Are Ovechkin’s Best Days Behind Him?
[originally post for www.betonhockey.com on November 8, 2011]
Is it possible that Alex Ovechkin’s best and most productive days of hockey are behind him?
Probably not, but let’s speculate some evidence of why they might be, if indeed they are.
Last year, in the first ever fantasy hockey pool that I paid money to take part in, I somehow lucked out and drew the first overall pick. At the time, it was a no-brainer and generally assumed that your first pick would be either Ovechkin or Crosby. I picked Ovie. Mainly because in his past 4 of 5 seasons, he had 100 or more points, and seemed like he could score whenever he wanted to. He was just always dangerous if he had the puck. The guy scored a goal sliding on his back on the ice while doing a barrel-roll for crying out loud. Now, you may argue that I did get the better choice of the two considering Crosby’s season-ending injury, and that Alex finished ahead of Crosby in points. But, for the guy that was supposed to finish first overall in scoring, instead he placed seventh, and scored 24 fewer points than he did the season before. I made an early exit out of the fantasy pool and lost all my money. **Screams in my best Captain Kirk/George Costanza Wrath of Khan reference impression** OOOOOOVVVVVVIEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!
We’ve since learned that he was injured – as he took 10 games off before the playoffs, and has eluded in interviews to rehabbing over the summer during his training. Whatever was bothering him then, may continue to linger. When an injury site is vaguely referred to as an upper or lower body injury, it’s hard to speculate the possible extent and long term effects on the injury. BUT, from experience, between a torn ACL in my knee, broken collar-bones, pulled groins, and minor neck, back, and shoulder issues, they all had range-of-motion limiting effects on me, though I eventually healed and played through them all. Wayne Gretzky’s back injury in 1991 was one that had lasting effects on his career and offensive productivity until he retired. As of this post, Ovechkin’s sitting at #39 in league scoring, averaging less than a point a game, and sitting at -1. For him, that’s unheard of. Since 2008, his point totals have been slowly diminishing, and so have his shots on goal (you know, scoring chances). In 2008, he took 528 shots. The following years, he only took 368, then 367 shots. And with those lowered totals have also come less wild, pre-meditated stick-burning goal celebrations. While he’s still excited when he scores, his reactions are noticeably subdued, for him anyways.
He’s changed his gear this year too, switching from CCM to Bauer. Hockey players are very particular with their gear, and once a player finds a setup they like and seems help put pucks in the net for them, they’ll quite often remain loyal to that brand forever. This move may be purely monetary, but it may also indicate that Ovechkin’s lost confidence in his previous equipment to help him score goals. And further, it may have damaged his confidence in himself to score goals. You could always tell in Ovie’s goals, skating speed, interviews, and off-ice antics, that confidence has never been an issue for him. When you’re a player of Alex Ovechkin’s caliber, you can’t afford to have anything get you “in the head” if you hope to score torrentially like you once did.
And further on confidence, even his coach, Bruce Boudreau has shown lower confidence in him; benching him on November 1st, in favour of other players. Boudreau was quoted as saying, “I thought other guys were better than him …I’ve got to put out the guys that I think are going to score … I just didn’t think Alex was going to score.” Moments after Boudreau cold-shouldered him, Ovechkin was cussing like a sailor at the snubbing. Ovechkin’s used to being the go-to guy when the team needs a goal, and in these key situations, he’s starting to not be the guy Boudreau taps on the shoulder first anymore. That can’t be good for the ol’ ego.
And further still, Ovechkin’s the Capitals captain. What are other players supposed to think of their leader when they see him not chosen to lead them? The C may simply be too much responsibility for him, ala Mike Modano, Brett Hull, or any other former NHL captains that have either surrendered their C, or had it taken away by their coach/team management.
Boudreau’s not exactly innocent of blame here either. He’s spent so much time trying to change Ovechkin and the Capitals’ overly offensive playing style over the last couple of seasons that Ovie couldn’t even be his old-self if he tried. His most effective style – the kamikaze-bull-in-a-china-shop-shoot-and-score-from-anywhere-blow-guys-up-and-there’s-no-need-for-defence- style – has been rendered obsolete. Bruce, you seriously want an offensive juggernaut to turn in his guns and become a 2-way, defence-first, responsible, playmaker instead? Has anyone told you who plays for your team, and what they do best? Sure, balance out weaknesses, but come on, no other team has the scoring personnel that Washington does. Last I checked, you still have to score more goals than the other team to win a hockey game, right?
Ovie could be just plain distracted too. He’s doing endorsements and/or commercials for Bauer, Nike, Mr. Big, Eastern Motors, ESPN, and probably forty companies based in Russia. Maybe making money’s beginning to take mental precedence over being a dominant hockey player every year?
Some speculative conspiracy: George Laraque recently wrote in his book regarding steroids in the NHL, saying that,
“I can give you some clues here that will help you identify the ones using steroids, if you really feel like it. First, you just have to notice how some talented players will experience an efficiency loss as well as a weight loss every four years, those years being the ones where the Winter Olympics are held. In the following season they make a strong comeback; they manage a mysterious return to form.”
I’m not going to say Ovechkin was/is on PED’s, but his production did begin to decline post 2010 Olympics. Heck, even during the Olympics. Ovie’s former other-worldly talent, speed, and scoring ability suddenly turned suspiciously average. Like Tiger Woods, but without the TMZ scandal.
And finally, the guy just can’t seem to win the big one. Besides the 2008 World Championship tournament that’s attended by a fraction of the best players in the world, the Stanley Cup, and the Olympic gold medal (the real world championship in my view) continue to elude him. Could frustration over continual early playoff exits, and Crosby’s ongoing trumping of him be wearing him down too? Is it possible he’s become complacent with just being really good and making a lot of money? Is it feasible that with Sidney Crosby sidelined, Alex doesn’t have the competitive drive to try and be better than Sid, his arch-nemesis, the player he’s most often compared to?
I love watching Alexander Ovechkin, and I truly hope he gets back to form and proves all of this wrong. He’s been the face of the league since he’s been around, and if he can get his act together, there’s no reason why he can’t continue to be. But the question is, will he?