One year later, the Red Wings were in the Stanley Cup Final. After losing in the conference final the season after, Yzerman led them to back-to-back championships.
“I remember Scotty Bowman [saying] after they had won … ‘They asked Steve Yzerman to be a prolific scorer, and he did that. He was one of the league’s very best,’” Button recalled. “Everybody wants to look at his numbers dropping, he goes, ‘But Steve was transforming.’ That’s where I would suggest that Alex is at. I’m not comparing players, I’m comparing situations.”
In trying to block shots under Hunter and adapt to right wing under Oates, Ovechkin isn’t a player who looks “resistant,” Button said.
“My belief on Alex is that he’s trying to do what he’s asked, he’s trying to transform his game to ultimately win,” said Button, who heard the same criticism of Brett Hull before his Dallas Stars signed him and won the Cup in 1999. “I’ve seen that from other great players, and I think it’s too early in the process to say whether he’ll be successful or not.”
No one knows for certain what the rest of Ovechkin’s career will be like. New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk is a fresh example of a player who changed his style and enjoyed some success, but Oates has made it clear that Ovechkin isn’t a carbon copy of Kovalchuk.
Ovechkin believes he’s more than capable of scoring 50 goals again, based on Oates‘ mantra that he keeps getting so many quality scoring opportunities.
“I think I am. I just have to use my chances,” Ovechkin said. “Every game I have a chance. If I put one in every game, it’s back on track.”
Given how coaches and defenses have figured out more and more ways to game plan to stop scorers since the 2004-05 lockout, it seems harder now to put up those kinds of numbers. Because of that, it’s difficult to pinpoint a realistic expectation for Ovechkin once his transformation under Oates is complete.
“I don’t know. That’s a tough question. Because I look at it like he gets a breakaway every game,” Oates said. “That’s 80. He gets a breakaway every game. And our power play when it’s clicking, he gets two quality looks a night.”
It has been awhile since Ovechkin put up a point and a half per game, but Button said, without a doubt, “I’d want him on my team.” If Oates manages to improve Ovechkin’s all-around game and win a Cup, he’ll be the envy of hockey.
“If he wants to change him, it takes time,” Backstrom said. “He played one way and you’ve just got to change. It’s a process.”
Half the battle is understanding what is expected of Ovechkin if he’s not a 50-goal scorer.
“I think it’s Scotty Bowman not only helping Steve Yzerman become that player, it’s helping him be valued as that type of player,” Button said. “It’s not just, ‘Is the player willing?’ It’s about saying, ‘We value you for this.’”
Johnson said it’s possible that the strain of seven-plus NHL seasons will keep Ovechkin from ever scoring 50 or 60 goals again.