Capitals’ F Alexander Ovechkin is at a crossroads in his career. He has a choice to make–the blue pill, or the red pill. After this, there’s no turning back.
You take the blue pill and continue about your scoring ways, dazzling the sports world with miraculous falling backwards goals. Or, you take the red pill–force your offensive game to suffer in order to become a more complete, well-rounded player.
As crazy as it sounds, Ovie’s biggest problem is, well…he’s predictable. Yes, I’m aware that his goals are some of the most unusual, creative and dynamic that we’ve ever witnessed, but hear me out.
It’s quite possible that yes, Alexander Ovechkin, just 26-year-old, has peaked. There are so many criticisms can be made of what Ovechkin can’t do; be a leader, be a defensive force, be consistent, win big games. Ovechkin came in heavy and out of shape last season, sparking Alexander the Girth nicknames. The underachiever. He’s often called a classless, egotistic, selfish player for both his on-ice play and his goal celebrations. The list goes on.
Ultimately, Ovechkin has become a one-trick pony. He does that one trick very well, but his incomplete game makes him vulnerable to repetitive consistencies. As such, it’s become easier for teams to defend a one-way player.
Let’s look at the average Ovechkin puck possession: cherry picking, blazing down the left wing, a quick cut inside and a shot on net. Never will you see him stray from this routine. You never see Ovie pass in double or triple coverage. You’ll never see him dump the puck into the corner or cycle down low–which is a colossal issue given that half the game is won in the corners.
As an opposing defence, it’s a sight for sore eyes to see the same player do the same thing over and over again.
In a game that’s ever-evolving, Ovechkin’s offence remains the one constant…in a bad way. Don’t believe me? Ask then-Canadiens’ D Hal Gill, who single-handedly shut down Ovechkin, supposedly the league’s best player, in the 2009-10 postseason. Even Gill–No Skill Gill, famous for his lead feet–has said that Ovechkin is easier to defend against than say, Penguins’ F Sidney Crosby. Sid the Kid, who’s game is the most complete among current NHLers, continues to improve on aspects of his game that he feels aren’t as good as others. Each year, his stats have gone up while also winning a Stanley Cup.
“Sid’s got a pretty good repertoire of moves. He’s got a pretty good backhand and he sees the ice with his backhand. You can’t overplay him. That’s the biggest thing. I think against him and more than anyone else, you have to be really good as a team. You let somebody slip through the cracks and he’ll find him. (Ovechkin)’s very different from Sid in that respect. Sid has so many moves. He’s resourceful.”"
Let’s look at some of Ovie’s numbers: last season, his stats fell dramatically across the board. In 2009-10, he had a 1.51 PPG average to lead the NHL; in 2010-11, it was down to 1.08. He lead the NHL in goals per game average and goals created per game average from 2007-10; but those numbers dropped significantly last season as well.
Why the drop? It’s possible that he truly was heavy and out of shape. Some of it could be undisclosed cortisone shot he received in January that forced him into a gold “non-contact” jersey for two days. It could also be head coach Bruce Boudreau finally trying to instill some defence into the team after realizing the Capitals’ fatal flaw.
Dan Daly of the Washington Post, however, suggests that the run-and-gun Ovechkin that we all see on our highlight reels is gone for good.
They expected Ovechkin to come out blazing in these first few weeks, to prove that last year’s drop-off to 32 goals was just an aberration. But so far he’s looked like the same player, like this is the new normal for him. And if that’s the case, [insert primal scream here].
Yes, Ovie missed some time before the opener because of the death of an uncle. And yes, the season is still young. Heck, in other years we wouldn’t have given it a second thought if he hadn’t put the puck in the net in the first two games. But this isn’t like other years. This is the year after he finished 14th in the league in goals — he had never been out of the top four before — and only managed seven on the power play.
Ovechkin’s famous boast is that “Russian machine never breaks.” But “Russian machine” may, at some point, start getting fewer miles per gallon. Are we at that point now? Is Ovie no longer an unstoppable force of nature? Has he devolved into a lower life form — from superstar to very good hockey player?
In fact, Stuart Weinberg of the Wall Street Journal has even drawn a comparison to Ovechkin beginning to pass as a direct result of being limited offensively.
The strategy is simple enough: Keep Ovechkin from gathering speed in the first place, which is precisely what the Canadiens did in last year’s playoffs. In hockey parlance, the tactic is known as gapping-up, or stepping up to challenge the puck carrier near the neutral-zone redline instead of the defending team’s blue line.
Teams also instruct their forwards to apply intense back pressure on Ovechkin, challenging him simultaneously from the front and back whenever he touches the puck. This makes it difficult for him to gain momentum and cut to the middle of the ice, where he can use his speed to blow by defensemen. “You want to make sure you’ve got him angled to the boards at all times,” said John Torchetti, assistant coach of the Atlanta Thrashers. “You don’t want to give him the middle of the ice.”
One of the rules of thumb that I live by in terms of great sports franchises is as follows: ‘offence wins games, defence wins championships.’ Take a look at some of the best players in sports–Yzerman, Sakic, Toews, Crosby, Datsyuk. Even some of the best sports dynasties–Bulls, Red Wings, Patriots, Lakers, Spurs, Steelers. All of them can score, but most importantly, they can all stop someone from scoring.
Now, don’t forget, Ovechkin’s scoring skill is one of a kind. It’s comparable to only a few in the entire history of the NHL. But by focusing his entire game on one aspect of hockey, he suffers everywhere else, and as it may turn out, his offence may be his Achilles heel when his career is said and done.
Don’t believe me? Let’s chronicle the career of my favourite athlete of all-time, Red Wings’ legend Steve Yzerman. Stevie Y endured similar problems in 1993-94. Yzerman was a fantastic offensive threat–he was third in league scoring behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux–but his game was also incomplete. The organizations’ frustration ran so deep that they almost swung a 1-for-1 deal with the Senators for F Alexei Yashin.
Rather than pulling the trigger, however, head coach Scott Bowman forced Yzerman to become a two-way forward (much like Ken Hitchcock has done in Columbus with F Rick Nash). Eventually, Yzerman found his game and became one of the best two-way forwards in NHL history, complimenting his incredible offensive touch with the ability to play well-rounded, consistent defence. Yzerman’s offensive game slipped, however, as he finished in the top-10 in league scoring just once after the change. Regardless, he matured, became a leader and guided his men to three Stanley Cup rings, engraving his name as one of the greatest the game has ever produced.
According to Neil Greenberg of Russian Machine Never Breaks, based the Capitals’ theoretically improved powerplay and a few additional factors, Ovechkin “has roughly a 46% chance at 40 goals or more and almost an 11% chance to exceed 45 goals for the year.” While these numbers are career-highs for just about any other player, we still expect more from the Alexander the Great.
Whether or not any of these factor into Ovechkin’s problems, one thing is certain–teams are figuring out how to defend him. And in a game that’s constantly evolving–where defences change and adapt to shut down their opposition to stay step ahead of your opponent–a rinse-and repeat-cycle leaves you a sitting duck.
While it may be a hard choice to make for the Great Eight to make, it’s one that needs to be made.
Ovie can ignore this–taking the blue pill–and continue playing his game, collecting Art Ross trophy after Rocket Richard trophy. His mantlepiece will be full if it isn’t already. But the one piece he’ll be missing–the blue pill–is a Stanley Cup that he’ll never hoist.
Remember, all I’m offering is the truth…nothing more.