Alex Ovechkin and Adam Oates got off on the right foot. After months of playing under Dale Hunter, the Washington Capitals superstar glowed that he could talk to Oates about “everything.”
“The most important thing is the trust,” Ovechkin said.
So Ovechkin trusted his coach enough that when he told him, “You have to play right wing,” the captain obliged. After a brief switch back to the left side where he’s more comfortable, Ovechkin has played the past five games where Oates knows he belongs, at right wing, and the fruits of that experiment are starting to show.
“Every little decision is just a little bit different, but to me it’s like he gets 10 chances that he never got before,” Oates said. “Now he shoots it from that angle and there’s a rebound that his linemates are now available for. It’s just more zone time, more touches, more team getting into their end.”
Oates saw plenty of growth out of Ovechkin over the past week or so, even before his $9 million scorer broke his even-strength goal drought Saturday night. Ovechkin has had the puck on his stick more than in the past, something Oates believed would lead to more chances.
“You can see it and I can feel it,” Ovechkin said. “It’s very important for me.”
Scoring is important to Ovechkin, too. And teammates are confident that will come.
“He’s skating, he’s got a lot of chance to shoot,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “He’s going to break through. I think it’s just a matter of time.”
But as with the rest of his team, Oates has made it clear he’s more concerned about getting Ovechkin to play the right way. That process included Ovechkin skating on a line with Joey Crabb and Jay Beagle and, earlier in the season, seeing some penalty-killing time.
Since Oates put Ovechkin back at right wing after a four-game hiatus, the strengths of his game have been more evident.
“He’s getting a lot more chances on the right side than the left. He’s a much more effective player,” general manager George McPhee said. “I like it a lot. You may disagree, but it looks a lot better to us.”
Any disagreement would stem from lagging production, as Ovechkin has just four goals in the Caps’ first 12 games. Three of them were on the power play, with two coming from just about the exact same spot. And Oates said the goal Ovechkin scored from the faceoff circle Saturday night was something he’s done “a lot.”
But there’s little doubt that Ovechkin’s all-around game has been strong, something he saw on video.
“You can see in a couple games in a row if [Mike Ribeiro] or [Nicklas Backstrom] control the puck, take the puck in the middle, I have wide-open chances on right side,” Ovechkin said. “It’s getting closer. I have a chance and I have very good opportunities to get two or three goals in a game. So it’s coming back.”
Just looking back at Saturday night’s victory over the Florida Panthers, Oates saw Ovechkin get chances that he “never had before.”
But maybe Ovechkin’s offense coming back is not just an adjustment to right wing but an adjustment to the rest of the NHL’s defense on him.
“I think on the left side, teams just took him away a lot of times through the years,” Ribeiro said. “He needs to adjust and give teams different looks, different things that you can do on the right side and maybe simplify his game a bit. … It’s a matter of changing your game a bit and being more focused, find different tricks to get there, to get the puck to the net.”
Getting the puck to the net from completely different angles at right wing is more than half the adjustment for Ovechkin. That part is something he said he must work on in practice.
“Sometimes in a game, every goalie play differently: Somebody could stay in the net, somebody going out off the net,” Ovechkin said. “I just have to get used to it.”
McPhee acknowledged that Ovechkin will have to get used to it, but the general manager also said he thinks it’s a good change for all involved. Oates said it took Ilya Kovalchuk about a month to get used to playing right wing last season with the New Jersey Devils, but once it happened everything clicked.
And Oates said his system is more suited for Ovechkin than Kovalchuk because the Caps’ captain is more of a “slasher and skater. He can go get it, and that’s what this system is designed for.”
It’s not designed for Ovechkin to go down the left wing, toe drag and pop a shot that seemed to hit off defensemen’s shin pads more than go into the net in recent years. Oates knows the moves Ovechkin likes and has said he won’t take those away, but the idea is to get more out of him and keep him from being one-dimensional.
“I know he used to like a lot of times cut in the middle, use the D. He still can do it, but different ways,” Ribeiro said. “He’s good enough to adjust himself, and I think that’s the main thing.”