NASHVILLE, TENN. — Alex Ovechkin’s move. Anyone who has watched hockey since the NHL lockout knows what it is: The Washington Capitals star skates down the left wing, carries the puck into the offensive zone, curls in, then tries to get a forehand shot on net.
Ovechkin’s career highlight reel is full of those moves, often followed by a twirling red goal light, helping pave the way to a couple of Most Valuable Player awards and scoring titles.
Ovechkin became one of the faces of the league thanks to such production and his exciting way of filling the net. But in an age of intense video scouting, those on-the-rush goals seem to have become distant memories.
“I think you tend to just imagine the goals you used to see, because they stood out more in your mind,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Those opportunities aren’t there as much because everybody knows what he’s doing now - and they’re defending it well.”
The man in the middle of a 13-year, $124 million contract still scores goals, something many around the league and within the Capitals’ locker room are quick to point out. But calls for Ovechkin to reinvent himself have grown louder as it becomes more evident that the NHL has figured him out.
“I think that when he plays against teams, obviously the opponents are going to key on him,” Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Bryan Allen said. “Obviously, every player has their tendencies and the way they play. You try and defend that way.”
Ovechkin still has a reputation as one of the best players in the world. His talent is irrefutable, and his four 50-plus-goal seasons should be the opening act on a Hall of Fame career.
Instead, there are questions about why his production has slowed.
Anaheim forward Teemu Selanne started his career much like Ovechkin, lighting up the NHL with a rookie-record 76 goals for Winnipeg in 1992-93. His production slipped in the subsequent seasons, but he adapted his game and returned to prominence as a scorer - something that has remained into his 40s.
“Defensemen on teams, they start knowing top guys, what they do, and of course you have to adjust,” Selanne said. “And you have to find a way to maybe do different things.”
Boudreau said a lot of things are communicated to Ovechkin - and every Capitals player - about making adjustments to improve. The coach said after a recent game that he could see the frustration on Ovechkin’s face when the goals weren’t coming at the rate to which the perennial All-Star had become accustomed.
Asked whether he thought his game had become predictable, Ovechkin was dismissive.
“No, I still have chances to score goals,” he said. “So I just have to score.”
Ovechkin is on pace for 36 goals this season, but of his seven so far, none could be considered of the highlight-reel variety. Boudreau mentioned that during Ovechkin’s 65-goal season of 2007-08 and other big-time scoring campaigns, plenty were put in from the doorstep as has happened this year.
That’s part of what keeps opposing defenses honest.
“He can do so many different things - he’s big, strong, fast,” said Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, considered perhaps the top shutdown defenseman in the league. “He’s still such an effective, explosive player. I don’t think there’s any one way to shut him down.”
Taking away goals on the rush is a good start. Ovechkin made a living earlier in his career coming down the wing and picking a corner on goaltenders. He did it so often that it made defenders such as the Philadelphia Flyers’ Braydon Coburn think twice.
“He’s got a lot of highlight-reel goals and you see that, and you’re just trying to make sure that’s not me,” said Coburn, who has been trying to stop Ovechkin since the 2004 World Junior Hockey Championships.
Most defensemen have been able to thwart Ovechkin by stepping into his path. In some cases, that defender gets support from someone who backchecks to cut down his space. But one-on-one, many defensemen still have seen enough of the Capitals star to not get burned quite like they used to.
“You’ve got to be in good position, and you’ve got to make sure that you’re between him and the net at all times,” Coburn said. “Being able to give your goalie the best chance to save those pucks when you’re able to contain him at least to the outside is big.”
Boudreau concedes that he was never as talented as Ovechkin, so it’s hard for him to empathize as a player. But as a coach, he knows adjustments are part of the game - no matter the level of talent.
“If they’re checking you a certain way, you have to make adjustments on the fly. There’s no secret that teams get to watch you every day and they get to dissect the video every day, just like we dissect the video on every team every day,” Boudreau said. “We will know certain tendencies of certain players. But the player [himself] has to be able to adjust to get around these things.”
Ovechkin acknowledged after a recent game that it’s his job to score - not just deliver hits that also are part of his physically imposing style. As for approaching offense differently to score more, he talked about trying to become more fundamentally sound along with linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer.
“Of course, [teams know] how our line plays, and they’re scouting us,” Ovechkin said. “We just have to find a way to move our pucks and move our legs in front of the net and find the rebounds out there.”
No one will fault Ovechkin for crashing the net more in structured offensive situations, and his offensive production still will be among the top 20 in the NHL. But for someone making $9 million this season, Washington counts on him for upward of 40 goals.
When goals aren’t coming with any frequency on the rush, it becomes a point of contention. In a perfect world for the Capitals, Nicklas Lidstrom’s view of Ovechkin would hold true.
“With his speed and the moves he’s got, I think as a defenseman if you take one move and try to take it out, he’s going to the next move and he might be going wide instead of going inside,” the Red Wings’ seven-time Norris Trophy winner said. “Even though you kind of know what he’s going to do, he has the speed to beat you.”
But Ovechkin has not developed a backhand move that forces defensemen to hesitate when defending him in such situations. It hasn’t helped that he has hit the net on only 44.6 percent of shots.
Selanne said that Ovechkin’s reduced production could be part of an effort to do whatever it takes to win the Stanley Cup.
“You want to be a better all-around player and do the things right - whatever you can help the team most, you have to do. Obviously, Alex, he knows he’d rather have 35 goals and his linemates have 30 goals also instead of one guy having 60,” Selanne said. “He doesn’t care that much about numbers anymore. I think he [reached] those numbers, which [are] unbelievable, and now he just wants to be as good as he can all around and help the team win.”
But if the Capitals aren’t winning with Ovechkin chugging along at this clip, questions need to be asked. From the outside, many are wondering what has to happen for him to rediscover the form that made him one of the NHL’s elite players.
“You just try to build his confidence up and at the same time help him with things that he’s doing wrong,” Boudreau said. “There’s not much else. A lot of times it’s up to him - you try to put him in positions or situations that he’s going to succeed in, and he’s got to find a way to succeed.”
Perhaps success is not as much about rediscovering as reinventing.