It's almost unbelievable how much the perception of Alex Ovechkin has changed since 2009, the year in which the Washington Capitals superstar collected his second-consecutive Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.
Back then, Ovechkin was arguably the best player in the game, and seemed to be on the verge of delivering Washington the city's first Stanley Cup. Today, however, Ovechkin is merely a run-of-the-mill star player in the eyes of many, which is due to both his lack of postseason success and rapidly declining individual numbers in the regular season.
Despite all of this, Ovechkin is undoubtedly one of the most gifted athletes in the sport's recent memory, and with a revamped coaching staff, an apparent new outlook and all the motivation in the world, this should be a bounce-back season for the Russian sniper.
Though he won't be widely regarded as a contender whenever the puck drops on the 2012-13 NHL season, here are seven reasons why Ovechkin should be a favorite for the Hart in 2013.
Heading into the 2012-13 campaign, Ovechkin doesn't face the lofty expectations he once did. He isn't expected to be a 50-goal man anymore, and not many pundits will be tabbing the Capitals as a favorite in the Eastern Conference.
That could prove to be a blessing in disguise for Ovechkin, as the Capitals' captain seems to have been impacted at times by the amount of criticism he's endured over the course of the last four seasons.
Since the Caps finished seventh in the East in 2011-12, and Ovechkin's ice time was minimized by then-coach Dale Hunter, not many will view the Moscow native as a favorite for the Hart, Art Ross or Rocket Richard awards, which may be a recipe for success for the 26-year-old.
As a whole, the 2011-12 season was disappointing in many respects for Ovechkin, but he has to take some solace in the fact that once the calendar year of 2011 ended, he elevated his game to another level.
On the surface, Ovechkin's 38 goals and 65 points were a colossal letdown for a player that is supposed to be a league leader in both categories, but since 2012 began, his numbers have picked up dramatically. In fact, 22 of Ovechkin's 38 goals and 43 of his 65 points came after January 1st, which would suggest that he regained his scoring touch as the season went on.
With Backstrom back and healthy, there's no reason Ovechkin can't continue to score at that clip, which will ultimately vault him back into Hart consideration.
For four consecutive seasons, the Capitals ran away with the Southeast Division title, and the home ice advantage in the postseason that came with it. Due to the serious lack of competition, these championships weren't considered to be all that impressive accomplishments, but that has changed.
Nowadays, with Florida coming off its first-ever Southeast title, and the Carolina Hurricanes having added a pair of star forwards, if Ovechkin can help the Caps win their fifth divisional championship banner in six years, it'll be more of an accomplishment than it was before.
Last season, when Backstrom went down in the Caps' first game of the 2012 calendar year, Ovechkin was left to play without a high-end setup man for over half a season.
Things will be different this year, because the Caps will now not only have Backstrom back at full strength, but they added a legitimate top-six center in Mike Ribeiro.
Ribeiro and Backstrom play vastly different games, but both share an innate ability to make those around them better. If Ribeiro found success playing alongside scorers like James Neal and Jamie Benn in Dallas, there's no telling what kind of numbers he could put up playing alongside the best power forward in the game.
Though Dale Hunter enjoyed a decidedly successful postseason run during his first year behind the Caps' bench, he and Ovechkin didn't seem to mesh well together.
Hunter preferred a tight, defense-first style that didn't exactly create opportunities for Ovechkin to showcase his world-class skill set, and despite the fact that they upset the defending Stanley Cup champs, it appeared that Ovechkin wasn't being used properly by the former team captain.
This year, Ovechkin will be taking orders from Adam Oates, who is without question one of the best playmakers ever to lace up a pair of skates. Oates has a proven track record with helping snipers find space on the ice to operate, both as a player and more recently, as an assistant coach.
His arrival in D.C. will surely help Ovechkin get back to where he was two years ago offensively, while maintaining his defensive responsibilities.
Last season, the Caps' power play was a far cry from being the unit that was among the best in hockey from 2008-2011, which put a serious dent in Ovechkin's numbers.
Despite the fact that Washington's power play ranked 18th in the league in 2011-12, Ovechkin still managed to finish fifth among all players in power play goals. With Adam Oates, renowned for his work as a power play architect with New Jersey and Tampa Bay, now behind the bench, Ovechkin's power play point totals should skyrocket this season.
The addition of Mike Ribeiro, one of the league's premier offensive catalysts, will also help Ovechkin find openings with the man advantage, and the captain's totals at season's end should be much closer to the 40-goal, 90-point range than they've been for the past two seasons.
Each summer since 2008, the Capitals entered the fall as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup the following June, but failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs every time.
Things seem to be different this year, as Ovechkin and the Caps are not only no longer a favorite to win the Eastern Conference, but they're not even considered a lock to win their division anymore with the emergence of Carolina and Florida.
Ovechkin is no longer expected to put up 50 goals and 100 points a season, and the Caps aren't such a sexy choice to win the Eastern Conference, but that also means it'll be much easier for the Russian star to exceed the expectations that lay before him.
At 26, Ovechkin is still more than capable of 40-50 goals and somewhere around 90 points, and if he can put up those numbers, while helping the Caps to a division title, he'll be in the running for MVP honors come June.