As the NHL lockout chugs along—and with significant issues still creating an obstacle to the lockout actually ending (ESPN)—across the pond, hockey is still being played by some of the best players in the world.
Call him Ovi or the Great Eight or whatever you like, there is little question as to who the face of the Capitals has been since 2005.
But have things changed lately? Has one of the greatest players in Caps history lost his touch not just with the team, but with the city?
Weren't Caps fans supposed to be celebrating multiple Stanley Cup championships by now?
Has the only Russian to ever be given a key to the nations' capital truly been replaced by RG3 and Stephen Strasburg as the favorite son for Washingtonians?
It is a topic that ESPN's Sarah Turcotte explored in an article she wrote for ESPN The Magazine's D.C. focused edition.
Whether the love affair D.C. had with Ovechkin is really gone or just on a temporary hiatus, we won't really know until the lockout ends and the NHL resumes business.
In the meantime, Ovechkin has returned to his roots and is playing for Dynamo Moscow of the KHL, the same team he played for prior to coming to the Capitals.
There are a variety of ways to look at this situation. Certainly, the ideal situation would have Ovechkin still Rocking the Red and bringing the Verizon Center to its feet.
That is obviously not going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, playing in the KHL is the next best thing for Ovechkin.
In fact, his time in Europe should help to make Ovechkin a better player once the lockout ends.
Here are three reasons why.
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.
In the interview that Ovechkin gave to rt.com, and in the video included with this slide, Ovi takes a bit of time to discuss how he has grown and matured over the years:
You've grown up like a person, you've grown up like a player. And if you did some stuff when you were 20-21 years old, you would never do it now. You learn from your mistakes, you learn from your life and it's your future. You can go out, you can do something crazy before the game because you're healthy but you need to stay at 100 percent. Usually it doesn't work.
That is refreshing to hear and does not sound at all like the man Olaf Kolzig described as being too wrapped up in his own celebrity for his own good (CBS Sports).
Instead, it sounds like a mature man who has truly grasped his role and truly understands what needs to happen for him to reach his individual and team goals.
In the rt.com interview, Ovi also discussed how he misses his friends and family when he is playing in Washington. As he is now pulling some extended time in the KHL, Ovi is getting plenty of extra time to visit with friends and family before he makes the return trip to the United States.
He also gets to perform in front of the people closest to him, people who remain unfailingly supportive of him regardless of his failure to deliver the Stanley Cup to Washington D.C.. That should certainly help his emotional well being and his overall outlook.
At the other end of the spectrum, though, spending all this extra time in Europe should help Ovechkin refocus on what truly matters to him: Winning the Cup.
For all his posturing about staying in the KHL if player contracts get slashed (Sporting News), Ovechkin knows where the ultimate prize is. And he also knows that no matter how well he plays in the KHL, or how well the Dynamo perform while he is a member of the team, it is not where he should be, or where he probably wants to be.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, is how the saying goes.
In the case of Alexander Ovechkin, the absence of the NHL from his life should only make him more focused than ever to get back on the ice in D.C and finally deliver the Stanley Cup.
The rt.com interview closed with the observation that Ovechkin looked to be "more focused than ever."
If that observation is true, than Ovechkin's time in Europe will help him to refocus on the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
While it is anyone's guess when the lockout will end—or whether there will be a season at all—one thing we know for sure is that if there is a season, it will be of the shortened variety.
There is no chance for a full 82 game regular season any longer and each day that goes by without a deal in place is, potentially, an extra days worth of regular season games lost.
Taking a somewhat optimistic approach (or foolish if you prefer to think of it that way) and assuming there will be some sort of NHL season this year, there will be no real margin of error for teams. They will have to hit the ice skating and try and gain points every night.
In a shortened season, a slow start could very well be the kiss of death as to any hopes for a team to reach the playoffs.
The Caps will be no exception to this and, in fact, their margin of error may be smaller than most. A key reason for this is that they have a new head coach, Adam Oates. Oates will have absolutely no room for mistakes. He will have to have his game plan and systems ready to implement from the moment the ink on the new CBA is dry.
What will likely help Oates and the Caps even more is that when the lockout ends, the Caps main superstar will be game ready and ready to go.
Now, as good as the talent is in the KHL, it is probably not quite on the same level as the NHL. Nevertheless, it is probably the best league going right now, especially when bolstered by an influx of NHL talent such as Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Zdeno Chara.
One other notable NHL player recently joined Ovechkin on Dynamo Moscow: His teammate, and line-mate, Nicklas Backstrom.
Persuaded by Ovechkin, Backstrom signed on with Dynamo Moscow in October (Washington Post). It is a huge move that will really help the Caps if and when the lockout ends. Ovechkin and Backstrom make up two-thirds of the Caps top line and if that line can hit the ice a step ahead of the opposition's defense, good things are bound to happen.
While NHL players have been flung to the far reaches of the globe, with Ovi and Backstrom you have possibly the two best players on the Caps playing together against excellent competition, working on their chemistry, refining strategy and becoming better players.
How are things going so far? Well, just last night, Backstrom recorded his first KHL hat trick and Ovechkin assisted on two of those goals (Washington Post).
I would say that is a very encouraging sign for the Caps.
When this infernal lockout does end, look for the Caps top line, led by Ovechkin and Backstrom, to be dominant and to get the Caps off to the hot start they will so desperately need.