- The Washington Times - Monday, March 18, 2013

Alex Ovechkin raised his arms in the air but never cracked a smile. Red light turning and Verizon Center crowd cheering, the Washington Capitals star was surrounded by teammates, then fist-pumped on the way back to the bench but never jumped into the glass or flashed the trademark grin that marked his first few NHL seasons.

Ovechkin still enjoys scoring goals, but he’s no longer the kid at Christmas he used to be. The goals don’t come quite as easily anymore, at least not often enough to drown out the wave of criticism around him. Down from the high of being unquestionably one of the best players in the world, Ovechkin is now in the midst of a career transformation under coach Adam Oates but taking plenty of heat in the process.

“He’s going to be questioned because of who he is every single day,” former NHL defenseman Aaron Ward said. “You expect the magnificence and you expect the never-seen-before. When it’s not coming, then people are quicker to jump down his back.”

At 27 years old, Ovechkin’s hair has tinges of gray after 581 games, 350 goals and 352 assists going into Tuesday’s game at Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The rivalry that electrified the league for years isn’t the same because it’s no longer Ovechkin vs. Crosby.

It’s Ovechkin vs. himself and the weight of expectations he earned with two Hart Trophies, a 13-year, $123 million contract and more.

“It’s just 65 and 56 [goals in a season], 110 points, all these different numbers he’s put up there his first five years in the league were just crazy,” ex-NHL forward Mike Johnson said. “Because he set the bar so high, I can make it very clear: He’s still very, very good. He’s just not what he once was.”

Ovechkin doesn’t think he’s a different player. “No. Same,” he said. With 11 goals this season, he would be on pace for 32 in 82 games.

“My game is fine,” the Caps’ captain said. “I know 100 percent I have chances every game. If I’m gonna use 50 percent of chances every game, it’s gonna be very good numbers.”

But those around the sport look at Ovechkin’s fall so closely, Ward said, because it’s been so “drastic.”

What’s different?

In the midst of trying to change his game yet again, Ovechkin isn’t the same dynamic threat he was as recently as three years ago, when the Caps put up historical statistics in running over the rest of the NHL.

“I don’t know if it’s him [who is] different. I think their team is just different,” Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. “Playing against Alex when it was [his] rookie year, he was everywhere all over the ice and finishing everything that moved, which was great.”

Statistically, the drop-off from Ovechkin’s first four seasons to the past three is pronounced. After scoring 269 goals in his first 396 games (0.68 a game), he has 81 in his past 185 (0.44 a game). Aside from some brilliant flashes, like his Feb. 23 hat trick, it’s hard to see the same player.

“You can ask any player that, if they’re the same player they were years ago,” Caps defenseman Mike Green said earlier this season. “Everybody strives to do their best, but sometimes you go through rough patches where pucks aren’t going in and whatnot.”

Ovechkin and Oates have said time and again the chances are there. Perhaps they weren’t available in the same quantity in the past couple of years as defenses discovered ways to slow down his torrid scoring pace.

“You come in and you have the assets that are really what make you tick,” said Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller, a former Canadiens assistant credited with Ovechkin’s struggles against Montreal in the 2010 playoffs. “You try to pick up on some of the tendencies that guys do and try to take away his strengths.”

And it’s not like his strengths were much of a secret. Opponents probably could see Ovechkin’s moves in their nightmares.

“That kind of hanging out for the one-timer and getting way ahead of the play and the rush to the inside with the wrist shot,” Johnson said. “The things that were kind of staples in his game that were successful early, goalies get used to, defensemen get used to and they play him a little differently and they play him accordingly.”

Some point to the 2010 Winter Olympics and Russia’s deflating loss to Canada as the beginning of Ovechkin’s fall from grace. Others point to the Montreal series months later. NHL Network analyst and ex-league executive Craig Button said it didn’t help Ovechkin to have three coaches (Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter and now Oates) in the span of 18 months.

But Johnson didn’t want to point to a specific moment. And given Ovechkin’s bullish, physical style that Oates knows is hard to maintain, it’s reasonable to think the decline was gradual.

“Only a few years ago, when he was scoring 50 and 60 goals, he had the ability to physically overwhelm the opponent,” Johnson said. “That was with his speed, reckless style and the shot and all those offensive elements that people just didn’t have an answer for.

“Even for a guy built like him, it takes its a toll on you. He just doesn’t have that kind of recklessness offensively that he had early that was so effective for him.”

A-Rod of the NHL

Unable to sustain an all-world level of play and production, Ovechkin is a popular punching bag for national analysts. NBC’s Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire and Jeremy Roenick have taken aim, as have P.J. Stock of “Hockey Night in Canada” and many others.

“The problem for Ovechkin is it’s very black and white when he’s not successful,” said Ward, now an analyst for TSN in Canada. “You know when he’s on and when he’s off because you can see it. And it’s a double-edged sword. He’s not a guy that can hide.”

Jim “Boomer” Gordon of SiriusXM’s NHL Network Radio called Ovechkin the “Alex Rodriguez of the NHL.” After watching Ovechkin try to adjust to the Caps’ changes in style, Button can’t help but feel some of the criticism is unwarranted.

“He’s sacrificed, he’s played more defense, whatever you want to call it,” Button said. “Now he’s playing defense, now they’re saying, ‘Well, Alexander Ovechkin isn’t the same player.’ I remain baffled that he’s damned if he does and he’s damned if he doesn’t.”

Center Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps’ other franchise cornerstone, doesn’t believe the criticism is fair. Oates actually takes it personally.

“I want him to keep playing better because I don’t want Mike Milbury to say that about him,” he said. “That’s why we constantly try and talk about playing better, try and minimize those mistakes because everybody tries to take a big man down.”

Being the center of attention comes with its negatives. Crosby noted that “there’s always expectations” and eyes on Ovechkin.

The Caps’ captain understands that. But he also knows if he goes on a goal-scoring streak, things can change quickly.

“I’m not mad at Milbury or McGuire,” Ovechkin said. “Right now they hate me and right now they don’t like me, and tomorrow they’re gonna give me a big kiss and big hug. It’s real life.”

Oates wants Ovechkin to concentrate on the internal evaluations instead of the external noise. Sometimes that’s hard to block out.

When Ovechkin missed a wide-open net in a tie game last week at Carolina, Mike Ribeiro made it a moot point by tapping in the loose puck. Had the Hurricanes gone down the ice and scored to win the game, it would have been an entirely different story.

“If I missed it and they scored, they say Alex Ovechkin [is] not that good,” Ovechkin said. “Every man have own position. Right now, I’m the bad guy. Tomorrow, I’m gonna be the best guy. It’s their job.”

Oates’ challenge

It’s Oates’ job to keep Ovechkin focused on the task at hand, working every day to get better.

“I’ve always believed that you can come to the rink and work and smile. Just because you’re frowning doesn’t mean you’re improving,” Oates said. “For Ovi, my goal is to get his trust. By doing that, we talk a lot that when the respect comes it’s going to be an easier transition and just make it a lot easier for everybody concerned.”

Ovechkin said he’s comfortable with Oates, “so that’s most important thing.” Having earned the Russian winger’s confidence, Oates is in the midst of a unique situation trying to revitalize a dimming superstar’s career.

The Hall of Fame playmaker believes he can make Ovechkin better than he was before.

“I’m trying to improve it, in all honesty,” Oates said. “Every day we watch the video and try to make every single player better, including the stars. Tom Brady can still get better. If you ever have the attitude that you’re not or you can’t, that’s the wrong attitude.”

Johnson said given how Ovechkin’s career started, “How could you ever ask him to change his game?”

Oates moved Ovechkin to right wing, but it’s not like the goal is turning him back into a perennial 50-goal scorer. The Caps’ coach wants a “complete” game.

“I want other things,” Oates said. “He knows it and sometimes you have to be reminded of it. Everybody does; nobody’s perfect. He thinks his job is to score goals, which it is, but there are other things involved.”

Nineteen years ago, a much more experienced coach tried to do the same thing to an oft-criticized young captain. When the legendary Scotty Bowman took over the Detroit Red Wings, Steve Yzerman’s production dropped to 82 points from 137 the previous season.

One year later, the Red Wings were in the Stanley Cup Final. After losing in the conference final the season after, Yzerman led them to back-to-back championships.

“I remember Scotty Bowman [saying] after they had won … ‘They asked Steve Yzerman to be a prolific scorer, and he did that. He was one of the league’s very best,’” Button recalled. “Everybody wants to look at his numbers dropping, he goes, ‘But Steve was transforming.’ That’s where I would suggest that Alex is at. I’m not comparing players, I’m comparing situations.”

In trying to block shots under Hunter and adapt to right wing under Oates, Ovechkin isn’t a player who looks “resistant,” Button said.

“My belief on Alex is that he’s trying to do what he’s asked, he’s trying to transform his game to ultimately win,” said Button, who heard the same criticism of Brett Hull before his Dallas Stars signed him and won the Cup in 1999. “I’ve seen that from other great players, and I think it’s too early in the process to say whether he’ll be successful or not.”

Uncertain expectations

No one knows for certain what the rest of Ovechkin’s career will be like. New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk is a fresh example of a player who changed his style and enjoyed some success, but Oates has made it clear that Ovechkin isn’t a carbon copy of Kovalchuk.

Ovechkin believes he’s more than capable of scoring 50 goals again, based on Oates’ mantra that he keeps getting so many quality scoring opportunities.

“I think I am. I just have to use my chances,” Ovechkin said. “Every game I have a chance. If I put one in every game, it’s back on track.”

Given how coaches and defenses have figured out more and more ways to game plan to stop scorers since the 2004-05 lockout, it seems harder now to put up those kinds of numbers. Because of that, it’s difficult to pinpoint a realistic expectation for Ovechkin once his transformation under Oates is complete.

“I don’t know. That’s a tough question. Because I look at it like he gets a breakaway every game,” Oates said. “That’s 80. He gets a breakaway every game. And our power play when it’s clicking, he gets two quality looks a night.”

It has been awhile since Ovechkin put up a point and a half per game, but Button said, without a doubt, “I’d want him on my team.” If Oates manages to improve Ovechkin’s all-around game and win a Cup, he’ll be the envy of hockey.

“If he wants to change him, it takes time,” Backstrom said. “He played one way and you’ve just got to change. It’s a process.”

Half the battle is understanding what is expected of Ovechkin if he’s not a 50-goal scorer.

“I think it’s Scotty Bowman not only helping Steve Yzerman become that player, it’s helping him be valued as that type of player,” Button said. “It’s not just, ‘Is the player willing?’ It’s about saying, ‘We value you for this.’”

Johnson said it’s possible that the strain of seven-plus NHL seasons will keep Ovechkin from ever scoring 50 or 60 goals again.

“It’s not easy to find answers, and even if you have the right answer, if he’s physically incapable of doing it anymore, if his game’s changed or whatever, then it doesn’t matter what Adam Oates might do,” he said.

That’s why Ovechkin will ultimately be judged not just on his production and play, but on the Caps’ success and his attempts to capture a Stanley Cup.

“Sports these days is about nevers,” Ward said. “And that’s the problem is we’re always judged on what we’ve never done.”

Ovechkin has the unenviable position of being judged for what he did individually in his first few seasons and what he hasn’t been able to do lately in addition to Washington’s playoff struggles.

“What good is it if you have a success as an individual and you don’t accomplish anything as a team?” Devils forward Patrik Elias said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

It’s different for Ovechkin, who’s destined to be a magnet for praise and scorn until it all comes together.

“Unfortunately for him,” Ward said, “He’s going to have to put up lights out numbers and get it done.”

Only then might Ovechkin silence his critics.

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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