Adam Oates talks to Ovi during practice on Saturday. (Photos by Chris Gordon)
Alex Ovechkin has become a one-dimensional player. Once the league’s most creative and premier scorer, Ovi has been stymied by his apparent unwillingness to change — at least so far. His struggles at right wing in the first three games this season demonstrated that much. After just eight periods, the exercise ended. Ovi was back at left wing.
Ovi’s switch has been the story of the season so far for the Caps. But not everybody thinks it should be.
“Are we talking about Ovi again? That’s bulls—t,” forward Troy Brouwer told me when asked about Ovechkin’s play this season.
“It shouldn’t be difficult,” Brouwer said. “He’s a right handed shot, he should be able to play right wing. It should be hard to play your off wing.”
Adam Oates, named head coach of the Washington Capitals last summer, made the correct move, I think, to switch Ovechkin from left wing — a position he has played almost his entire career — to the right side. He had become too predictable. Everyone knew his moves. They had seen them countless times before: skate down the left wall on a rush, attempt to use the defenseman as a screen, usually fail. Tell me if that sounds familiar.
With four games in the book, this is now the longest Ovechkin has gone at beginning of a season without scoring a goal.
“Of course it’s tough,” Ovi said. “Of course I want to see my name on the score list.”
Ovechkin used to be able to score 50, 60, maybe 65 goals in a season. Until two years ago he was consistently tallying around 110 points during the regular season. But the last couple of years there has been some question as to whether Ovechkin could score 30 goals. In 78 games last year, Ovechkin registered 65 points, by far the lowest total of his career. That is mostly do to age. Players are in their prime during the early- to mid-20s. Ovi is past that. And it’s not his fault. You can’t expect a guy to score 50 goals the rest of his life.
Some blame, though, does falls on Ovi. He has used his familiarity with the left side as crutch. He tries the same moves over and over because he doesn’t seem to know what else to do. He often doesn’t forecheck. He rarely goes hard to the net. He waits for rushes and tries to beat the defender. But Ovi isn’t the same player he used to be. He’s a step slower, as you’d expect him to be now that he’s 27-years-old. To be more effective, Ovi needs to become a more dynamic player.
Oates seems to recognize this. At the beginning of the season, the new coach switched Ovechkin from left wing to right wing, something he did with Ilya Kovalchuk last season as an assistant coach in New Jersey.
But when forced to change up his looks after being moved to the right side, Ovi responded by sometimes not even playing on the right. He instinctively moved to left wing. As we said earlier this week, it’s kind of like a third basemen in baseball being switched to first base, and then going out to third base every inning because he’s used to it.
“Every player has their preference on whether they want to play on the left or right,” said Brouwer. “The coach is going to chose which side you’re going to be on.”
Some growing pains are to be expected when a player switches positions. But Ovi didn’t just drift over to the wrong spot every now and then. A large portion of his ice time was spent playing the opposite position.
At Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Saturday, Oates dismissed the idea of that Ovi’s floating was a significant issue.
“Even in our system you’re going to end up on your opposite side,” he said. “For him [playing] on the left wing, it’s just what he’s used to.”
Ovi’s drifting has, however, led to some calamitous results. During the Capitals’ scrimmage against the ECHL’s Reading Royals last Tuesday, Ovechkin slammed into Marcus Johansson while entering the offensive zone. Johansson was in the correct place on the left side of the ice. Ovechkin was not.
It was the same story during Washington’s 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday. Ovechkin picked up the puck as he crossed the blueline. Instead of going to his right, he went to his left. Another collision, this time with Wojtek Wolski, ensued.
Plays like that throw the whole line out of whack. When Ovechkin vacated the right side, it forced his center, Nicklas Backstrom, or whichever player happened to be playing first line left wing that night, to cover for him. It was impossible to set up a goal when none of the forwards were playing the correct position.
“He’s been playing on the left wing for a long time, and it’s different to play the other side,” Johansson said when asked about Ovi’s issues. “I can’t answer for him.”
Because of these struggles, Oates had to try something new. While the coach still appears committed to switching Ovi over to the right wing in the long run, letting mishaps like that continue would leave the Caps in a deep hole. So on Friday night against the Devils, Ovi was back to left wing, only this time it was Jay Beagle as his center and Joey Crabb on the right.
For Ovi this was a demotion. Though the trio wore the red first line sweaters during practice Saturday, Oates acknowledged after the Devils game that he “wouldn’t call it the first line.”
“I’m not going to try to change my game a whole lot — just keep working hard, grinding in the corners and getting pucks out, and hard on the forecheck,” Crabb said of playing with Ovechkin. “Hopefully that helps him out.”
Putting one of the league’s most famous players with two guys who make one tenth of Ovechkin’s yearly salary seems like a ridiculous move on its face, but it isn’t hard to speculate what Oates might have been thinking. Playing with two grinders gets Ovi out of his comfort zone and forces him to play actual hockey, not just skate up the ice with the puck and fire off a shot sometimes.
“I think every guy’s got to learn to do everything in the game and Ovi’s no different,” Oates told me when asked if he was trying to make Ovi less reliant on scoring on the rush and encourage him to forecheck more instead. “He’s one of the 12 forwards.”
Oates added that he was looking for “plays that allow our team to play like a team.”
Through four games this season, Alex Ovechkin has just one point. He has often looked completely lost on the ice. As the captain of the Washington Capitals — and as a guy with a cap hit of $9.5 million — he needs find a fix for whatever is bothering him. Whether he’s the first-line right winger or a third-line left winger, Ovi must produce.