By Jacob Messing
Hockey is changing.
While grit and brawn still have their place, these days speed reigns supreme on the ice. Aging and physical players find it increasingly difficult to leverage their gifts. Unfortunately for the Washington Capitals, Alex Ovechkin fits both of those descriptors.
Just don’t tell the 32-year-old Russian that he’s supposed to be getting worse. After a statistically disappointing season last year, Ovechkin has started the new NHL campaign in white-hot fashion, scoring seven goals in three games and leading the league in that category.
It certainly wasn’t easy. This summer, Ovechkin endured a torrent of questions and nagging doubts surrounding his performance for and tenure with the Capitals. Questions about off-ice distractions, declining efficiency, and age shrouded the star after a deflating second-round exit from the playoffs.
“The game is getting faster,” Caps general manager Brian MacLellan said to NBC Sports over the summer. “[Ovechkin is] going to have to train in a different way, a more speed way than a power way. He’s going to have to make adjustments to stay relative in the game.”
The 6-foot-3, 239-pound wrecking ball has certainly made adjustments. He opened the season with back-to-back hat tricks, scoring three goals against the Ottawa Senators and four against the Montreal Canadiens. He’s the first player in 100 years to accomplish the feat.
Not even Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby scores every game, and in professional sports statistics have a way of working back to averages. The latter assertion is important, as Ovechkin’s 2016-17 campaign saw a few of his stats dip below his career average.
Ovechkin’s 0.40 goals per game was the lowest of his 12-year career, while his 0.84 points per game came in at his second-lowest pace. These dips saw the seven-time 50-goal and 80-point scorer finish last season with just 33 goals and 69 points in 82 games, his lowest 82-game goal total since 2010-11 and lowest 82-game point total since 2011-12.
But skill, of course, doesn’t just vanish, and at 32 Ovechkin has plenty left in store. Some of his decline in production can be directly correlated to losing roughly two minutes of average ice time in 2016-17 (18:22 ATOI) versus 2015-16 (20:19 ATOI).
Whether head coach Barry Trotz decides to give him a larger workload won’t be answered until around the 20-game mark, when averages begin to take full effect. But one thing is for sure: Ovechkin will remain the Caps’ centerpiece, with a newfound hunger after last season’s heartbreaking playoff exit.
Ovechkin and the Caps were ousted in the second round in what was supposed to be their year to claim the Stanley Cup. In the ensuing months, the Russian sniper watched Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Daniel Winnik all find new NHL homes.
Then, Ovechkin finally admitted defeat in his dream to return to the Olympics.
His full statement can be found here.
Moreover, Ovechkin dealt with a new training regimen as well as trade rumors.
GM MacLellan himself said he didn’t believe a trade would make sense from an organizational point of view, but that “maybe at some point if there’s a legitimate hockey deal that came up available.”
The statement seemingly left the door open for suitors to make the best offer, but so far Ovechkin remains in Washington.
The Russian showed up to training camp a couple weeks earlier than past off-seasons, leading to speculation that he wanted to get a head start on the season. Moreover, he reportedly shed upwards of four pounds and looked noticeably lighter and quicker to teammates.
Trotz then resituated the Capitals’ lack of depth by splitting up the dynamic duo of Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin was placed on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s wing, a playmaker with a similar skillset to Backstrom, who had shown chemistry with Ovechkin during the first seven games of the 2015-16 season when Backstrom was dealing with an injury.
The move has worked thus far, as the 25-year-old Kuznetsov has assisted on all seven of Ovechkin’s goals this season. There’s sure to be plenty more where that came from, as Ovechkin remains destined to bounce back and potentially recapture his 50-goal form.
The Capitals return to action Wednesday night when defending champions and long-time rival Pittsburgh comes to town in FloHockey’s game of the week. Look for Ovechkin to get back on the scoresheet, as the modern era’s greatest goal scorer can’t be held down for long.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @JMessing23.