This was supposed to be Alex Ovechkin's year.
This was supposed to be the year Ovechkin would rip two large gorillas off his back by raising an Olympic gold medal and the Stanley Cup.
Because, as Dave Sheinin of The Washington Post explained on Sept. 28, "his career is still at least partly defined by the two glaring omissions on his resume: an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup title."
These two shortcomings create an immense amount of pressure on Ovechkin. Olaf Kolzig, Ovechkin's former teammate and the current goaltender coach for the Capitals, attempted to quantify this pressure while talking to Sheinin:
It’s not something I can relate to, because I don’t think I’ve ever had that much burden or responsibility on my shoulders. But you can definitely see it. He seems really at peace now. But having said that, there are still expectations to win the Stanley Cup here, and with each year that passes, there’s more and more pressure. And then, you add the Olympics in his home country, and — wow. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles it.
Now, all those who follow Ovechkin's career must wait to "see how he handles it," because things did not go according to plan this year.
Not even close.
First, there was the abject disaster suffered by Ovechkin's national team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Russia was bounced from the quarterfinals, failing to medal for the third straight Olympic Games. As far as Ovechkin himself, he tallied a goal and an assist a mere 3:54 into the first preliminary-round game, then failed to record another point for the duration of the tournament.
Then there was the shocking failure endured by Ovechkin's professional team during the 2013-14 NHL regular season. Let Katie Carrera of The Washington Post break it down for you, via Twitter:
This will mark the first time that Ovechkin's Capitals have missed the postseason since year two of Ovi's nine-year career. Contrary to popular belief, Ovechkin did his part.
The 28-year-old Moscow native again led the NHL in goals, and in doing so, he recorded his fourth Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy. No other player has won more than two in the 15-year history of the award, according to Hockey-Reference.
In the process, "Ovechkin became the 11th player in NHL history to score at least 50 goals in a season five times," according to ESPN.com.
To put that significant achievement in its proper perspective, one must compare Ovechkin to the other 10 members of this exclusive club. Each player is listed with the total number of times he reached the 50-goal milestone and the longest streak of consecutive seasons in which he accomplished the feat, along with the final season in which he did so. Finally, each player is listed with the highest goal total and worst plus/minus rating for the seasons in question:
|NHL Players who Scored 50 Goals at least 5 Times in Career|
|Mike Bossy *||9||9||1985-86||69||+27|
|Wayne Gretzky *||9||8||1988-89||92||+15|
|Marcel Dionne *||6||5||1982-83||59||-10|
|Guy Lafleur *||6||6||1979-80||60||+40|
|Mario Lemieux *||6||3||1995-96||85||+10|
|Pavel Bure *||5||2||2000-01||60||-2|
|Phil Esposito *||5||5||1974-75||76||+16|
|Bobby Hull *||5||2||1971-72||58||-7|
|Brett Hull *||5||5||1983-84||86||-27|
|Steve Yzerman *||5||4||1992-93||65||-6|
|* Hall of Fame|
|** Not Official Until 1967-68|
Ovechkin is now in truly elite company.
And yet he was crucified by the national media for his plus/minus rating, of all things.
Ken Campbell of The Hockey News wrote on Jan. 31 that "at least a minimal attention to two-way play is in order."
Michael Hurley of CBS Boston asserted on Mar. 17 that "what Alex Ovechkin is doing this season has gotten to the point where it can no longer be ignored."
Last but certainly not least, Mike Milbury had the temerity (or is it stupidity?) to imply on Mar. 30 that Ovechkin actually attempted to manipulate his ice time in an effort to alleviate his dreadful plus/minus rating (transcript via Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post):
Watch him now, he gets turned defensively here. Now he’s had enough, so he’s gonna go try to get off on this particular shift and let one of his teammates take the minus. The league caught him on this one and they slapped him with a minus anyway. Not good enough.
None of these three people—or anyone else, for that matter—pointed out that six of the 11 players who reached the 50-goal plateau five or more times completed at least one of their seasons with a minus rating. This includes Brett Hull's 1992-93 season, in which he scored 54 goals (only three more than Ovechkin's 2013-14 total) and finished with a minus-27 rating. Prior to the end of this season, that was the second-worst plus/minus rating for a 50-goal season since the statistic was first recorded in 1967-68, according to Campbell.
Apart from the cacophony of criticism regarding Ovechkin's plus/minus rating, there was at least one voice of reason that could be heard above the din.
On Feb. 1, Adam Gretz of SB Nation wrote the following condemnation of the plus/minus statistic as a whole:
Every year the hockey community gets a little closer to realizing that plus/minus is not telling us what we think it's telling us. Eventually we're going to stop paying much attention to it and start recognizing it for what it is. Unfortunately, this is not going to be that year.
Ovechkin himself put the statistic in perspective, in comments to Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy on Apr. 14:
Well, if you look at the entire team, our whole team has a minus. If I were the only one with a minus and everyone else had a plus, then of course, there would be a conversation. But in this situation blame should not be put on one player. Everyone had their downs, everyone was going through changes, and pointing a finger at one player is not right, in my opinion.
That same day, Ovechkin had even more insightful comments regarding his role on the team, as told to Chuck Gormley of CSNWashington.com:
If you remember when I think Hunter was here and I didn’t score goals, you guys said, ‘Why don’t you score goals?’ I said, ‘My job to block shots.’ Whole world say ‘Ovi stop playing what he used to play, he’s gone. We never going to see him again.’ I don’t want to turn my back on this kind of position again. I get paid to score goals. I scored 50. You can’t point to one guy and say he didn’t do his job. Look at everybody’s numbers. Watch the video and everybody have a bad year. That’s it.
So, the sane and rational people in our ranks can conclude that the plus/minus statistic does not speak to Ovechkin's true purpose for the Washington Capitals, which has been, still is and will always be scoring goals. By the bucketful. As long as he is reaching the 50-goal plateau, he will have done his job.
At least in the eyes of this columnist.
But there is no guarantee that Ovechkin will be gunning for another 50-goal season next year while under the guidance of head coach Adam Oates, the man who led Ovi to a career resurgence of sorts last year when he claimed his record-setting third Rocket Richard.
Oates is on the chopping block, as I wrote just last week. Whether or not Oates is fired by the Capitals will be an important development to follow, especially when it comes to the Capitals' star winger. As Ovechkin was quick to point out, he is particular about the style of coach he plays for, telling Gormley that "I was not comfortable playing with [Dale] Hunter’s system and I’m comfortable with [Adam Oates’] system and I was comfortable with Bruce [Boudreau’s] system as well."
Apparently, Ovechkin's comfort within his head coach's system translates directly to his offensive output, as evidenced by the following table:
|Ovechkin's Goal Scoring Under Different HCs|
|2007-08||82||65 *||0.79 *||0.59 *||446 *||14.6||5.44||Hanlon/Boudreau|
|2008-09||79||56 *||0.71 *||0.57 *||528 *||10.6||6.68||Boudreau|
|2009-10||72||50||0.69 *||0.60 *||368 *||13.6||5.11||Boudreau|
|2012-13||48||32 *||0.67 *||0.49||220 *||14.5||4.58||Oates|
|2013-14||78||51 *||0.65||0.44||386 *||13.2||4.95||Oates|
|* Led NHL|
The man who will make the decision on Oates' future—therefore partially determining Ovechkin's on-ice performance next season—also happens to be on the chopping block. General manager George McPhee is up for a contract extension after 16 years with the organization. EJ Hradek of NHL.com spoke to Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier of 106.7 The Fan about this topic on Apr. 15 (transcript via Chris Lingebach of CBS Washington):
I think it’s time for a change there. I think George has been there a long time. He’s done some good things; he’s done some things that haven’t worked out...I look at this team and there’s fundamentally something wrong. There’s something missing.
If McPhee was missing next season, his departure would affect more than just the head coaching position.
First of all, there is the possibility that the Capitals could trade their captain. Gormley broached this subject to Ovechkin on Apr. 14, to which Ovechkin responded: "That’s why I signed [a 13-year, $124 million contract]. I feel comfortable, I love the fans, I love the city. This organization gave me a lot and I want to bring Cup here."
Plus, the Capitals would have to contend with Ovechkin's no-trade clause. Starting on July 1 of this year, Ovechkin "can list up to 10 teams each year he will not accept a trade to and can modify said list in September of every following year," according to CapGeek.
Ovechkin seems to be staying put, although the arrival of a new general manager could change that. However, there is another issue at stake, one that a new GM would be able to influence or even control.
You see, McPhee was married to the idea of Ovechkin as the team captain. He let the hockey world know his feelings on the subject the day Dale Hunter was announced as the replacement for Bruce Boudreau. Katie Carrera wrote on Nov. 29, 2011 that "General Manager George McPhee was even asked on Monday whether Hunter would have the option to remove the captaincy from Ovechkin. 'That’s not going to happen,' McPhee said."
Count Allan Muir of Sports Illustrated as one person who thinks it is now time for the Capitals to demote Ovechkin as the team's captain, as he wrote in an article published Apr. 3 (let the record show that I published a list of five signs that Alex Ovechkin was never captain material—way back on Oct. 10, 2012):
But new faces or even a new direction won’t be enough to cure what ails this organization. Its culture needs a reboot. And that starts with ripping the C off the sweater of captain Alex Ovechkin. There are 70 million reasons why that’s the tough call — one for every dollar that remains on the contract that pays him $10 million per year through the 2020-21 season — not to mention that embarrassing your franchise player is a seriously risky move. But there is one very compelling reason why the Capitals have to do it anyway. For all his charisma and once-in-a-generation scoring touch, Ovechkin has shown time and again that he’s just not cut out for the role of team leader.
Therein lies the key to Ovechkin's recovery from this nightmarish season, an experience he described to Gormley by saying, "We’re in middle of nowhere because we did not make the playoffs." As Ovechkin begins to wander out of the wilderness that is NHL mediocrity and again move toward his dream of Stanley Cup glory, he must not walk alone on his journey.
He will need the leadership of his owner, Ted Leonsis, who admitted in his blog Ted's Take on Apr. 10 that "Before the Capitals season started, I was quoted as saying I didn’t see any weakness in our lineup...Obviously I was wrong."
Ovechkin will need support from his general manager and his head coach, whether those respective positions are held by incumbents or newcomers.
Finally, Ovechkin will need help from his teammates, who may choose to walk behind him, beside him or in front of him. True, the Capitals would have to search far and wide to find a leader strong enough to usurp the face of the franchise as its captain. That being said, the Washington Capitals must now admit that this team may never reach the promised land as long as Alex Ovechkin is leading the way.
Note: All statistics courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.