- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
- 0 Shares
TORONTO -- On this morning at Air Canada Centre, Alex Ovechkin's trademark smile doesn't appear a whole lot during a routine pregame skate.
There's not a lot of monkeying around. It's mostly business. He's first off the ice after about 20 minutes of practice and heads to the visitors' dressing room, where he sits down for a one-on-one interview with ESPN.com.
Since I don't spend that much time around No. 8, I won't pretend to know what he's like every day. But it seems to me the goofy, perma-smile Ovechkin of years past doesn't make as many appearances these days.
"Well, I think it's just maturity," Ovechkin tells ESPN.com. "You're growing up. Of course, I have the same smile on my face, that doesn't go away, but when your team is struggling and you're not having success, it's a different scenario. I'm more serious right now because I want to win. That's the most important thing."
Almost two years ago, in early April 2011, we sat down in the very same dressing room with Ovechkin, who was sitting in the exact same stall, and he talked about how he was willing to sacrifice individual offensive numbers for the greater good: his team winning in the playoffs.
Thing is, while his offensive numbers have gone down, his team's ability to get over the playoff hump hasn't materialized, an impressive first-round upset of Boston last spring notwithstanding.
Ovechkin envisioned a championship under his belt by this point in his career. That hasn't come close to happening.
The goal for all of those coaches is the same: get the most out of Ovechkin within a team concept.
Three years since last scoring 50 goals, Ovechkin has two goals in seven games this season, while the team has only one win after losing to the Maple Leafs on Thursday night.
"Of course, when you have six games and only two points [one goal, one assist] and the team is struggling to win, I keep asking myself, 'What do I have to do better?'" Ovechkin said before Thursday nights game where he scored a power-play goal. "I talked to Adam about it. He just said to continue to play. Every game I have chances, of course it's not like five or six chances, it's one or two chances, but I have to score goals. That's my job. That's why I get paid."
There's an adjustment happening right now, not just for Ovechkin but for the entire team, with Oates in his first season behind the Caps bench without the benefit of preseason games to teach his new system to his players.
From that perspective, Ovechkin deserves some slack.
"He's getting there, he's getting there," Caps GM George McPhee told ESPN.com Thursday morning when asked about his $9.5 million-a-year winger. "He's not happy with the results so far. He gets a lot of attention from other clubs and has to learn how to adjust and fight through it."
One question we heard from a few NHL people outside the Caps organization is whether or not Ovechkin has the same drive. Does he still care as much as he once did?
I'm in the camp that believes he still does. What I'm not convinced of is whether Ovechkin knows how to channel that desire to win into doing the right things to get there.
"Alex cares," McPhee said. "He wants to win, he wants to be a good player. He wants that responsibility. But the game has changed a lot in recent years in the way teams check and defend and clog up the neutral zone. He's at a point now where he's learning how to adjust to that."
The theories abound on why Ovechkin's offensive production has decreased in recent years.
One front office source from another NHL team offered up his own theories.
"The first thing I look at is how many shots is he getting on goal a game," the source said. "When he scored 50-plus goals, he was getting between 500 and 600 shots a year. I think he's probably only getting two or three shots a game now. That's a big thing, I think."
Ovechkin had 446 shots in 2007-08, when he scored a career-high 65 goals, followed up by a career-high 528 shots in 2008-09, when he potted 56 goals. He was limited to a career-low 303 shots last season, his third straight season under 375 shots, and scored 38 goals.
So far this season, he's had 22 shots in seven games.
When I asked him Thursday, somewhat naively, why he doesn't shoot more, Ovechkin responded: "Yeah, why not? But right now I don't have lots of pucks and opportunity to shoot it. I just have to keep working and not think about it."
Theory No. 2 from our front-office source of another NHL team: "When you look at the years he was getting big numbers and won the MVP and all that, the Caps' power play was No. 1 in the league. It was humming around 26 percent. He got an awful lot of points like the goal he got the other day against Buffalo. But when that power play drops to 18 percent or so, you're taking a big chunk of his statistics away from him."
Indeed, the Caps' power play was ninth-best in the NHL in 2007-08, second-best in 2008-09 and tops in 2009-10 -- all seasons Ovechkin topped 50 or more goals. Since then, the Caps power play has dropped to 16th in 2010-11, 18th in 2011-12 and a paltry 17.9 percent success ratio in the young 2013 season.
"The other point is, look at the other guys scoring around him," continued the front-office source. "Some of those years, other players like [Alexander] Semin would score goals, too. There were other guys scoring around him, which made it harder for the other team to focus in on him. When you have balanced scoring, it's harder for the other team to focus on the one line he's on."
But also keep in mind the Caps have changed their ways since those days of Ovechkin putting up 50-plus goals. No more firewagon hockey. And that has had an obvious and direct impact on the 27-year-old Russian star.
"The game is different and we're no longer a team that just tries to win on skill and outscore you," McPhee said. "We play a pretty responsible game now."
During the offseason, McPhee needed to balance the fact the NHL game has tightened up over the past few years with the fact he needed to find a coach who could get the most out of their franchise player.
Enter Oates, who as an assistant coach in New Jersey worked with Ilya Kovalchuk.
"Oh, sure. Certainly," McPhee said when asked if he had Ovechkin partly in mind when choosing Oates. "Because one thing we like about Adam is that he's played in the league a long time. He was a terrific player and played with terrific players. He understands what players go through. He relates really well to our players and knows how to talk to them. We're really, really happy with the decision we made there. He's a terrific coach. I really like the way he's doing things with our players."
Oates began this season by switching Ovechkin from his natural left wing to right wing. That experiment lasted three games, although it might be revisited later in the season. When Ovechkin went back to his favored left wing spot last Friday night for a game against New Jersey, he also had new linemates: grinders Joey Crabb and Jay Beagle.
Beagle, he of the seven goals in 88 NHL games, remembers the reaction he and Crabb had when they were given their new assignment last week.
"We were pretty shocked," Beagle said Thursday. "As a third- or fourth-line guy, you don't ever think you're going to be playing with Ovechkin. I had a couple of shifts in the past where we accidentally got put out there. But it's never been set in stone. I was pretty surprised.
"I hope it sticks, he's a great player. We're just trying to do our best to open up space for him."
That trio started their fourth straight game together Thursday night in Toronto.
Why the decision to put Ovechkin with two third-liners?
"You know what, we spent a lot of time talking about the conditioning of the guys coming off the lockout, and just for balance of our team and to give Ovi some looks with two guys that for 60 minutes can maybe carry the pace a little bit and help him out," Oates explained to a media scrum Thursday morning.
Oates also talked about Ovechkin continuing to work on his game.
"He's a marked man in this league and he has to keep improving his own game, like everybody," Oates said. "And at the same time do it with the team."
Who's kidding who, Ovechkin would much rather be playing with Backstrom. But he's not rocking the boat at this point. He seems willing to want to give Oates a chance. And right now, the whole team is trying to learn Oates' new system.
"Everybody is in the same position, right now we're learning his system and I think we're starting to play better," Ovechkin said. "We're much better now than we were the first two games. It's part of the process."
Beagle believes Ovechkin will reassert himself.
"The goals are going to come," Beagle said. "He's working hard in games and he's working hard in practice. And when the goals start to come, they'll really come for him."
Can Alex Ovechkin channel his strong desire to win into doing the right things to get there, asks Pierre LeBrun.