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What Do We Want from Alexander Ovechkin?

“Ovi quit on the play, coming back.  It just goes to show that you gotta hustle the whole time out there.  The whole time, entire time.”

–          Adam Oates

What do we want from Alexander Ovechkin?

With all that is surrounding the Washington Capitals today, that is the question that I am left with.  Here is a player that is leading the NHL in goals, is capable of changing the dynamic of a game faster than any player in the league, and has set the benchmark for offensive production since the day that he came to the National Hockey League from Russia.  Given all of this, though, whatever he does, the answer seems to be simple: More.

Even if that answer is clear, though, the question remains, conspicuously unasked, and equally unclear. What exactly are the expectations for Alex Ovechkin? Are they fair? Is it even possible for him to live up to them?

The answer to the latter two questions is, to my mind, a resounding no, but first, let’s take a look at what exactly brings us to the discussion that we are having about the Russian sniper’s place in the game.

Tuesday night, the Capitals lost 5-0 to the Stars in embarrassing fashion, and while they aren’t mathematically eliminated, their playoff hopes are, at best smoldering1  Not coincidently, Ovechkin also failed to snap a trend which saw him go the entire month of March without being on the ice for a single even strength Capitals goal.

Ovechkin has had a potent offensive season. He will lead the league in goals, and may be in the top 10 in the league in points, and yet this is almost certain to go down as season in which Ovechkin will be seen to have failed to do what has been expected of him, and the legacy of which will be that we were asking questions about what number 8 is capable of doing, and if he will ever be the answer in Washington. 2

The opinion is not a new one, but today it seems to be louder and more widespread than ever.  There are people that seem to be concluding that Alex Ovechkin just isn’t that great.  That he isn’t a guy you can build around. The reference is easy, given where he plays: Ovi’s approval rating is at an all-time low.

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All of this brings me to Oates’s comments.3.

Even if he is right, though, Adam Oates is taking this opportunity to call out the effort of your captain, who happens to double as perhaps the most scrutinized player in the NHL. Adam Oates knew exactly what he was doing, and he made a conscious decision to do it.  It wasn’t exactly a situation that would have been conspicuous if he hadn’t said anything.  A late goal made what was almost certainly destined to be a loss into a worse loss.  There was no necessity to comment, and yet Oates took the opportunity, and called out his captain, moments after the Caps season likely ended for all meaningful intents and purposes.

And with that, Adam Oates attempted to jump off a sinking ship, and on to a bandwagon.  It is one thing, when radio hosts, hockey columnists, or guys who come on in between periods and yell into a microphone during national games say that Ovechkin is the problem. Now, it is being said by his own coach.  The reason is simple.

As much as he has been scrutinized, the knock on Ovechkin was always an inability to get it done in the playoffs.  The Boudreau Caps were the regular season juggernaut that shrank when it counted.  The Oates Capitals have regressed. Plain and simple.  They won the division in a shortened season last year, but will miss the playoffs this year with a roster that doesn’t look that different from the ones that won division titles in 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008 under Bruce Boudreau, and it isn’t because Alex Semin had been the glue holding this team together.

As for the act that fell under criticism, while Oates may have directed the comment at one lazy play, the way in which it was done will carry so much more weight than that. It will be taken as an affirmation of the criticism that has been leveled at has been leveled at Ovechkin since he entered the league, and has been cultivated over a period that goes back much longer than that.  The damn Ruski doesn’t play defense.

I’m not here to make the case for Alex Ovechkin to win the Selke trophy.  The guy takes shifts off when it comes to his own end.  He looks for scoring chances, and sometimes it is at the expense of a defensive responsibility.  There is no denying it.  But to say he is terrible, or irresponsible? For his coach to tacitly sign on to the notion that he needs to be better? I’m not buying it.4

So Oates took the opportunity to endorse a clichéd criticism that he has perpetuated about his own captain, in the form of a garbage time goal on his own unprepared and uninspired team. It was cheap, it was self-serving, it was unnecessary, and it will be a reason that I am going to be less than sorry if Adam Oates’s head coaching career is stalled after this season.5

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The depth of the criticism and scrutiny that Ovechkin receives is complex and amorphous, but if you had to sum it up in a sentence would look like this:  He isn’t the complete player that can take you a Stanley Cup.

Right away, there are two problems with this.  The first is one of circular logic.  Why isn’t he that player that can carry a team to a cup? Because he hasn’t.  If he does, he will be.  He isn’t because he hasn’t, he hasn’t because he isn’t.  To say that Ovechkin isn’t the answer because he, at 28, has yet to be the answer, is an argument that lacks substance.

The second problem is on a related note.  This is not basketball. This is not a league where a dominant LeBron James can carry a mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers team to the finals, by playing 40 of 48 minutes and influence where the ball goes on every possession. It isn’t like football, either. Ovechkin is not like a quarterback who can influence the fate of his unit because they control the ball and the decision making on every play.

Rather, hockey is a game in which your most talented player plays 22 minutes of a 60 to 65 minute game. It is a game where there are 9 other people on the ice for whatever ice time a player does get, and only one puck. It is a game of chaos where, in the preponderance of situations, an individual’s influence on the direction is reliant upon the actions of his teammates and the other team.  You can’t simply dial up a play for someone.

Basketball has guys that can take over a game.  Football has guys that can take over a game.  Hockey doesn’t.  In hockey, the highest level you can achieve is that of a ‘game changer.’ You don’t take over in hockey (goalies excluded from this discussion). You contribute in brilliant flashes, making plays that give you a chance and, if you are successful, change the complexion of a game.  But even if you do, it is a complexion that has been shaped, and will be reliant upon at least 12 or 13 other contributors.

That is all to say that one player will not dictate the trajectory of a team. Really, it is as simple as that.6

So what to make of Ovechkin’s 2013/2014? In short, it has been enigmatic, which is appropriate, as that is a word reserved in hockey circles for highly skilled players hailing from the former USSR. The +/- is admittedly a hard one to explain away. My opinion on the stat has long been that it is largely useless. If you are and even, a + or – 5 or anywhere in that range, it says nothing about you as a player, as so much has to go on that you control little of for a goal to be scored.  Having said that, I have generally contended that there are two areas where the stat can be indicative, those being the positive and the negative extremes, and Ovechkin finds himself in the wrong one of those.

There are three defenses I would offer Ovechkin here.  The first is that he is a risk taker on a team that does not cover it up well when risks that are taken do not work out.  Statistically, it is worth noting that he has actually been on the ice for as many goals for as goals against (at least), as he has 36 powerplay points. Obviously the +/- stat does not count plusses for anyone who is on the ice for PPGs, but it is at least worth noting. Finally, although I would note that under Oates Ovechkin has been a 2 and a -36, having been a +24 and a +45 in his last two seasons under Boudreau.  Do with that information what you will.

At the end of the day, the easiest way to sum up Ovechkin’s year is simply to say that it has been up and down.  There have been nights like the Dallas game where, admittedly, he has been less than what you would expect from a premier player.  There have also been nights like the one a week before when Ovechkin gets 3 points, and one-times the Caps way to a point that they had no business earning.

There have been moments where you may have wanted more from Ovechkin.

Up and down. Enigmatic.  Almost paradoxical.  It is the only way to come to peace with what Ovechkin has been and what he has done in 2013-2014. He is the best player and the captain of a team that, even if they can rally their way into the playoffs, will have fallen short of expectations. That is, at least partially, on him. Fair or not, he will take some of the blame, and that’s okay.

On the other hand, he is almost entirely responsible for their presence in the playoff race in the first place. His 48 goals have been anything but meaningless7.  Diving into the numbers, the first one to stick out is that he has 9 game winning goals of his 48, 3 of which have been OT winners.  Equally impressive, he has scored goals that either tied the game or gave the Caps the lead on 29 occasions (8 have tied the game, 21 have given the Caps the lead).  He has only scored 1 in a blowout (with his team up 3 or more already), and only 1 has been an empty netter.

So with all that said, where are the Caps, exactly? I have gone on too long already, and will refrain from doing a complete deep dive into the minutia and errors of coaching and composition that plague this franchise. Right now, though, the reality is simple.  Alexander Ovechkin is a great player on a deeply flawed team. They, of course, are not a terrible team, but they aren’t a great one either. They are further from the top of the league than they were a few years ago, but not at the point where it needs to be ‘blown up’ so to speak, at least not if ‘blowing it up’ involves rethinking the viability of building around Ovechkin.8

At the end of the day, there are a few things that I know about Ovechkin.  Is he Sidney Crosby? No, he is not, but nobody else is.  They will be compared to each other because of the year that they came into the league, and because they are two of the best.  Sid is a better all-around player than Ovechkin as well as everyone else in the league, but if you need a goal, Ovechkin may actually be the better offensive player.

He isn’t Sid, so he isn’t the best player, but there are a few other things that I know. You can win with Alex Ovechkin.  You can win with Alex Ovechkin as your best player.  This, really, is a silly question to still be asking, because the Capitals have 5 division titles and a Presidents’ Trophy with exactly that. With all that evidence of success, to say ‘yeah but they can’t win the big one’ you are getting back to the circular logic discussed above.

Alexander Ovechkin has been one of the best players in the world for almost a decade now.  His individual number are striking, and his highlight reel is unequaled. He has received his fair share of attention for this, and more than his share of criticism.  The latter can’t go away until he wins a Stanley Cup. Does that make the expectations put upon him unreasonable? I don’t think so, plenty of guys are judged on their team’s success.

We want more from Ovechkin because we want more from his Capitals, but that isn’t entirely something he can control.  That is something that people watching Ovechkin need to realize, so that we can appreciate one of the greatest offensive hockey players we have ever seen, rather than constantly wishing that Ovechkin would be more than he is.