Alex Ovechkin led the Capitals' run back into the playoffs and to a division crown, leading the league in goals with 32 and finishing third in points with 56. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
THE WAYNE GRETZKY AWARD: MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
By Greg Wyshynski
There was one player in the NHL this season whose performance was the embodiment of what a most valuable player should be. That person is Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Too bad he can’t wear the crown. Through no fault of his own, Bobrovsky’s team didn’t make the playoffs and thus I can’t in good faith bestow the MVP upon him. They play the regular season to make the post-season; a player whose performance elevates his team to that ultimate goal carries more value than one that does not.
We’re never going to see a Conn Smythe winner whose run ended in the conference final, right? So with Bobrovsky ineligible due to my own hockey dogma, the MVP falls to the next-best choice: Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.
On March 16, the Capitals were in 14th place in the East, three points out of the basement. On March 17, Ovechkin scored a goal against the Buffalo Sabres, only his 11th of the season. He would score five more in his next four games; then 10 more in seven games; then six more in six games. In his final 21 games of the season, Ovechkin scored 22 goals and had 12 assists. The Capitals’ record in that stretch: 16-3-2, propelling them to their seventh (and final) Southeast title and the No. 3 seed in the East.
Suddenly, Ovechkin was Ovechkin again: hitting, skating like a comet, electrifying the crowd. It was a player we hadn’t seen for years. What changed? Adam Oates, for one. The first-year Capitals coach brought power play expertise to D.C., giving Washington the league’s most potent special-teams attack. Ovechkin was the direct beneficiary. His power play numbers (0.56 points per game) inched closer to those of his dominant years.
Oates challenged him. He moved Ovechkin from the left wing to the right side. He moved him to a line with nominally talented but gritty forwards like Jay Beagle, ostensibly so he could learn from their hustle. All of it led to Ovechkin getting his confidence back, his swagger reignited. It led to a Rocket Richard Trophy with 32 goals and it led the Capitals to the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
Did he do it alone? Of course not. The resurgence of Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green contributed both to the Caps’ turnaround and Ovechkin’s offensive explosion.
Is there an argument to be made against him? Sure, if you find him as culpable for the team’s slow start as he was responsible for its finish. But it’s the finish that matters, as it did when Corey Perry won the Hart in 2011. Ovechkin was the player opposing defenses couldn’t ignore and the player for whom fans made time to watch. He was the catalyst for the Capitals’ success.
He was the reason Washington was a playoff team. He was the most valuable player in the NHL.
(Five points for first place vote, three for second, one for third)
Alex Ovechkin - 39
John Tavares - 17
Sidney Crosby - 14
Antti Niemi - 8
Sergei Bobrovsky - 7
Jontathan Toews - 4
Patrick Kane - 1