Like any other hockey player, Alex Ovechkin has envisioned himself lifting the Stanley Cup over his head with eager teammates awaiting their lap around the ice. Chances have come and gone for the Capitals in recent years without them even getting close.
Ovechkin has a case full of awards - a couple of Hart trophies as league MVP, a couple of Maurice Richard trophies as the top goal-scorer and one Art Ross Trophy as the points leader. Those are testaments to his offensive game. But now, in his second full season as Washington’s captain, Ovechkin is willing to sacrifice individual numbers and accolades because he thinks that could get him closer to the ultimate goal.
“The question is, do you wanna be 100-point guy, or you wanna raise the Cup?” he told The Washington Times in a one-on-one interview Sunday. “Right now all the guys here wants to win. It doesn’t matter - personal stats is personal stats. Everybody forget I was 65-goal scorer a couple years ago and everybody talking about Boston or Chicago because they were Stanley Cup champions.”
It’s no secret that last year was a disappointment for Ovechkin and the Caps. His 32 goals were by far the fewest in any of his six NHL seasons, and his point total of 85 also was a new low.
Various injuries were to blame, and Ovechkin admitted he wasn’t in peak shape during the regular season. When other injuries contributed to the Caps being swept in the second round of the playoffs, it put a sour taste in the mouths of the captain and several of his teammates.
So Ovechkin used the offseason to put questions about his conditioning to rest - and now wants to be a better all-around player.
“I think he’s certainly willing to give up points to be better defensively, and sometimes you have to do that,” general manager George McPhee said. “But knowing him well enough, you know that he wants to be better defensively and be the top guy offensively. And he’s certainly capable of doing that. That’s the message to him this year is you can still produce and be good defensively.”
Ovechkin, 26, seems to have received that message. And don’t expect him to abandon the offensive prowess that made him one of the NHL’s elite and earned him a 13-year, $124 million contract in January 2008.
“I’m not gonna say, ‘OK, I’m gonna just play simple way, just put puck in offensive zone and try to make some hits and keep it in the zone,’ ” Ovechkin said. “My goal is to score goals, create some dangerous moments and find my partners so they find moments to score goals.”
Ovechkin’s role with the Capitals extends beyond scoring and brandishing a physical style that sets him apart from most top-tier players. He has the extra burden of being the captain. But Ovechkin, who is expected to be back for Saturday’s season opener after returning to Moscow on Monday following the death of an uncle, has shown a more mature demeanor lately.
“It’s not like he hasn’t been a good captain, but how can he be a great captain?” the general manager said. “I had that discussion with him.”
McPhee didn’t want to go into detail about what was said, but he has seen evidence already that Ovechkin is buying in. Coach Bruce Boudreau said last month that Ovechkin’s willingness to move around on the power play “speaks to good leadership.”
Ovechkin learned a lot from the likes of forward Mike Knuble and center Jason Arnott (now with St. Louis) about what he needs to do.
“I think I’m right now 26 and I know I have to be example, not just on the ice and out there,” he said.
McPhee said it’s been a process of off-ice development for his younger players who have grown up.
“These kids got to be terrific players over night and celebrities over night and making money over night. They were young guys and they had their fun,” he said. “The message has been, recently, you can be serious and still have fun.”
That never has been a problem for the charismatic Ovechkin, whose success draws from enjoying hockey. And he said emphatically that he won’t turn into a “robot” anytime soon.
“I’m always have fun. Of course if it’s bad game, I make some mistakes, of course I think about it,” Ovechkin said. “But that kind of situation, you have to have fun.”
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