Once upon a time, Alexander Ovechkin was the best hockey player in the world. He was a human highlight reel. Every time he touched the puck, there was a real chance you might see something amazing.
He scored goals from his back. He scored them from his knees. He made plays that defied logic and everything everyone thought they knew about hockey skill.
He ceased being Alex Ovechkin and became simply the Great 8. He almost single-handedly resurrected the Washington Capitals franchise and transformed the Caps from doormats to an Eastern Conference power.
Ovi wasn't just part of the franchise—he was the franchise. So valuable was he that the Caps rewarded him with a 13-year, $124 million contract (via ESPN).
Alex Ovechkin was a superstar in every sense of the word.
That was then.
This is now.
For the past two seasons, Ovi's numbers have fallen rather dramatically—and so have the Caps' fortunes. This present shortened season has also been a disappointing one for Ovi and the Caps. With the exception of the game on Saturday against the New Jersey Devils—where Ovi recorded his first hat trick in more than two years—the Great 8 has been rather average.
How did this happen? How did one of the best players in the world—someone who seemed like a lock to win multiple Stanley Cups and go to the Hall of Fame—fall into being an average player, or perhaps somewhat above average?
Let's take a look at each season of Alexander Ovechkin's career so far to see if any clues can be discovered.
After being drafted No. 1 overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2004 NHL entry draft, Alexander Ovechkin, like everyone else, had to endure the disaster that was the 2004-2005 NHL lockout. When Ovi finally debuted, though, he was well worth the wait.
There have not been too many rookie seasons like the one Ovechkin had in 2005-2006. You can look at his Wikipedia page to get more details. But that only tells part of the story.
In his very first NHL game, Ovi scored two goals. On January 13, 2006, He got his first NHL hat trick against the Anaheim Ducks.
Three days later, he scored the famous goal where he was lying on his back against the Phoenix Coyotes.
If you watch the video included on this slide, you will notice how fast Ovi is. Defenders simply could not keep up with him. When he put his shoulder down to make his move towards the net, it was essentially game over for the goalie.
You will also notice his stick moves and his incredible skating ability. It was awe-inspiring to watch, and it still is almost seven years later.
Ovi ended up with 52 goals, 54 assists and 106 points in his rookie season. He led all rookies in goals and points and finished third in the NHL in points. He also led the league with 425 shots.
Ovechkin was named to the NHL's First All-Star Team, as well—the first time a rookie had done that in 15 years. Not surprisingly, he won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year.
As good as he was, though, the Caps still stumbled through a 29-41-12 season. The 70 points were an 11-point increase from the 2003-2004 season, so progress was being made. However, it would still be two more years before the Caps would really make a serious move in the Eastern Conference's pecking order.
Nevertheless, Alex Ovechkin's rookie season was one for the record books.
Statistically speaking, Alexander Ovechkin's second season in the NHL was not as successful as his first. He only had 46 goals and 46 assists for a 92 point season.
Of course, most players in the NHL can only dream of posting such mediocre numbers.
Ovi appeared in his first All-Star game in 2007 as well.
If you watch the video for this slide, it is plain to see that Ovi was even faster in his second season. His skills seemed even greater than before, and his shot was even better.
What made him so dangerous back in these days was his decisiveness with the puck and his ability to seemingly always be a step or two ahead of the defense.
He simply was the most dangerous player in the NHL.
Why were his numbers down slightly? Probably because teams knew what to expect a bit more, so defenders played him tighter and Ovi did not react to it quite yet. But that is just my opinion, and it is not like his numbers were way off during the 2006-2007 season.
One big issue during this season was his minus-19 efficiency rating. Ovi was always a very physical player, but his defensive skills were not too good at this point in his career. Along with the Caps, he got burned repeatedly.
The team again struggled and failed to make the playoffs. With a 28-40-14 record, the Caps again stumbled to a 70-point season and a last-place finish in the Southeast division.
But if the 2006-2007 season was a bit of on/off year for Ovi, the following season would be the most spectacular season any Caps player has ever had.
What can one say about the season that Alexander Ovechkin had in 2007-2008 that does not involve some sort of awe-inspired superlative?
Quite simply, all one can say is wow!
Midway through Ovechkin's third season in the NHL, with his rookie contract expiring, the Caps locked up their franchise player for pretty much the duration of his NHL career, signing him to a 13-year, $124 million contract extension. The contract, which Ovi negotiated without an agent, is the richest in NHL history. It yields, on average, $9.5 million per year.
All Ovi did in return was smash pretty much every scoring record for the Washington Capitals.
Ovi would score 65 goals, have 47 assists and an astonishing 112 points. As for that poor efficiency rating from a season earlier, he rectified that problem with a plus-28 rating.
Ovechkin became the first player to score 60 goals in 12 years, broke the Caps' record for goals in a season—previously held by Dennis Maruk—and also set a new record for goals scored in a season by a left winger.
He led the league in goals and points and captured the Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies. He would later win the Lester B. Pearson Award and the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's MVP. Ovi became the first player in history to win all four major awards in one season.
Most importantly though is that Ovi's unbelievable play lad the Caps back to the playoffs. The Caps caught fire near the end of the year and won 11 of their final 12 games. With a record of 43-31-8, the Caps finished with 94 points—a 24-point increase over the past two seasons—and won the Southeast Division.
In his first playoff game, Ovi scored the game-winning goal. The Caps would ultimately fall to the Philadelphia Flyers in seven tough games, but it certainly had nothing to do with Ovi, as the Great 8 had four goals and five assists in the series.
As bitter as the defeat was, Caps fans everywhere had every reason to be absolutely thrilled about the future of the franchise.
Without question, the 2007-2008 season was Alexander Ovechkin's best yet, and it seems unlikely he will ever be able to exceed it.
What do you do for an encore to a season like the one Alexander Ovechkin had in 2007-2008?
How about nearly repeating the feat—in three games fewer, no less.
The 2008-2009 season was Ovi's fourth in the NHL, and he never looked better. The guy was an absolute terror for the opposition. Defenses simply did not know how to play him.
Ovechkin excelled at being able to somehow free himself from the defense and seemingly float toward one of the faceoff circles to release the most wicked one-timer in all of hockey. Defenses knew it was coming, and yet they were all powerless to stop it.
Ovi was also incredibly adept at picking up the puck in full stride and using his tremendous speed and stick skill to overwhelm defenders and goalies.
Ovi's numbers were a little bit off during the 2008-2009 season, but just barely. He still finished with 56 goals, 54 assists and 110 points. When he scored his 200th goal in just his fourth season, he joined the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux as the only players to do so in just four seasons.
Pretty good company indeed.
He again led the league in goals and finished second to Evgeni Malkin in points. He would go on to win the Pearson Award and Hart Trophy for the second straight year.
The Caps also flourished. The franchise won its second straight Southeast Division crown with a 50-24-8 record. Great things were expected from the Caps in the playoffs.
Things got off to a rocky start, as the Caps trailed the New York Rangers 3-1 in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. They would rally to win the series in seven games, though, setting up a much-anticipated showdown between Ovi and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Game 2 of that series will always be remembered for Ovechkin and Crosby each registering hat tricks. The series itself was one of the best ever in playoff history. Three games went into overtime, and five of the first six games were decided by just one goal.
It all came down to a Game 7 at Verizon Center with a shot at the Eastern Conference Finals on the line. However, Ovechkin was stopped on a breakaway opportunity early in Game 7, and the Pens went on to rout the Caps 6-2.
Pittsburgh would go on to win the Stanley Cup and Ovechkin's prime rival got the last laugh in this round.
The Caps had won their first playoff series of the Ovechkin era, though, and virtually everyone expected even better things the next season.
Things did not quite work out that way, however.
I believe that the 2009-2010 season was a turning point in the career of Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
Statistically, Ovi's fifth season in the NHL has to be considered a great success. He only played in 72 games, but still had 50 goals and 59 assists for 109 points. His efficiency rating was an amazing plus-45.
The Caps became a true juggernaut—at least during the regular season. The team finished with a 54-15-13 record and won its third straight Southeast Division crown. The Caps frequently abandoned any sort of defensive game plan and just overpowered their opposition. On numerous occasions, they spotted the opposition a couple of goals, only to turn on the afterburners and just overwhelm their opponent.
The Caps won their first and only President's Trophy.
As far as Ovi's game was concerned, he was still the most dangerous player in the NHL. Defenders tried to slow him down, but it did not work. Double-teaming Ovi became common, and it still did not matter.
That said, three things happened during the 2009-2010 season that I feel have had a major impact on Ovi's present decline into mediocrity.
The first was that he suffered an injury after a collision with Raffi Torres and then got suspended for the first time due to a knee-on-knee hit with Tim Gleason. These two incidents made then-coach Bruce Boudreau describe Ovi's style of play as "reckless" on occasion.
Most people who have watched Ovi his entire career would agree that the Great 8 has not really played with that sort of reckless abandon since the 2009-2010 season. It is something that has impacted his game.
Next, Ovechkin was named team captain on January 5, 2010. At that time, he had 26 goals in 33 games. After being named captain, he tallied just 24 goals over the final 39 games of the season. That’s not a huge drop-off if one looks at it in isolation. But when we get to the next season, the possible impact this move has had on Ovi's career becomes much more clear.
The final thing that happened was the playoff failure against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens. The Caps had a 3-1 series lead and were heading back to Washington to, presumably, close out the Habs. But the team played flat in Game 5 and lost.
The Caps were outplayed in Game 6 in Montreal and then had to try and win a Game 7, on home ice, to avoid one of the biggest upsets in NHL playoff history. Instead, they completed the upset. Ovi had a goal disallowed in the third period of Game 7, and he could not, despite his best efforts, prevent the unthinkable from happening.
The loss to Montreal really devastated the franchise and, in my opinion, had a much bigger impact on the Great 8 than any of us imagined at the time.
It was the next season that the decline of Alex Ovechkin truly began.
The place to really start looking at Ovechkin's decline is the 2010-2011 season.
Statistically, Ovi's sixth season was pretty poor compared to the previous season.
He finished the season with a career low in goals with just 32. His assists were still fairly solid with 53. And his 85 points ranked seventh in the NHL, so even with the lessened production, he was still among the league leaders in scoring.
Still, Ovi scored 18 goals less, even though he played in seven games more than the prior season.
Why? What happened at this point in the career of the Great 8, and in the history of the Caps franchise, that sent both player and team on a decline.
It is hard to say.
Ovi did not seem as fluid with his skating anymore. His shot was still there, but you saw him stumble to the ice on his follow-through much more than he used to.
He also seemed to be more focused on laying a big hit at times when he should have been looking to score. Teams seemed to finally learn how to play Ovi more effectively, and the number of times he would just float, unchecked, to a faceoff circle went down dramatically.
Did the fact that Ovi was the captain have some sort of effect on him? Did having that role make him feel somehow more responsible for the collapse against Montreal the previous season? Were all the responsibilities of being a hockey captain just too much for him, and did that remove some of Ovi's freewheeling nature?
One thing for sure was that Ovi and the Caps seemed to suffer an identity crisis during the 2010-2011 season.
The Caps tried to play more defensively, and they struggled at times.
There were great moments, such as beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Winter Classic. And, ultimately, the Caps were good enough to finish with a 48-23-11 record—good enough for 107 points and the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference.
But the playoffs would again lead to disappointment. The Caps would take out the New York Rangers in five games, but would then suffer a stunning sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference semifinals.
Once again, Ovechkin could not get the Caps to the next level. That, combined with his decline in production, caused many Caps fans to have some real concern that their hero might not be all he was believed to be.
His performance the following season did nothing to make anyone feel better.
Many fans and observers of the Washington Capitals were understandably nervous about the 2011-2012 season. Much of that uncertainty centered around Alexander Ovechkin.
Was the previous season's drop in production simply an anomaly? Or was something more problematic going on?
Ovi's seventh season in the NHL probably raised more questions than it answered.
His goals scored went up, as he tallied 38 during the 2011-2012 season—good for fifth in the NHL. Yet most fans felt disappointed. Most fully expected a return to the 50-goal plateau for Ovi. When he fell quite short, the mutterings about the decline in the skills of the Great 8 grew louder.
What was a huge concern was the massive drop in his assists and points. Ovi had only 27 assists during the 2011-2012 season and finished with just 65 points, a full 20 points less than the season before.
For the first time since his second season in the league, he had a negative efficiency rating with a minus-eight. His shots fell to 303, the lowest total of his NHL career so far.
If you watch the video for this slide and you watch him play, a word starts to come to mind: predictable. Ovi and the Caps are just too predictable. Too much of what is going on is about trying to get Ovechkin free to unload that big one-timer from the left faceoff circle.
When it is there, it is still one of the most deadly shots in all of the NHL. The problem is that it is not there as much as it used to be, and neither Ovechkin nor the Caps are able to make the necessary adjustments.
True, much of the problem had to do with then coach Dale Hunter using Ovi less than prior coach Bruce Boudreau had. Hunter recognized what a talent Ovechkin was, but he also knew he was somewhat of a defensive liability.
All season, the Caps struggled to embrace Hunter's defense-first philosophy and Ovechkin was no exception.
In the end, the Caps got hot at the end of the season and qualified as the No. 7 seed in the East. However, their four-year run as Southeast Division champion was over.
When the playoffs arrived, Hunter was not shy at all about limiting the ice time of one of the best players in the world if doing so was best for the team. The Caps finally embraced Hunter's style of play and stunned the defending champion Boston Bruins in one of the greatest seven-game series ever, the only series in NHL history where all seven games were decided by just one goal.
The next series against the New York Rangers was almost as good. But the Caps fell in another seven-game classic and, yet again, failed to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998.
Ovechkin had five goals and four assists during the playoff run. His nine points were his fewest in the playoffs since his first playoff series in 2008.
After a second consecutive subpar season, the decline of Alexander Ovechkin was no longer just a matter of Caps fans and faithful being paranoid—it was a reality.
The shortened season of 2013 has been disappointing for the Caps and Alexander Ovechkin so far.
Or, at least it was up until Saturday afternoon, when Ovechkin got his first hat trick in over two years in a 5-1 drubbing of the defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils.
If you watch the highlights of the game, you see a microcosm of Ovi's best skills and a lot of what made him so dangerous for so many years. But you also see the same predictability and where he wants to be to try and score. He still loves that one-timer from the left faceoff circle, and if a team is dumb enough to give it to him, more often than not, Ovi will make the team pay.
The second goal on Saturday was more like the old Ovechkin, where he used the defender as a screen and placed a perfect shot between the legs of the defender and past the goalie.
But in 17 games so far this season, Ovi has just eight goals and six assists. At that pace, he would match last year's goal total of 38 and would have one more assist than the prior season with 28. He would end up with just one more point with 66.
Hardly the sort of resurgence many of us were expecting with Adam Oates as coach.
Ovechkin is again struggling as far as his efficiency is concerned. He is a minus-six on the season and would be on pace for minus-28, which would be a career low.
The Caps, meanwhile, have struggled even more. With a record of 6-10-1, the Caps currently sit 14th in the Eastern Conference and are six points out of the last playoff spot in the East. They have been playing better hockey as of late, but they have their work cut out if they want to get back to the playoffs this year.
If that is to happen, Alexander Ovechkin must stop his decline of the past few seasons and begin his ascent back to greatness.
As to what has led to the present decline, it is really hard to say. Review his career stats. Watch the videos included in this slideshow. Draw your own conclusions.
All we can hope for now is that the worst is behind us and that we see many more moments from the Great 8 like the one we got Saturday afternoon.