Thanks a lot, Jaroslav Halak.
Alexander Ovechkin's numbers just ain't what they used to be. They're not bad—38 goals last year was good for fifth overall. But he's fallen far short of the 100-point mark in the past two seasons, a milestone that almost seemed his birthright.
And the St. Louis Blues' current netminder deserves the blame.
Every Caps fan on the planet knows and curses the name of Halak while tossing and turning in their sleep, as highlight reels of the goalkeeper's ridiculous saves as a member of the Montreal Canadiens against the Caps during the 2010 playoffs are playing over and over again in their minds. At the time, it seemed like nothing more than a temporary setback to a Stanley Cup-bound team, but as the years have progressed, it's clear that something far more sinister is afoot.
Two seasons have elapsed since then, both featuring subpar numbers from Alex Ovechkin—by Ovechkin's standards, that is. And now, he and every Caps fan are praying for a bounce-back season. He needs to have one, or it means Halak has crippled the Capitals organization for a very long time.
Why? Because that series marked a turning point for owner Ted Leonsis.
Even before Boudreau's departure, the team started turning into a defensive-minded squad, undoubtedly at the owner's behest after the trauma of that playoff exit. It led directly to the firing of Boudreau and the signing of Dale Hunter. After upsetting the Bruins in the first round of a playoffs that the Caps almost missed altogether, the team fell to the Rangers in seven games. And Leonsis praised Hunter for getting them that far.
Here's what last year's playoff performance really was: It was weak.
It was a team playing scared. It was an underdog performing like an underdog: capable of putting up a good fight and pulling off the occasional upset, but ultimately folding up the tents early in the competition. Dale Hunter had an offensive weapon in Alex Ovechkin, and he left him rotting away on the bench in favor of players who could squat in the defensive zone and get pummeled by shot after shot for long stretches of the game.
Lost in all the madness of last season was the guy everyone ultimately blames for the mess because of the “C” on his sweater. As Bruce Boudreau flipped switches and levers like a mad scientist last November in a desperate bid to avoid getting canned, and as Dale Hunter implemented a turtle-up style that was completely foreign to the Caps, Alex Ovechkin looked like an 8-year-old child abandoned in a grocery store on the ice.
Just two years removed from being No. 2 in the NHL in relative Corsi rating with an impressive 19.7, Ovi ended up in the red this past season with a -3.4 Corsi, reflecting the reality every Caps fan could see on the ice: a first line being hopelessly outshot, hunkering down in the defensive zone trying to implement a just-get-in-front-of-the-biscuit scheme as No. 8 stood on the point watching the disaster unfold, waiting to be fed a puck that often ended up in the Capitals' net.
It's all Jaroslav Halak's fault.
It was his performance in 2010 that led the Capitals down this rocky road. Down three games to one, the Canadiens' netminder stopped 131 of 134 shots over the next three games for a save percentage of .978. That was the death of the run-and-gun.
It was then that Ted Leonsis decided that Ovi's crazy aggressive style wasn't the way to win at hockey. Ted Leonsis said later that Ovechkin needed to “adapt” and praised Dale Hunter's style even after the early playoff exit.
So now everyone believes the run-and-gun was an abject failure—an opinion based entirely on a three-game stretch in the 2010 playoffs against one goalie. So instead of an aggressive attack-first juggernaut, we now have a middling team that plays passively and manages to squeak into the playoffs before getting bounced early playing hockey “the right way,” if you believe the Barry Melroses of the world.
Alex Ovechkin desperately needs to have a bounce-back season.
If he puts up another year of 35 or so goals, what it will tell us is the front office hasn't gotten it. It will tell us Ted Leonsis has written off the puck-pounding talents of Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and others as secondary to the holy grail of blocking dozens of shots per game. It will tell us that management believes that rather than play to the talent's strengths, the focus should be on the talent figuring out how to be good at things they never have and never will be good at.
Alex Ovechkin will never be a world-class defender. He'll never be great at blocking shots. But he'll always have a nose for the goal and a breathtaking ability to lead a full-on, guns-blazing assault on the goaltender. So create an environment where he's allowed to do that, rather than stick your captain and most important player in roles he's not suited to play and then tell him to just "adapt" or he'll start losing ice time.
If Teddy and new coach Adam Oates don't do that, well, congratulations; you now have the world's most expensive spectator standing on the blue line.