Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals spoke to the media in the wake of the coaching change Where he really needs to be heard from is on the ice. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Alex Ovechkin made a commercial last year that involved his disconnected head in various locations, including the top of a high school gym locker and the inside of a bowling ball bag. And now that his uninspired play has resulted in the professional decapitation of Bruce Boudreau, he’s squarely under the gun to turn around both his individual season and the state of a Capitals team clearly waiting for him to do so.
Washington GM George McPhee fired Boudreau Monday morning after a tailspin that saw them drop six of their past eight games. The capper was a 5-1 drubbing Saturday at the hands of a Sabres team without nine regulars, but the whispers had been there long before. Indeed, once the Caps were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the 2011 playoffs, rumor mills churned suggesting nothing less than a slump-free regular season and post-season run at least to the Eastern Conference final would prevent Boudreau from being cashiered.
So here Boudreau is, unemployed (although not for long – either another NHL team or TV network will snap him up before the year is out) and replaced by former Capitals star player Dale Hunter. Boudreau went 201-88-40 in the regular season with the Capitals, won four straight division titles and 2008 coach of the year honors. But because he was only 17-20 in the playoffs, he needed everything to go right to avoid McPhee looking for a different voice in the dressing room.
With his indifferent play of late, Ovechkin almost singlehandedly ensured that wasn’t going to be Boudreau’s fate. On Nov. 19 in Toronto, the Capitals’ captain was listless and looked twice as old as the charismatic dynamo that won so many of us over six seasons ago. With eight goals and 17 points in 22 games, he’s on pace to score 30 goals and 63 points – by far the lowest numbers of his career and 22 points below his career worst of 85 last season.
You can chalk some of that up to the improved commitment to defense Boudreau was demanding to see since the start of last season. But there’s no denying there’s an absence of joy and energy in Ovechkin’s game, one that’s grown into ugly single-game performances by him that overshadow whatever good is done by the rest of his teammates.
That, combined with the storybook return of his rival Sidney Crosby, made Ovechkin’s slump all the more pronounced. Since few GMs in their right mind would pony up prospects and/or picks for The Legend Of Alexander Semin (I call him that now because I hear and remember great things, but can’t observe a trace of them anymore) and because McPhee isn’t trading Ovechkin or Backstrom, Boudreau was sacrificed.
In Hunter, Ovechkin & Co. will get a much edgier personality than the good-natured Boudreau. They still have as much pure talent as anyone in the league – The Hockey News didn’t make them the pre-season Stanley Cup pick simply because of Boudreau’s presence. However, it is now on Ovechkin and Semin in particular to embrace Hunter’s game plan and produce positive results, particularly after mid-April.
By the way, Ovechkin made that disembodied head commercial for Reebok-CCM, but has since switched his endorsement of hockey companies to Nike Bauer. Ovechkin also has changed agents (from the powerful Don Meehan and Newport Sports to his parents) and now seen three head coaches (the other being Boudreau’s predecessor Glen Hanlon). Sooner or later, whether he sees it or not, the problem becomes him.
If he continues his play of late, it’ll be much sooner.
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