL, and especially these days, you really can't walk around calling out your star players.
Even if he didn't think Patrick Kane, for instance, didn't have a very good game on such-and-such a night, Joel Quenneville couldn't just drop the gauntlet and say he sucked, even if he did, to the assembled media. It creates problems, and would be better addressed during a practice or in the privacy of the dressing room after the game before reporters come in.
With that having been said, it's not as though these players should be bulletproof. If Sidney Crosby does something egregiously awful and ends up costing the Penguins the game (not that this would happen), Dan Bylsma should feel free to say so. Moreover, one could say that such criticism could be used as a motivator that might not otherwise be available to him; you can't, after all, health-scratch Sidney Crosby.
But that isn't really what Adam Oates did in calling out Alex Ovechkin for having “quit on the play, coming back.” The optics of the goal look bad, and yeah he really didn't do the absolute very best job he could getting back, but there were three Capitals in the zone along with enough space in the middle to park a small spacecraft in the slot, for some reason.
But let's make no mistake here, this was the morning after a loss that ended up being 5-0 for a team whose playoff chances are dying almost as quickly as those of the Toronto Maple Leafs, which you'll note is really saying something. The goal Ovechkin “quit” on was one that made it 4-0 almost exactly halfway through the third period, and after just 40 minutes Oates's Washington Capitals were being outshot 29-22.
That's a pretty notable disparity given how score effects should have kicked in about 10 minutes earlier, when the Stars scored twice in 34 seconds. That Ovechkin wasn't getting back on that goal in particular wasn't so much a problem within the game itself — because the Caps had long since been out of it, barring a quick field goal — but rather the entire way in which this season has gone.
It's not, one supposes, uncommon for teams to scapegoat players they think people will buy as problems. Since the three-goal lead evaporated in last year's first round and the Leafs' playoff chances went along with them in the last few weeks, James Reimer's been under more buses in Toronto than a GTA transportation commission mechanic, just for example. But you never ever ever see stars catch the blame for a team losing, and it's not a coincidence that it's happening now in Washington.
Oates is almost certainly going to lose his job this summer — and for extremely good reason — but he's bought himself a few days of not being pelted with criticism and garbage from all corners of the Beltway with this calculated move, which apparently only occurred to him as a possibility after a good night's sleep. Ovechkin is, after all, perhaps the most recognizable athlete in Washington, and certainly one of the two or three most famous in the National Hockey League, and his struggles with plus-minus this year have been highly publicized to say the least.
Lots of people have done plenty of good work this year to highlight exactly why the plus-minus issue is a major problem for which Ovechkin is, at best, only partly responsible (to wit: his linemates are putting the puck in the net at an historically low rate and the defense and goaltending behind him has flatly been not-good), and any reasonably good coach would recognize that as well. Although, to be fair, we've yet to see any compelling evidence that Oates is in fact an even passable coach at this level.
Add in that goal late last week on which Ovechkin allegedly dived onto the bench and there was plenty of wiggle room to say, “Sure my team was getting its throat cut for 50 minutes prior to that, but did you see the way the guy who's bottom of the league in plus-minus half-assed his backcheck and got beat for the fourth goal of the game? Man, he's got to do better than that.”
And now no one's talking about how Washington was on its knees with blood pouring down its chest, and no one's talking about how they're still behind the Leafs in the standings. Everyone's talking about Alex Ovechkin not even trying to lift a guy's stick on a 2-on-3 “rush,” which shouldn't really have been his responsibility alone.
This further ignores the fact that it's ludicrous to even be talking about a Capitals team on the verge of missing the playoffs behind a player who has 48 freaking goals this year, because his coach has used — and this is 100 percent true — Jay Beagle as his center in the last several games. If you watch the replay, he's the one who follows the puck to the sideboards, even after looking over his shoulder to see what's developing behind him, and helplessly waves his stick at Alex Chiasson's backhand saucer pass into the slot.
You might also recognize him as the guy who at age 28 is sitting on a career-high seven points, or as the guy you watch play with Ovechkin and Mikhail Grabovski and say, “What's he doing out there?”
Desperate times like these certainly call for the most desperate of measures and Oates sure is leaning on them here. To the original point, star players shouldn't be immune from criticism. They should absolutely be called out when they make a mistake. But when you're a coach who's done nothing but make mistakes for the last 120-something games, and your team is a shambolic embarrassment, and given your fans 20 pretty level-headed reasons why you should be shown the door, criticizing said star — who's literally the only reason the team is in its even tenuous playoff position right now — for a lazy backcheck on a wholly meaningless goal in a deeply meaningful game in which your team had already pathetically pissed itself, that's a problem. It's the kind of lazy, unthinking garbage you'd expect from some ass-scratching columnist who goes to three Caps games per year and hears someone talking about the backcheck three seats down. “Ovechkin must pick it up,” scream the headlines.
Subhead: “Star's defensive play to blame for losing ways.”
You don't expect this from a guy who's been around this league for the better part of three decades.
There's so much fault to go around at Verizon Center these days that laying it solely at anyone's feet is a little unfair. George McPhee is a problem. Most of the team's defense is a problem. Brooks Laich is a problem. Braden Holtby is a problem. Troy Brouwer is a problem. Ted Leonsis is a problem. But Oates is the biggest and most glaring problem by far, and he'd really like everyone to forget that for just a few days.
Watch that replay again. Ovechkin was barely moving his feet, right?
Man, no wonder the Caps suck.