The indelible image of the first NHL All-Star fantasy draft in 2011 was Alex Ovechkin laughing at and taking a picture of Phil Kessel, alone on the floor as the last player to be picked. Kessel got a car out of the deal, but Ovechkin and his fellow All-Stars got plenty of amusement out of the situation.
More than two years later, neither Ovechkin nor Kessel is doing a whole lot of laughing. Through 10 games, the Washington Capitals captain has two goals and none at even strength, while the Toronto Maple Leafs forward has yet to score a goal.
“I know it’s frustrating for both those guys, I’m sure,” Caps coach Adam Oates said. “But are you getting chances? If you’re not getting chances then you got to look in the mirror and like, ‘What’s going on?’ Figure it out. If you’re getting opportunities then I think you’re doing a lot of good things.”
It’s not for lack of effort. While Ovechkin played his two best games in as many chances over the weekend in Oates’ judgment, Kessel leads the NHL with 42 shots.
“I don’t know if he’s ever gone through a drought this long,” said Caps right wing Joey Crabb, a teammate of Kessel’s in Toronto the past two years. “But yeah he’s a good player and he’s still doing good things for their team, he’s still getting points.”
But six assists in nine games isn’t the kind of production Kessel wants to have. On a Maple Leafs team with almost a dozen forwards under the age of 30, the 25-year-old star is counted on to score goals.
Ovechkin can empathize with what Kessel is going through.
“I think after a couple games, you think like, ‘OK, I’m gonna have a chance and I’m gonna score,’” Ovechkin said. “After nine games you feel like big pressure on your shoulder, especially in Toronto. The fans, the media all over him I think. I just wanna give him advice like don’t listen nobody. Just play your game.
“Everybody knows he can score; he’s a top player out there. Lots of players play against him very carefully and give him more pressure. He just have to handle it.”
Easier said than done at the center of the hockey universe. This isn’t the longest drought of Kessel’s career; that was a 14-game stretch in January and February 2011, just around the All-Star break and the infamous fantasy draft.
So Kessel has been here before, dealing with struggles in Toronto.
“There’s definitely pressure. I think there’s loads of pressure on any top-line guy that’s supposed to produce and then on top of that you play in Toronto,” Crabb said. “So he’s got a lot of pressure but I think he handles it well, he actually stays out of the media quite a bit and he’s got a pretty level head.”
But even level-headed players can get frustrated by scoring droughts. Washington center Nicklas Backstrom said the key is continuing to work hard.
“It’s a little bit in your head I think,” Backstrom said. “You feel the pressure and stuff, but hopefully it’s going to come starting with one goal or something like that.”
It seems like shots find both posts and the crossbar before the back of the net for some scorers when they’re in slumps. That happened Thursday when Kessel and the Maple Leafs faced the Caps at Air Canada Centre, but at least he was noticeable.
“I thought he played well,” Crabb said. “I think he got an assist, so he’s still creating things for his team and just because he hasn’t been on score sheet in goals, he’s still helping out.”
And so is Ovechkin. Oates praised his superstar for being involved on every shift the past two games. Because of that, Ovechkin isn’t down on himself.
“If I don’t have a chances of course I say, ‘OK, what’s wrong with me? What’s happened to me?’ ” he said. “But last two games, last three games I have chances, I have opportunities, especially against the Pittsburgh. In the third period I have very good chances to score. Sometimes I have to be more concentrate on the puck in the offensive zone when the shots goes through. A couple times there was a rebound right there and my stick was high. I just have to find it.”