Nearly 3 years ago, we witnessed one of the greatest playoff series in NHL history. Crosby vs. Ovechkin in a epic battle: Hat tricks, 3 overtime games, we had it all. Crosby finished the series with 13 points, Ovechkin with 14. It was a true high point for the NHL as a whole. Its two biggest stars going head-to-head on one of the biggest stages. We all readied ourselves for the next episode of the drama.
What a long, strange trip it has been.
We know what’s happened to Crosby (on some level). His concussion troubles, while generally opaque in nature, have been well-documented. But what’s happened to Alexander Ovechkin is just as interesting. There was a time where many experienced hockey fans and analysts believed that Ovechkin was the greatest hockey player in the world. And even as a Pens fan, it was hard to argue that he wasn’t. Gifted with an uncanny goal scoring ability and a robust physical presence, he was impossible to ignore. Nowadays, when you talk about the best players in the NHL, Alex Ovechkin doesn’t even end up in the footnotes. But why? And how? Ovechkin’s fall from grace has been truly strange, mostly because it seems to have come out of nowhere.
Or has it? There are a few interesting theories as to why Ovechkin has faltered.
1. He feels burdened by his captainship.
At first glance, this seems as if it is a bizarre idea. But ponder this: Ovechkin was named Washington’s Captain on January 5, 2010. Here are the stats:
Prior to being named captain: 1.31 PPG (470 points in 357 games)
After being named captain: 1.09 PPG (189 points in 174 games)
That’s a pretty startling discrepancy. Not only is there a big difference in Ovechkin’s performance, but there’s been a marked change in his demeanor since then as well. Since taking the captaincy, Ovi has been suspended twice for a total of 5 games, the last of which he celebrated by skipping the All-Star Game (a distinction which he didn’t deserve to begin with). During his captaincy, he’s also led three very unimpressive playoff runs. So has the pressure of leading a team affected Ovechkin mentally?
2. Lack of talent surrounding him.
For a significant portion of Ovi’s early career, he was able to play with three rapidly rising stars: Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom. Over the past couple of years, each of the three have fallen victims to either the injury bug, or the “uninspired player” bug. Green is still a top-tier defenseman, but he’s battled significant injuries, playing a combined 81 games over the past 2 seasons. Backstrom has simply disappeared over long stretches. After posting an impressive 101 points in 2009-10, he’s managed only 109 points since then. Alex Semin’s troubles have been expounded upon by the media in great detail, and most Caps fans will be happy not to see him “rocking the red” this season.
For a team that has often been feared for their offensive prowess, the Caps didn’t have a single player score over 65 points last season. Even the lowly Islanders managed to have two 65+ point scorers.
3. Ovechkin lacks an intrinsic understanding of his weak points.
To me, this is it. What separates a great player from being the greatest is the ability to look within yourself and analyze your own game. If we were to only have God-given skill to judge, then Alex Ovechkin would be the best hockey player in the world, and it wouldn’t even be close. However, this is where a guy like Sidney Crosby overtakes him. After his Stanley Cup victory in 2009, rather than relishing what was a tremendous achievement, Crosby spent his summer pouring over his game, troubled by the fact that he wasn’t as good a goal scorer as he felt he should be. So he put in the work. Hour after hour, day after day. And what happened? He went out and scored 51 goals and won the Rocket Richard Trophy.
My point isn’t that Ovechkin doesn’t work hard. I think he does. But I don’t think he works very wisely. The NHL has adjusted their game, they’ve figured out how to defend Ovechkin. But he hasn’t changed his game at all. He thinks his natural ability will supersede any system that a team throws at him, only to be shut down time and time again. Even former coach Dale Hunter lost faith in him during these last playoffs. In the three Capital victories in the conference semis, Ovechkin averaged less than 15 minutes a game. Not exactly how most teams want to utilize their captains.
None of this is to say that Ovechkin can’t change. He could conceivably come out next season, score 50 goals and be the same guy he was a few years back. But it’s not likely. Very few people ever fall from the peak, and then re-ascend to it. It’s far more probable that he will continue as he has, a mega-talent whose glory days have passed him by.
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