- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2012

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.

“My take on him before probably was that he was a goofy big kid. Now there’s a little more element of seriousness to him,” Knuble said. “Part of it’s probably getting older and part of it’s probably the weight of wearing the ‘C’ every night and realizing that.”

The transition from best player and one of the faces of the league to Caps locker room leader, however, is far from complete. Knuble’s first captain in the NHL was Steve Yzerman, a player whose strength was working the room and making teammates feel “involved” thanks to personal connections.

Imparting that kind of knowledge about when Ovechkin needs to talk is part of Knuble’s role off the ice.

“You just got to be able to relate to each guy in one way. And go bounce from guy to guy and have something to talk to them about,” Knuble said. “You don’t have to be best friends with everybody, but it helps to really make contact with guys.

“It’s not something that you have to force. Just be chatty and talk to guys about stuff, have something to relate to with each guy.”

Former captains fill the Caps’ roster, from Jeff Halpern in the NHL to Alzner and Marcus Johansson, who did so at the world junior championships. Then, of course, there’s coach Dale Hunter, who wore the “C” in Washington.

“We’re two different players, so you can’t really compare us,” Hunter said. “Alex, he comes out here and he plays hard, takes the body and scores goals. You can’t ask for any more than that.”

Although there’s not really a language barrier, Alzner and Knuble pointed out that it is difficult sometimes for Ovechkin to verbalize everything he wants to get across.

But Hunter doesn’t necessarily think a captain necessarily has to be vocal.

“It’s not always talk, talk, talk,” he said. “It’s what you say. I think that’s the most important thing.”

And, for Ovechkin, it’s what he says with his game. It’s no coincidence that the Caps’ four-game winning streak has included a run of multipoint games from him.

That’s how everyone wants Ovechkin the captain to be measured.

“We don’t need him to be the lead guy in the room. We want him to be the lead guy on the ice,” Knuble said. “I don’t think that will ever change in his career.”

NOTE: Nicklas Backstrom (head) skated Thursday and reported feeling “pretty good.” He made the trip to California with the Caps, though there was no official decision yet as to whether he’d play Saturday night at San Jose. Backstrom underwent concussion testing Wednesday after taking an elbow to the head from Calgary forward Rene Bourque, who was suspended five games by the NHL.

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