Ovechkin celebrates a PP goal, one of the main ways Adam Oates has rejuvented the $100 million man. (Clydeorama)
"As the pressure on Ovechkin continues to mount, how he responds to it will be key. He can either work to be better all around, like Ilya Kovalchuk, or wallow and burn out, like Pavel Bure. It is his decision, and his alone. How bad does he want it?" – Offseason Evaluation, Alex Ovechkin: June 20, 2012
He wanted it bad. What a turnaround.
When I wrote those words early last summer, Alex Ovechkin was, at an individual level, facing the biggest challenge of his professional career. He was coming off a regular season with 65 points, the lowest of his career; the Capitals were not at the level of regular season dominance that he, his teammates, and the fans were accustomed to; and another trip to the playoffs had resulted in another early exit. Dale Hunter, his former coach, had cut his ice time to all-time lows, and in Ovechkin’s own words, made the Captain a “plumber.”
Many, myself included, doubted Ovechkin’s ability to ever return to the pinnacle of the sport offensively for variety of reasons. A very good, above-average, goal scorer, certainly. But be the best of the best again?
I was wrong.
Alex Ovechkin is once again at the pinnacle of the sport offensively. He is tied for the NHL lead in goals at this moment, putting the puck in the back of the net 26 times so far this season. He scored again on Tuesday night in Montreal during yet another Capitals win, an absolute beauty of a goal in which he abused Michal Ryder to create space for himself and ripping a shot past Carey Price. It was a retro “Ovi goal,” one in which he wowed everyone in the arena with his sheer ability. Ovechkin now has eight goals in five April games and since the morning of March 7, when he had eight goals, he has scored 18 goals in 19 games. He is incredibly hot, hotter than he has been in recent memory. And he’s probably going to win the Rocket Richard Trophy, something very few people thought he would ever do again as late as a week ago.
This is the result of several things. The biggest one is Adam Oates’ coaching at even strength. Freed from Hunter’s defensive style, Ovechkin has been moved to the right side by Oates, allowing him to move more freely in the offensive zone and forcing defenses to re-adapt to Ovechkin on the right side instead of the left. This has taken pressure off Ovechkin, as he no longer needs to bring the puck in to the zone all of the time. He’s become a brilliant finisher instead of a pure creator, like he was three years ago. Oates has made him comfortable with this concept, and the results are obvious: several of Ovechkin’s even strength goals this year, especially lately, have been scored at the net front as he moves to the front of the net and becomes the last person to touch the puck, finishing off work done by his teammates.
Another is the rejuvenation of the power play, something that was always a primary source of Ovechkin’s offensive dominance in the past. Placed at the circle in a spot that has moved him closer to the goal in a power play set up designed to isolate him for slam dunk goals, 14 of his 26 markers have been scored with the extra man, and a vast majority of those goals have occurred as walk-in slapshots from the top of the circles with Alex isolated. This, in part, has resulted in a power play that hums along at more than a 25% success rate and is one of the best in the National Hockey League.
Oates, unlike his predecessor, has implemented a system, offensively, at least, that is designed for Ovechkin to flourish. Once Ovechkin and the rest of the team mastered it, the results came in spades. It worked in New Jersey with Ilya Kovalchuk, and now the same thing is happening with Alex.
This was the reason that George McPhee hired Oates. I said so when he was hired: he was the coach, of the candidates, who was most likely to rejuvenate Ovechkin to his old levels of offensive dominance, or at least something close. He has done so, if only for the last month, but it certainly seems as though Oates has found a way to maximize Ovechkin’s ability and what he can still bring despite no longer being the player who scored 65 goals in 2008.
Because make no mistake – Ovechkin isn’t the player he used to be. He’s a completely different player, with different tendencies and a different read on the game. Alex now lets the game come to him and lets his goal scoring talent take over with the puck on his stick instead of rushing at it like a bull and thinking he needs to do it all by himself when the team is struggling. The puck is on his stick at the end of plays, not at the beginning and the end. And though he will cool off eventually and will not be what he used to be in terms of goal scoring, he’s still damn good on the offensive end of this funny game we call ice hockey. His contract may be ludicrous and he may never win a Selke, but when Ovechkin is on like he is right now, there are only three players in the world capable of keeping up with him offensively: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Steven Stamkos.
Alex Ovechkin was never washed up, he was never terrible. He never “sucked.” He was first in a system that played to his weaknesses and then learning a new system designed to help him. These things exacerbated the natural decline that all goal-scorers go through. But his talent didn’t just disappear. It has come roaring to the surface for this stretch in a way we haven’t seen in a long time and may not see much more often in his career at this level.
And man, it’s special to watch.
Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here for all your news needs this season.