Can Alex Ovechkin be fixed? Ex-teammates and coaches say yes

Matt Larkin
Alex Ovechkin (Getty Images)
Alex Ovechkin (Getty Images)

Watching Alex Ovechkin develop in the NHL is like watching a child grow up. When he entered the league at 20, his ceiling was sky-high, but first he had to learn how to play the game, even how to speak his first words. Of English, that is.

We watched with the same wonder as when a baby takes his or her first steps when Ovechkin hit the 50-goal mark in a freshman campaign for the ages. ‘The GR8’ was born, master of the breathtaking goal. His first coaches in Washington, Glen Hanlon and Bruce Boudreau, knew he was gifted and let him treat the ice like his personal playground. Fifty goals gave way to 60-plus and the Capitals stormed into perennial contention. Ovechkin was the best player on Earth.

But we all lose our innocence sooner or later. Ovechkin received the Capitals captaincy in January 2010 and learned about right and wrong when he blew up Chicago’s Brian Campbell with a hit later that season and wound up suspended. Ovechkin lacked the same youthful abandon when he returned, seemingly holding back. And, after four 100-point seasons in a five-year stretch, he hasn’t hit that milestone since.

Life as an adult NHLer hasn’t always been sunny for Ovechkin, 28. His Caps have regressed, from the second round of the playoffs, to the first, and out of the big dance altogether this season. Washington has burned through coaches, too. Ovechkin and Boudreau clashed when the coach cut Ovechkin’s ice time for a lack of accountability. The marriage with Dale Hunter was worse, and Ovechkin ended up playing checking-line minutes. Adam Oates produced a boom in Ovie’s game by moving him to the right wing, but by the following spring he was publicly lambasting his star for a lack of effort. Next up is Barry Trotz, a defense-minded bench boss who, on paper, doesn’t look like a natural match for Ovechkin.

Ovechkin has gone from the golden child who could do no wrong to a lightning rod for criticism, be it for a lack of leadership, not taking the game seriously and especially for his inability to play defense. Fans and keyboard warriors are no longer convinced he can carry a team to a championship, and his $9.5-million cap hit through 2020-21 suddenly looks more like a burden than a safety net.

Everyone has an opinion on Ovechkin these days, but what is the true story from within the Washington organization? Is he really a bad leader? Does he care about backchecking? It’s time to unearth the Myths of Ovie, with help from past and present coaches and teammates.


IS OVECHKIN A TEAM-FIRST GUY?

Ovechkin remains sublimely talented. The “bad” version of him leads the league in goals two years running, giving him four Rocket Richard Trophies. He’s as dangerous as any player in the game with a full head of steam off the rush. He’s carried the “uncoachable” myth for years, but not necessarily because he defies his taskmasters. Sometimes the coaches find themselves loosening the slack involuntarily.

“You get carried away just watching him and forgetting to coach,” says Boudreau, Ovechkin’s boss from 2007-08 to 2011-12. “Because when he’s going in full flight, it reminds you of Bobby Hull. Watching Ovie when he was really on was exciting. I could see how the fans, he’d get them right out of their seats with a dynamic shot, a hit, a rush, any of those things.”

How much responsibility, then, falls on Ovechkin for freelancing? On one hand, his most recent coaches, Hunter and Oates, declined to participate in this story, and the silence is deafening. Ovechkin bucked when they tried to fit him into their game plans. But Boudreau’s perspective suggests Ovechkin is sometimes granted special privileges because he’s so skilled.

“Coaches can pitch them the system, but superstars are allowed to take chances sometimes because you know those chances are going to pay off,” says Chris Clark, Ovechkin’s teammate in Washington from 2005-06 to 2009-10. “If I took the same chances, it’s a lot less likely it was going to pay off in the end as a scoring chance or a goal. If he’s allowed to take certain liberties, teammates know that.”

Hanlon, Clark and Mike Knuble, Ovechkin’s teammate from 2009-10 to 2011-12, say he is well liked in the dressing room, that his love for the game is infectious, and that everyone respects how hard he plays. They don’t paint a picture of an enigmatic star playing only for himself.

“He’s naturally talented, so he’s going to win individual awards,” Knuble says. “He loves to get those, there’s no doubting that, but team success is important to him. He looks like more of an individual than he is.”

 

DOES HE HATE PLAYING DEFENSE?

Even if superstardom earns Ovechkin freedom, his defensive play was historically poor in 2013-14. His minus-35 ranked 884th out of 886 NHLers, his Corsi close ranked 248th out of 435 qualifiers. The latter is crazy-low given he’s the league shots leader. You must be severely allergic to backchecking if you put that many pucks on opposing nets and still place middle-of-the-pack in a stat that tracks the ratio of shots directed toward either team’s goal.

Does he simply dislike playing defense? The eye test suggests so. Watch footage of goals scored against the Caps and it’s common to catch him floating late into the play like a piece of driftwood. But maybe looks are deceiving. Clark calls Ovechkin “very coachable” and says the Russian would listen to teammates or coaches pointing out his mistakes, plus he’d pick up on errors himself.

“If he didn’t get a guy on a backcheck, he cared more than a lot of guys did,” Clark says. “He really took it hard. It was his fault when something went wrong. He’d work twice as hard next time on the defensive end, or he’d go and score a goal and make up for it.”

Knuble occasionally caught Ovechkin deep in the offensive zone hunting for a loose puck when there wasn’t one there, but says, “we’re all guilty of that.”

 

DOES HE WANT TO BE CAPTAIN?

Ovechkin is a passionate captain at the international level, as he displayed in leading Russia to the World Championship in May. Away from his countrymen, he hasn’t profiled as a natural leader. If there’s a story about him picking his fellow Capitals up by the bootstraps in trying times, it hasn’t yet been told.

Boudreau says Ovechkin was never an overly vocal captain and that No. 8’s method is to be the best player on the ice and inspire others to follow. Clark, the Capital to wear the ‘C’ before Ovechkin, sees things differently. Ovie relished the “hockey-related stuff,” Clark says, and was a strong voice in the room even before taking over as captain.

“Outside of hockey, that’s when sometimes being a captain is a lot of pressure,” Clark says. “You’ve got a lot more responsibilities outside the rink, talking to the media. With the language barrier, he did very well, but that’s the only thing I can see that maybe wasn’t a fit for some people.”

Knuble says the Capitals were more captain-by-committee when he was there. Ovechkin had many off-ice responsibilities, especially promotional work with the NHL, so Knuble and some of the other veterans took it upon themselves to share the leadership.

“Nobody wanted his play to falter, nobody wanted him to get bogged down in this captain stuff,” Knuble says. “We just wanted him to keep going and be the player he could be.”

 

CAN OVECHKIN EVOLVE HIS GAME?

To call Ovechkin broken is to exaggerate. He’s still the sport’s pre-eminent goal scorer.

“I don’t want to be negative with Alex at all,” Boudreau says. “He’s still got the best shot in the league.“

That said, he’s reached the point where bad habits hold him back. One popular opinion among pundits and analysts is that Ovechkin slipped into the 30-goal range a few years ago because, unlike fellow all-planet sniper Steven Stamkos, he couldn’t evolve his attacking style. Ovechkin would gain the zone, cut to the middle and shoot through the defenseman, creating a screen. Opponents clued in and began shutting him down. Boudreau insists Ovie listened when told to fake to the middle and take the puck wide to surprise opponents.

Clark cites another example from Ovechkin’s first two seasons, when Hanlon coached the Caps. Hanlon noticed Ovechkin would receive passes almost in the neutral zone on a breakout, a result of not backchecking deep enough.

“He had to start from zero and go to 60 miles an hour and try to beat the guy,” Clark says.
Ovie would still get past the checker sometimes, but Hanlon suggested a deeper backcheck meant Ovie could receive the puck at the top of the circle, then have 20 feet to gain steam coming at opposing D-men. They didn’t stand a chance. Hanlon also taught him to move less in the defensive zone and give defensemen an easier outlet for passes.

“He worked on it, and in the end he played important defensive situations,” Hanlon says. “We gave him freedom offensively to find his space on the ice and asked him to play a team game defensively. He had no problem with it.”

So maybe Ovechkin isn’t the stubborn mule he’s made out to be. He also has more than one attack in his arsenal, and Boudreau says Ovechkin is a better playmaker than he gets credit for.

“He’s got an extremely high hockey IQ, and I never hear people say anything about that,” Boudreau says. “If he’s coming down the boards on a 2-on-1 and he’s on the left side, he’s almost impossible to stop, because he’ll pass it or shoot it. Everybody seems to think all he does is shoot. He makes great plays.”

If we accept that Ovechkin is a moldable mind, what’s the secret to fixing him?

 

HOW CAN BARRY TROTZ FIX HIM?

Washington fired Oates and GM George McPhee, but owner Ted Leonsis’ intent was not to blow up the franchise. He’s reloading with Trotz and wants to keep building around Ovechkin.

“If I said to you, ‘Hey, I know how to fix him, 100 percent,’ I would probably be lying,” Trotz says. “I have an idea of how I would go about trying, and I believe in that method, and there has to be a little bit of a give and take on both sides.”

How will Trotz, known for hardworking, stingy teams during his 15-year run with the Nashville Predators, get through to Ovechkin, for whom the ice is permanently tilted toward the opposing goal?

Two words: Steve Yzerman.

Trotz cites the Hall of Fame pivot as proof that a pure offensive weapon can be transitioned into a two-way monster. Remember Yzerman’s early relationship with Scotty Bowman in Detroit? When Bowman called him out for not paying attention to defense, and Yzerman surfaced in trade rumors? Us neither. Yzerman responded so well that it’s easy to forget he wasn’t always known for two-way play. In Trotz’s eyes, that means Ovechkin isn’t a lost cause.

“Yzerman gave some of himself up on the offensive side of the puck to become a top talent on both sides of the puck, and they started winning championships,” Trotz says.

At the same time, Ovechkin will never be Yzerman. That’s not an insult. The two players have different strengths, and while Ovie can become more diligent in defensive zone coverage, he’s best used as an offensive weapon.

“He got 51 goals last year, and I’d love for him to get 52,” Trotz says. “But not at the expense of the other side of the puck.”

Trotz is as optimistic as any new coach should be and, if the testimony of people from Ovechkin’s past is to be believed, there may just be a special bond in the making here. Boudreau and Hanlon have incentive to pull punches, but Ovechkin’s retired teammates don’t, so it’s telling that they’re so supportive. Now, it’s Ovie’s turn to reward their faith and transition from boy to man in the NHL.

“I can reassure Barry that Alex is a great person that enjoys hockey and is driven to win the Cup,” Hanlon says. “Anything less will not satisfy him. He is one of the most enjoyable players I have coached. Form your own opinions on what you see on the ice. Any other opinions mean nothing.”

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

This feature appears in the 2014 Season Commemorative edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.