Can demanding, newly-installed Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz coax superstar forward Alex Ovechkin into becoming a complete, team-first player?
This will be one of the more intriguing storylines to watch as the 2014-15 NHL season unfolds. Ovechkin is undoubtedly a world-class talent, blessed with breathtaking natural ability. He can score from anywhere with his lethal one-timer and loves to throw a big hit. In 78 games last season, Ovechkin scored 51 goals and recorded 28 assists for 79 points. Those 51 goals earned Ovechkin the Rocket Richard Trophy.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ovechkin suffered a horrendous season defensively. He finished last season with a brutal minus-35. That ugly plus-minus ranked Ovechkin 884 of 886 skaters in 2013-14. As a whole, Washington was a poor defensive team last season. The Caps finished -5 as a team, surrendering 240 goals against. Washington went on to miss the playoffs by just three points.
Fairly or unfairly, the finger of blame was pointed directly at the three-time Hart Trophy winner.
The expensive offseason additions of ex-Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen should help the Caps become less leaky. That being said, persuading Ovechkin to skate hard for 60 minutes and getting him to buy into playing a 200-foot game will be essential to Washington’s defensive-conscious makeover.
Ovechkin has a reputation of shying away from backchecking and frequently gets caught deep in the offensive zone while the Caps get burned on the rush. There are times when he looks like the most passionate player on the planet – and then there’s times when he’ll “switch off” and becomes openly disinterested.
Just listen to NBC hockey analyst Mike Milbury ripping into Ovechkin.
For too many years, Ovechkin has tuned out coaches. Only former head coach Dale Hunter was able to force Ovechkin to change his game to fit Hunter’s defensively-focused system during the 2012 playoffs.
Ovechkin fell back into poor defensive habits under Adam Oates last season. After an April 4 defeat to the Dallas Stars, Oates called out of Ovechkin for ‘quitting on a play.’
Ovechkin stopped skating and refused to pick up old man Ray Whitney. The Capitals’ no. 8 began gliding into the neutral zone as the 41-year-old Whitney turned on the jets to rush to an open patch of ice and set up linemate Dustin Jeffrey.
The task in front of Trotz is to make sure Ovechkin keeps his intensity up. If you’re wearing the captain’s ‘C,’ it’s up to you to set the tone for the entire team.
Trotz wants Ovechkin to use his legs to maximize his natural goal-scoring tools.
“He’s a lot more dangerous when he’s skating, when he’s moving, when he’s got a little bit of room to operate,” Trotz told Dan Rosen of NHL.com. “I have found him standing still a lot on the film that I’m watching, very easy to cover, and he still got 51 goals.”
For too long, Ovechkin has been unchallenged and coddled by the Caps’ organization. Trotz will be tough on Ovi, but that won’t mean anything if Ovechkin isn’t listening and isn’t skating with gusto.
It’s time for Ovechkin to behave like a captain by embracing a two-way, 200-foot game and setting the tone for teammates through effort and example.
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