Upon changing coaches in late November, general manager George McPhee was asked whether the Washington Capitals would also have a new captain.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said. There was to be no debate.
Alex Ovechkin is the guy with the “C” on his chest, an honor given to him two years ago Thursday that only cemented his status as the face of the franchise.
Whether it was the right choice at the time and whether Ovechkin fits the bill as the ideal captain will be argued ad nauseum, probably until the Caps win a Stanley Cup.
But as NBC broadcaster Mike Emrick pointed out, the only people who can correctly judge a captain’s qualities are the players. And though Ovechkin’s teammates concede he still has work to do in the leadership department, they see his captaincy as valuable in many other ways.
“He leaves every ounce of energy that he has on the ice and works very hard at it, and he wants to be the best and he wants to win,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “If you don’t follow that, you’ve got something wrong with you.”
The Capitals don’t rely on Ovechkin to be one of the great leaders of all time, such as Mark Messier. They don’t need him to be inspirational in practice or in the locker room a la Phoenix’s Shane Doan or Chicago’s Jonathan Toews.
“I’d say he leads by using all his energy, and he scores huge goals for us and he’s one of those young guys that’s got that fire burning, which is good for everybody to see,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You just see he’s an emotional captain; he likes to bring a lot of emotion to the game, and that’s what you need.”
In a locker room full of veterans unafraid to speak up, from Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer to Hendricks and Mike Knuble, Ovechkin still is adjusting to the role.
“In some aspects, he’s really good and other aspects he’s got some learning to do,” Brouwer said.
Ovechkin is not afraid to admit that. And he knows where to turn when things go wrong.
“Sometimes I make mistakes, and most of the time I make mistakes and I know exactly what I have to do differently next time,” said Ovechkin, who has 17 goals including five in his past three games. “Knubs, too, helps me a lot. He’s the kind of guy who I’m talking to him and I listen to him most of the time in the locker room what he says. It’s still a learning process.”
Ovechkin is far from alone in that department, with young captains filling the NHL now. Sidney Crosby and Toews already have Cup rings a few years into their captaincies, while others in this younger generation such as the New York Rangers’ Ryan Callahan and Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf are growing into the place Ovechkin is in now.
“I think some of the players that they’re giving it to, they’re such incredible players and it just seems like it’s going to the best player,” said Doan, who has been the Coyotes’ captain since 2003. “Sometimes it might be tougher actually being the leader, because at times there’s an older guy and it’s harder for a younger guy’s personality to come out and for people to feel confident enough to be who they really are on their own.”
Not a problem for Ovechkin, who understands he’s not the most vocal guy in the room. He likely never will be. But at 26 years old and two years into this, he has grown up substantially, according to veteran teammates.