WASHINGTON DC, DC - APRIL 23: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals looks on against the Montreal Canadiens in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 23, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Tip 'o the pen to our good buddy Slava Malamud over at Sport-Express for the heads-up on this analytical piece he wrote for today's issue. Read it, digest it, talk amongst yourselves.
At the end of June, Alex Ovechkin will don some audacious and well-fitted suit (if we're lucky, though, it won't be the red vest and tie which he wore a few years ago) and head to the convivial city of Las Vegas for the NHL awards ceremony. Alexander is heading there in the hope of receiving the most coveted award-a very beautiful golden trophy in the shape of a miniature atomic explosion.
And the Russian forward, whom Vyacheslav Bykov called an "atomic power plant" in Vancouver, could very well win this prize. If that happens, then Ovechkin will become the first player since Wayne Gretzky to win the Hart Trophy three years in a row.
However, it's more than likely that this time the majority of North American journalists voted for somebody else, say Sidney Crosby or Henrik Sedin. Okay, no need to be disingenuous so I'll just say it flat out-for Sidney Crosby. I believe that it was for Crosby himself that the majority of them voted. And if that is the case, then Ovechkin will end this season without a single individual prize.
I have no intention of disputing Crosby's possible victory in the battle for the Hart Trophy. Partly because this victory (if, indeed, it turns out that way) will be totally deserved. This season Crosby has achieved a lot and he has proven a lot, but more than anything he exhibited something that not many were expecting-a fighting spirit.
Sid the Kid, accustomed since his pre-teen years to being followed around by reporters, suddenly found himself having to prove that he wasn't a camel. Unflattering comparisons between Crosby and Ovechkin had toned down for some time now, and even on his own team he was overshadowed by Malkin last year. The guy, however, didn't sink into the dense jungle of self-pity, but recaptured the lead in Pittsburgh and made the game-winning goal in the Olympics.
All of this (as well as the standard pro-Canadian "leaning" of the voters) will ultimately, it seems to me, tilt the scales in favor of Crosby.
POTHOLES FOR THE RUSSIAN MACHINE
As for Ovechkin, some are of the opinion that he should just erase the 2009/2010 season from memory. Others are certain that this was the best season in Alex's career. First, Ovechkin's offensive potential didn't decrease in the slightest. If you take into account that he missed 10 games this season due to injury and penalties (and actually it was 14 games if you include those games where he was injured or suspended until the end of the game), then the numbers move out of the normal Ovechkinesque level into record-level territory for him. Second, Ovechkin started to engage his line mates much more often and lessen his solo game, becoming an even more multidimensional player. Third, he finally became Washington's captain-an important step in a player's career, which forces you to adapt to a new role.
So-the exact same lethality on the attack plus a team oriented game and leadership quality. A perfect balance. On the debit side, however, is a damning disappointment in Vancouver and in the NHL playoffs, flavored with a dose of Cologne. Let's also not forget the disturbing traits which manifested themselves in his dealings with the press.
And we certainly can't ignore the aforementioned suspensions, which happened twice this year. Ovechkin responded to the public with elements of his own proprietary panache: "I'm, like, the bad guy, how come, like, it's them; its, like, hockey". In fact, it seemed to me that Alexander was hurt and even ashamed. He definitely never imagined himself in the NHL in the role of a villain, a player registered by the league as a habitual offender.
And let's reminisce on those injuries once again. In Washington Ovechkin successfully propagandized himself with the phrase "Russian Machine Never Breaks" (I think this would be a big revelation to those who owned a "Zhiguli" or "Oka), this season, however, Alexander had to go into the repair shop twice. What's more, he was brutally (but legally) beaten by the Canadians in Vancouver and, according to info from team HQ, something like that also happened in Cologne. It seems there is no shortage of those desiring to tear into the Russian Machine.
"It seems to me that it will be difficult for him to play in the same manner as before," expressed Damien Cox, head hockey analyst for the Toronto Globe and Mail. "In Vancouver he looked devastated, and I think that the hunt for crushing blows takes a lot out of him, both physically and mentally."
Ovechkin's self-esteem also took a beating this year. Even the Washington press heavily criticized him both for Vancouver and for missing training sessions during the playoffs (the training sessions, however, were optional, but Americans admire work ethic and industrial heroism). In addition to this, some conversations about Ovechkin openly started using the terrible words "not a cup contender", since for the third year in a row his game in the playoffs paled in comparison to the regular season. Basically, the main star of the NHL caught a lot of flack this year.
So the question now, it seems, is whether the 2009/2010 season was a turning point for Ovechkin-has the Ovechkin we all know and love come to an end and is it time for him to reinvent himself?
To be honest, it is impossible to deny that opponents have, at the very least, figured out how to play against him. His favorite moves are watched endlessly on video, and rare is the defenseman who doesn't yet know that when Ovechkin starts to dance at full speed, preparing for a run at the flank, you don't look at his hands or the puck, but at where he points his chest. Everyone knows his favorite point to shoot from and how he executes his firm wrist shot from under the defenseman. Many have noticed that Alexander is much more effective when the puck is on his right side and that he is much less effective passing from his weak side. Knowing this, his opponents can more easily take away his chances. It's no coincidence that for the third year in a row in the playoffs the main anti-Ovechkin weapon was the blocked shot.
After the series against Montreal, Canadiens defensemen Gill and Georges said they knew exactly what Ovechkin would do.
"He doesn't have a lot of variation in his moves" said the opponents. "When he breaks into the zone along the wing, more often than not he'll try to cut to the center and take a wrist shot, using the defenseman as a screen".
NHL scouts are also just as effective at figuring out Ovechkin, just like any other superstar, and Alexander should understand how to deal with this in the future. And its not only in the NHL, but also on the national team.
"Look what happened in Vancouver" said Cox, "The Canadians put the line of Richards, Toews and Nash up against Ovechkin's line, and Weber was personally responsible for Ovechkin. What was Nash's job? If the puck was shot from the Russian zone to center ice, he was obliged to not run after the puck, but stay with his man, so that Ovechkin had to get past two bodies, Nash and Weber. So Richards' and Toews' job was to wear out Ovechkin from behind..."
As for what effect the botched Olympics had on Alexander, we can only guess, because he himself hasn't said anything on the subject. But somebody far away from the mics had something to say. According to Washington owner Ted Leonsis, Ovechkin was really upset with the way the Russian team played in certain situations, particularly the power play.
Leonsis asserted that Ovechkin praised how the NHL coaches prepared the special teams, so that the players knew where they were supposed to be in any given situation. The Russian coaches reportedly left the power play game up to the will of fate, hoping that the players themselves would understand how to interact with one another.
THE ADVANTAGE OF SLOWING YOUR PACE
"It seems to me that this year has brought Alex to a fork in the road" confirms Cox. "The issue now is which way he will go. It's clear that he is always going to make goals, but he needs to look at other aspects of his game too. You can point out, of course, where the team has taken him, but you also always have to look at yourself. However, Alexander is still young. Let's not forget that Steve Yzerman won his first Stanley Cup when he was 32."
It's an interesting and pointed comparison. In his youth, Yzerman also was a brilliant attacking player, but he started winning only when Scotty Bowman asked him to take on a more universal, defensive role.
Besides this, Ovechkin himself has already started to understand that he can't rush between the boards like a ball in a game of Chinese billiards and take down everyone in his way. This is far from always being productive, it's always very painful, and sooner or later it starts beating on yourself, which will become more and more unpleasant over the years. Not to mention that excessive eagerness brings damage to himself and the team.
"It seems to me that Alex will soon slow down his pace and become more careful" says Tarik El-Bashir, hockey columnist for the Washington Post, who has watched every one of Ovechkin's games in the NHL. "I'd even say that this has already happened, and I know precisely when. Do you remember the game against Tampa, when he hit Jamie Heward, his former teammate, in the back? How they carried him out on a stretcher? This scared Alex and it really affected him. And then there was the suspension and the fine. By the way, I told him about the fine. It was on a road game, in the hotel, and you should have seen the look on Alex's face. It wasn't a matter of money, but of reputation which he had earned in the league. I think that he was strongly affected by this."
IN FEDOROV'S FOOTSTEPS?
Ovechkin has also changed off the ice. It has become more and more obvious that he has started to tire from the constant, unrelenting attention of the media and the fans. It would appear that the life of a Hollywood superstar, which he so embraced from the very beginning, is not as desirable as it once was. Constantly having to beat off throngs of people trying to climb into your soul (and by no means always with harmless intentions) is far from enjoyable.
So how will we see him in the future? Will he change or continue in the same spirit? No matter which direction he chooses, he has to make that decision himself. If former Washington coach Glen Hanlon flattered himself thinking that he might become a polisher of Russian diamond, then Bruce Boudreau has no such ambitions. Bruce's credo is to allow Ovechkin to be Ovechkin and think of how to gain the greatest benefit from this.
I think that if Ovechkin really wants to "adjust" himself to the changing reality, then the first step is to become more judicious. He won't, for example, make crushing blows simply because his blood is boiling and his shoulder is itching. He'll start to save them for those situations where they are absolutely necessary. He might also add to his arsenal of tricks and offensive moves, especially now that he has a super-class center in Backstrom.
It also seems that, for some reason, Alexander is slightly dimming his mass-media star, becoming more reserved in post-game comments, offering up a fair share of charisma for the sake of peace of mind. He might even turn into a cool and charming professional like Sergei Fedorov. By the way, the possible departure from the team of his best friend Alexander Semin (the Capitals have already re-signed Backstrom and are simply not in the position to give the Siberian his 6-7 million, so Semin might even be traded this year) will certainly affect him one way or another.
Everyone matures, everyone changes, and if other NHL players are adapting their game to Ovechkin, then for Ovechkin himself to not change and improve would be a sin. This most difficult and oversaturated season most likely showed him how best to do it. And an experience like that could possibly be even better than individual awards.