Alex Ovechkin: Are Great 8's Best Days Behind Him?

Gerard MartinCorrespondent IJanuary 2, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 17:  Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals celebrates after he scored a second period goal against the New York Rangers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 17, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The statistics don't lie, Alex Ovechkin isn't what he used to be. Will the Washington Capitals' superstar ever recover?

After setting career highs with 65 goals and 110 points back in 2007/2008, both numbers have dropped in every season since. Last year, Ovechkin bottomed out (for him, at least) with only 32 goals and 85 points, the lowest totals of his career in each category.

Some of this change can be explained by league-wide trends. The league-leading goal total has dropped in every year since 2007/2008. Last season, Rocket Richard Trophy winner Corey Perry was the only NHLer to reach 50 goals.

However, league-wide scoring hasn't been in sharp decline, and when Ovechkin was at his best he was far and away the best scorer in the game. In his career-high season, his 65 goals were 13 better than his next closest competitor.

So why isn't Ovi scoring anymore? The answer is actually incredibly simple.

He's not trying.

At his best, Ovechkin was a volume scorer, hockey's answer to NBA players like Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. He scored tons of goals and took tons of shots. He was aggressive and relentless, focused on scoring and forsaking all else.

In his 65-goal season, he took an NHL-leading 446 shots, 88 more than the player who finished second, Henrik Zetterberg.

The next year, Ovechkin's goal total dropped, but it wasn't from a lack of effort. On his way to 56 goals, he fired a career-high 528 shots. Since then, Ovechkin's shot totals have declined in every season.

At first, I thought that Ovechkin's drop in shots would indicate a more selective approach, yet that doesn't seem to be the case. The dropping shot totals have very little correlation with his shooting percentage.

His highest career shooting percentage came in 2007/2008, when he attempted the second-most shots of his career. His lowest career shooting percentage came last season, when he set a career low in shots.

Ovechkin succeeds because of volume and sheer relentlessness, so to recover his scoring touch, the formula seems simple.

Shoot more, score more.

Yet, through 37 games this season, Ovechkin has scored just 16 goals and is on pace for another career-low in shot attempts.

It's impossible to know exactly what's going on in Ovi's head, but it seems like the pressure of actually competing for a Stanley Cup has changed his approach. As his Washington Capitals have become serious contenders for a championship, he's been expected to become a more complete player.

That means taking on responsibilities beyond goal scoring, and that means thinking twice about shooting at every opportunity. It means chipping the puck deep when he's outnumbered by the defense, even when Ovechkin knows that he might be able to score on his own.

In short, it means changing who he is as a hockey player.

Playing defense doesn't come naturally to Ovechkin. His carefree style is inherently irresponsible.

Committing to a system that has him doubling back into his own zone directly stifles his urge to move forward. It makes him question the natural instincts that make him so great in the first place.

His kind of forceful aggression can't be turned on and off with the flip of a switch. It's a state of mind that permeates everything he does on the ice.

Ovechkin either is himself, or he isn't. There's no in-between.

Maybe a swashbuckling, free-wheeling Ovechkin isn't what the Caps need.

Even as Ovi produced the lowest point totals of his career, Washington finished last season at the top of the Eastern Conference. When he was leading the league in scoring, the Caps were still making the playoffs, but never ascended to the top of the standings.

That's the dilemma with Alex Ovechkin. When he's on, there's no better scorer in hockey. He plays with a visceral enthusiasm and dominating flair unmatched by any player.

The NHL is better off when Alex Ovechkin is scoring goals. Yet, it may not be possible for the Capitals to win a title with a one-dimensional superstar leading the way.

It may not be possible, but we can't know for sure because the Caps have never really tried.

For as long as Washington has been in contention, insiders and outsiders alike have called for an emphasis on defense. Ovechkin has been caged, but the Caps have established themselves as contenders.

Though Ovechkin's newfound responsibility has certainly played a role in Washington's regular-season success over the past couple of years, let's not forget about what else has gone on in our nation's capital. The biggest reason that the Capitals have won more is that they're a better all-around team.

Washington has brought in help from the outside, and homegrown talents like Mike Green, Nick Backstrom and Alex Semin have blossomed into stars.

All three of those players are terrific offensive talents, and all three—like Ovechkin—have been asked to put a greater emphasis on defense and responsibility in recent years.

I get it—defense wins championships. But must every champion accomplish its goal in the same way? Why should the Capitals deny their character to pursue a title by the standard path?

Why not try to score their way to a Stanley Cup?

When a player's back comes up against the wall, he reverts to his true self. Alex Ovechkin is no different.

Even though most of his playoff appearances have come alongside his recent offensive decline, Ovi's career playoff numbers exceed his regular-season totals. When the Cup is on the line, he shoots more often and more efficiently.

His goal-scoring touch isn't gone, it's just hibernating, hidden in a mind cluttered with thoughts of back-checking assignments and neutral zone traps. He's not any less talented, he's just distracted.

It's time for the Capitals to cut him loose again. Let it all hang out, try to win 8-7. Just see what happens.

You've got the greatest goal scorer in the world—let him do what he does.

Why not?