The Washington Capitals are a team trying to maintain their chemistry, despite the lockout, in some rather unique ways. Some of it has been intentional; some of it has just been happenstance.
On one front, the Caps tried to focus on developing chemistry with the coaching staff by sending new head coach Adam Oates, along with pretty much his entire coaching staff, to Hersey to act as co-coaches of the Caps' AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears (Washington Post).
In theory, it was a good idea. Oates and his staff would get time to work together during actual games. They would get to develop and implement strategy and see how it played out in actual games. They were even going to get to work with players who will be on the Caps' roster (if the lockout ever ends, of course), such as Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov.
But theory and reality often are not one and the same. As was reported by NBC Sports just before Thanksgiving, Oates and his coaching staff have returned to Washington. While it certainly seems as though the goal of developing chemistry amongst the coaches was achieved, the actual results were less than stellar, as the Bears were in the basement of the AHL's East division at 6-9-1.
While the co-coaching experiment might not have gone as well as it could have, over in Europe, a different development is yielding some better results.
Once the lockout went into effect, it was not that surprising at all that Caps captain Alexander Ovechkin returned to Russia to play for Dynamo Moscow of the KHL.
What was somewhat more surprising was how Ovechkin was able to convince teammate—and linemate—Nicklas Backstrom to join him in the KHL, and on Dynamo Moscow no less. In mid-October, Backstrom signed on with Dynamo Moscow (Washington Post).
But was this a good move for Backstrom? Will he and Ovi flourish together overseas, or could the arrangement actually hurt their respective games?
There are a few reasons why I think Ovechkin and Backstrom will benefit from their time together in the KHL.
Practice Makes Perfect
The most obvious reason why Ovi and Backstrom will benefit from their time together in the KHL is that the two will still be able to play together on the same team and, quite often, on the same line.
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 quality competition, working on their chemistry, refining strategy and becoming better players.
It is a great occurrence and a 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, particularly in a shortened season, good things are bound to happen.
Less Might Be More
With the NHL and NHLPA now going down the mediation path (ESPN), there is at least a glimmer of optimism that there might be a season after all. Quite obviously, any season will be of the rather shortened variety. It will be imperative for all teams, including the Caps, to get off to a fast start if they hope to qualify for the playoffs.
In this respect, Ovechkin and Backstrom's time together in the KHL will be a big advantage. As mentioned before, the two linemates will likely be a step or more ahead of the competition when the season starts.
Playing together, as opposed to not playing at all, or playing on separate KHL teams, or perhaps even playing on separate AHL teams, is going to have an obvious advantage.
On top of that, the two stars of the Caps should be able to remain relatively healthy as they work on their skills, chemistry and overall game. The style of play in the KHL is not as physical as it is in the NHL. Recently, Ovechkin gave an interview to rt.com where 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.
That less physical style of play will help to eliminate the two men getting hit unnecessarily. Combined with the larger rinks in the KHL, this should enable both men to work on the parts of the game at which they excel, namely scoring and skating.
Being able to stay healthy, while also being able to work on the most important parts of their respective games, will be a big advantage to the Caps when the season eventually starts.
The Social Aspect
Now, I am not really trying to suggest that Ovechkin and Backstrom have to be the best of friends in order for the Caps to succeed, but it couldn't hurt.
About a month ago, after Backstrom arrived in Russia, Russian Machine Never Breaks posted an article (complete with photos) explaining how Ovi had taken Backstrom out to a party, in Russia, to celebrate Russian comedian Mikhail Galustyan’s birthday.
In the body of that article, there is discussion about a prior article in the Washington Post that pondered what was wrong with Ovi and also noting that he did not seem to spend as much time with his teammates as he did when he was younger.
The two men certainly look pretty happy and content from the photos provided by Russian Machine Never Breaks. It looks like there was some definite partying gong on.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is this shows that Ovi may not be the lone wolf he has been perceived as lately. As the article on Russian Machine Never Breaks takes note, it was Ovi who helped negotiate Backstrom's contract with Dynamo Moscow. Now Ovi is showing him the sights as well.
Friendship might not be the most important element for a successful line in hockey, but that doesn't mean it is unimportant. In fact, it might be somewhat underrated.
The Tally So Far
So how have the two Capitals superstars been performing overseas so far? Quite well, actually.
Ovechkin got to Dynamo Moscow a bit earlier than Backstrom did. He has played in 20 games so far. He has nine goals, 14 assists, 23 points, a plus-eight rating, five power-play goals and three game-winning goals.
Backstrom is keeping pace. In actuality, he has been on fire since arriving in the KHL. Backstrom has only played in 11 games thus far, but he has seven goals, 10 assists, 17 points, a plus-six rating, with two power-play goals and two game-winning goals of his own.
I would say that from an individual standpoint, Ovi and Backstrom look like they are ready to go once the puck drops back in D.C.
From a team standpoint, Ovechkin and Backstrom have Dynamo Moscow right at the top of the standings. Currently, they are tied with SKA St. Petersburg for the lead in the Bobrov division with 61 points.
I would say the reuniting of Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in the KHL has been a success so far. If the lockout continues, or if the season is lost, having the two men spend a season together is certainly going to help them immeasurably more than it would hurt.
And if the lockout does end, I really think you will see Ovechkin and Backstrom have huge seasons, leading the Caps to the playoffs and, hopefully, beyond.