The end of the Washington Capitals’ season in April, their first without a playoff appearance in seven years, should have led to a lengthy offseason for Alex Ovechkin.
Whatever rest and relaxation he was hoping for, though, never arrived. In April, the Capitals cleared house of their coaching staff and declined to renew the contract of their general manager. In May, a right knee injury sustained at the IIHF World Championships in Belarus required a two-month rehabilitation.
And, when that was nearly over, Ovechkin endured a high-profile split from tennis star Maria Kirilenko, his fiancée of 18 months, in July.
“No, it was not long summer,” Ovechkin said Thursday. “It just was weird summer.”
One place where Ovechkin has always found solace is on the ice, and on Thursday, eight days before the Capitals are set to start training camp, he was back on it. Ovechkin joined 24 other teammates for a 90-minute informal workout before hosting a skating session with children from American Special Hockey Association programs.
Physically, he said that “everything’s feeling fine” with his right knee and that he’s “100 percent” healthy. As for his mental state, Ovechkin likely won’t know where he stands with new coach Barry Trotz, who replaced Adam Oates in May, until they’re able to have more in-depth conversations next week.
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Ovechkin recognizes, though, that after going through four coaches in nine seasons, the reason for the Capitals’ lack of success no longer falls squarely on the administration.
“Responsibility on us is always on us,” Ovechkin said. “Coaches, trainers — the head guy [owner Ted Leonsis] give us a wake-up call and said like, ‘Listen, we have to do something. You guys have to win or you guys going to be next,’ because I’m pretty sure this organization and the fans is tired of losing and not showing exactly what we can do, and that’s why we make the changes and we make these adjustments.”
By hiring Trotz, the Capitals have, for the first time, brought in a coach with significant NHL experience. Trotz was the only coach Nashville ever knew, employing him for 15 seasons before announcing in April that his contract would not be renewed.
In discussions on Thursday, Trotz detailed his plans to Ovechkin, which will include shifting him primarily back to left wing from the right wing spot he manned much of the last two seasons under Oates. Such a decision was made, Trotz said, because Ovechkin plays more naturally on the left side, with his footwork and his lateral movement more crisp than on the right.
Ovechkin played nearly exclusively on the left side during his first seven seasons in Washington, with Oates hoping that a move to the right wing would open up other scoring opportunities.
“I see a little bit of a different Alex Ovechkin,” Trotz said. “I think there’s a quiet calmness and a quiet sort of focus. I don’t know him as well as [reporters] do, or his teammates, but I’ve got a little sense of that from just talking to some people that he’s got a new focus, which is great to hear.”
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What Trotz doesn’t necessarily plan to focus on, at least early on, is teaching Ovechkin the finer points of playing defensively. Despite scoring a league-leading 51 goals last season, Ovechkin also had the third-worst plus/minus rating — minus-35 — of any player.
Trotz has, however, been lauded for his work as a defensive-minded coach, and he would only say that his plan involves his team regaining the puck as quickly as possible once it’s lost. He also said that given the success of the Capitals’ power play unit last season — it scored 68 goals with the advantage and converted on 23.4 percent of its opportunities — there wouldn’t be many changes in that aspect of the game, either.
And, in any case, Trotz said that the discussions with Ovechkin helped him realize that his perception of Ovechkin as a player have changed since they’ve gotten to know each other.
“I think perception is reality, and when your perception is one way, when you don’t know people and you don’t know the situation, it’s easy to be very judgmental and make assumptions,” Trotz said. “I have not coached Alex Ovechkin on the ice for a year, or any of the players, so my perception on every player is probably off a little bit because we haven’t worked together a long length of time.”
That kind of connection should only strengthen, which should lead to familiarity — and in turn, success.
Even on Thursday, as he stood adjacent to the Capitals’ practice rink, he was astonished at how quickly it felt like he was back.
“As soon as World Champions was done, like, time moved so fast,” Ovechkin said. “Right now I’m back here and we’re talking about new year, but I remember when we talked about last [year]. We didn’t make the playoff and all that kind of stuff. Time to move forward.”