It must be pretty distressing for Washington Capitals fans to read about Alex Ovechkin joining the KHL, and even more distressing to hear how he may not return to the NHL if player salaries are slashed.
So let’s put all that talk aside for awhile and instead discuss Ovechkin playing in the NHL and striving for the league’s ultimate prize.
Can Alex Ovechkin lead the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup?
Alex Ovechkin is the engine that drives this team. The Washington Capitals respond to his physicality, and feed off his energy. When the team captain is flying around the rink making opponents pay for simply being on the ice, his teammates respond in a positive manner. As proof of his physical nature, Ovechkin has actually finished in the top 30 in the NHL in hits for each of the last three seasons.
But as Ovechkin himself famously pointed out last season to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post, he has a more important role on the team:
I have chances to score. My job is to score goals, not make the hits. The second period I have probably like three chances to score, but I didn’t do the right thing.
However, Ovechkin’s production suffered a well-documented decline over the last two seasons. During the 2010-11 season, he scored only 0.41 goals per game. This past season, that number went up to 0.49 goals per game, but was still below his career average.
Goal scoring is obviously a key element of any hockey team, so the importance of Ovechkin’s natural ability cannot be understated. Not surprisingly, a decline in production by the team's leading scorer can have a significant effect on the team.
And goal scoring carries even more weight in the post season. In 51 career playoff games, Ovechkin has scored 30 goals, for an average of 0.59 goals per game. He also has five game-winning goals in the playoffs.
This clutch performing has been invaluable to the Washington Capitals in the playoffs during Ovechkin’s career, and it would become even more valuable during a deep postseason run.
With Ovechkin leading the team’s physical and offensive onslaught, the Washington Capitals can achieve the ultimate goal of any NHL team by winning the Stanley Cup.
But there is one major caveat to the preceding statement:
Alex Ovechkin cannot lead the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup as long as he is captain.
Alex Ovechkin may inspire his teammates with his physicality, but so do other Capitals players. Matt Hendricks and Troy Brouwer are both known for their physical play, but neither of these players are captain.
Alex Ovechkin may inspire his teammates with his goal scoring, but other Caps players do that as well. Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera can spark the team’s offense but again, these two do not have the "C" on their sweaters.
That is because a team captain needs to inspire his teammates with more than just his physical play or his goal scoring. A team captain needs to be respected by his teammates while having a mature, respectful relationship with the coaches. This way, he can bridge the gap between the coaches and the players and become an extension of the coaching staff.
There may be some aspect of the team’s system that the coaches may not be able to convince the players to execute. But if the team captain executes this concept, then the other teammates will see that it is not only acceptable but a vital part of winning. This can be done simply by example, or by the captain communicating with his teammates to help them get on the same page as the coaches.
This is where Alex Ovechkin fails as a team captain. Last season, in a notorious incident, Ovechkin cussed out then head coach Bruce Boudreau when Gabby decided to bench Ovie for the decisive play of the game.
And things did not improve dramatically with a new coach, either. Ovechkin expressed anger at how head coach Dale Hunter severely limited his playing time during the playoffs, presumably because he had not completely bought into the defense-first philosophy of Hunter’s system.
After the season ended, Ovechkin further sullied his reputation as team captain by insinuating there was dissension in the locker room when he said some of his teammates 'don't have to be jealous.'
Yet another coaching change has not revealed a marked improvement in Ovechkin’s willingness to follow the team’s direction or promote team unity.
During the press conference to introduce new skipper Adam Oates, General Manager George McPhee publicly rebuffed Ovechkin's statement from earlier in the week about how Adam Oates 'likes offense' by saying Ovechkin "still might have to dump it in and block a shot once in awhile.”
This type of behavior is unacceptable from a team captain. Alex Ovechkin—and therefore George McPhee—is sending the wrong message to the other Capitals players. The organization will never be able to get the entire team on board with the direction they have chosen if the team captain is vocal about preferring to go in a different direction entirely. Therefore, Alex Ovechkin needs to be stripped of the captain's "C".
But by removing the blue letter from his sweater, the Capitals would not be stitching a scarlet letter in its place. This is not a decision aimed at disgracing the team's most prominent player but rather one with the common good in mind.
The Capitals need an on-ice leader better suited to the position, such as Brooks Laich, the longest tenured pro athlete in DC and widely considered the team's de facto spokesman with the media. With a leader like this, there will be less of a disconnect between the coaches and players, and the team can then move as a unified group towards the common goal.
This move will further benefit the team by allowing Ovechkin to concentrate on what he knows to be his primary purpose.
Ovechkin’s goal scoring actually began to decline during the 2009-10 season, when he scored 50 goals. At the time, that was the second lowest output of his career. Not much was thought of it then, since he had still reached the 50-goal plateau. But that turned out to be the high-water mark of a three-year period ending last season.
And although this decline has been widely contributed to defenses around the NHL beginning to adapt to his tendencies, there may be another cause.
Incidentally, Ovechkin was named team captain during the 2009-10 season. This could be a secondary or even primary reason for his offensive decline. Since then he has had more responsibility and thus more pressure, and it may be affecting his production.
Removing the “C” from his sweater will relieve Ovechkin of this burden of responsibility and will allow both him and his team to reach their full potential.
For Alex Ovechkin, that means once again being one of the world’s best players. For the Washington Capitals, that means winning the Stanley Cup.