For a variety of reasons, playing in the KHL will help Alexander Ovechkin's game improve.
A main reason for this is that the style of the European game is going to provide Ovechkin with more opportunities to rediscover his scoring touch.
Recently, Ovechkin gave an interview to rt.com and in this interview, he discussed some of the differences between the NHL style of play and the style of play found in the KHL:
Of course, it's a different hockey here than in the NHL—different rinks, different ice, different speed, less contacts here, not many hits, but I don't think I've changed as a player much. I play at my best, and I try to do my best.
The less physical style of play in the KHL will absolutely help Ovechkin's game. There is little question that there is much more to Ovi's style of play than just flash and dash. The Great Eight will lay a hit with the best of them, and he has never shied away from the more physical style of play in the NHL.
But when one looks at the decline in Ovechkin's production the past couple of years, one could make the argument that two factors have really played a part in it: Ovechkin being named captain of the Caps and the more physical manner in which teams now defend him.
I have always questioned whether Ovechkin being named captain has had a negative impact on his game.
I had previously written an article discussing why hockey captains were more important than captains in any other sport. This is very important when one looks at Alexander Ovechkin. In that article, I discussed Ovechkin's role as captain and whether by assuming that mantle if he had, perhaps, forced himself to play in a manner inconsistent with his natural style of play.
In the KHL, Ovechkin does not have to worry about that. On Dynamo Moscow, he is just another player. Yuri Babenko is the captain. Ovi is not even the alternate captain. For the first time in a couple of years, Ovi can just play—without the weight of a Cup starved city on his shoulders.
As for the less physical style of play in the KHL, that too will help Ovi rediscover his scoring touch. Suddenly, the skating room that had vanished in the NHL has reappeared in the KHL. Ovechkin has always been a tremendous skater. But when you are being shadowed, double-teamed, slashed, held and checked all game long, even the best of the best will be slowed down.
The KHL rinks are also larger than the NHL rinks. This too should give Ovechkin more skating room and a better opportunity to maneuver. But, as Ovechkin himself noted in the rt.com interview, the larger rink is not without its challenges:
In the NHL if you came to the zone you can shoot a wrist shot from the blue line, but here it's very tough to score from there. You have to skate a couple more meters, and you can feel the difference behind the net, in front of the net.
All in all, however, playing in Europe should help Ovechkin's game. Without the crushing weight of expectations of Caps fans, and without the pressure of trying to lead a team whose identity has changed each of the past two seasons, this should have an almost liberating effect on the Great Eight.
Thus far, things seem to be going fairly well. Ovechkin has six goals and 11 assists in 16 games played, so he is scoring at better than a point-per-game clip. More importantly, he has helped Dynamo Moscow to first place in the Western conference.
For a player who has won nearly every individual trophy there is, winning games is much more important than a stat line.
The hope for Caps fans is that by playing in Europe, Ovechkin might rediscover the purity of the game he loves and reconnect with the style of play that enabled him to terrorize the NHL from 2005-2010.
If Ovechkin can tap into this, and return to the NHL a better and more focused player, the rest of the NHL will have their hands full yet again.