Alex Ovechkin isn’t a playoff choker. Lack of production isn’t the reason why his Washington Capitals haven’t made it past the second round since his arrival, and he’s averaging more than a point a game in his postseason career.
But while the Capitals transformed their game under Dale Hunter and seemed to figure out a way to win without glitz and glamour, Ovechkin never seemed happy with being a $9 million role player, put on the ice in offensive situations and not when a lead needed protecting.
“It doesn’t matter if I like it or not, because he’s my coach and I have to listen,” Ovechkin said. “I know my role, and I know exactly when I’m going to be on the ice and when I’m not going to be on the ice. There was bad feelings but nothing you can do; everybody tries, everybody does their best.”
That there were even bad feelings speaks to what players called a culture change around the locker room in the past few months. Given that Hunter treated Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks the same as Ovechkin and Alexander Semin and used ice time to reward and punish performance, it’s not hard to make the leap that culture change had a lot to do with changing how stars were managed.
The next step in the transformation of the Caps could be to trade Ovechkin, something they should seriously consider depending, of course, on who becomes the next coach. It may seem crazy given that Ovechkin, 26, was the centerpiece of this team’s rise to fame, and he has nine years and $86 million left on his contract.
His point totals, however, have declined each of the past five seasons, from a career-best 112 in 2008-09 to 65 this season.
Several players talked about this being a tight-knit group that got closer in the playoffs thanks to winning and playing a brand of hockey built on sacrificing and preventing chances being more important than getting them. That’s not Ovechkin.
Asked about what the Caps needed moving forward, the captain alluded to dissension in the locker room.
“I don’t know who’s going to be the coach next year, but the leaders in this group have to be together and don’t look, you know. … I don’t know how to explain better, but sometimes you don’t have to be jealous,” he said. “I don’t want to say it was a jealous situation for us, but sometimes you just have to be a group together.”
Ovechkin acknowledged it was “pretty hard” for him to buy into Hunter’s system; he said the right things after playing a playoff-career-low 13:36 in Game 2 against the New York Rangers in the second round but wasn’t thrilled about it.
Meanwhile, teammates praised Hunter for equal treatment.
“I think you, as a coach, you get more respect that way,” defenseman Karl Alzner said recently. “Sometimes the guys that are working extremely hard and aren’t getting the minutes that they hope they’re getting, they would get frustrated. I think when you reward whoever’s going at that time or keeping it more even, collectively, everybody’s a little bit more happy.”
Would everyone be happy if Ovechkin was gone? It’s hard to say. He scores lots of goals, but the Caps showed in long stretches that they could play well and win without Ovechkin being a major contributor.
Read between the lines on Brooks Laich’s comments about Hunter and a “culture change,” and it sounds like the Caps, or most of them at least, want a coach who will continue what he built.
“There were some things culture-wise that had to be adjusted a little bit in order for our team to succeed, and I thought he did a great job doing that,” Laich said. “He put it in a step in the right direction.”
If the new coach brings a run-and-gun philosophy, it makes little sense to trade Ovechkin, who likely would enjoy playing without the shackles of defensive responsibility. But that’s counterintuitive to this playoff run, when Washington learned to play “the right way,” according to general manager George McPhee.
“The right way” could be successful without Ovechkin, especially if the Caps can turn him into a few pieces, including a young star, an established roster player, a draft pick and a prospect. It’s a bonus if they have some more cap room to play with.
Ovechkin likely will have success, at least statistically, elsewhere. Rocking the red and selling out Verizon Center are not the same thing as winning a Stanley Cup.