Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ovechkin's Trajectory: Yashin or Yzerman

alex ovechkin capitals
There's a problem with Alexander Ovechkin. It doesn't matter that he has the 7th highest points-per-game of all-time, or that he's cracked 50 goals and 100 points four times. It doesn't matter that he's won two Hart Trophies. There's a problem.

Ovechkin is second on the Capitals in scoring with 14 points, but this only puts him on pace for 62 points, by far the lowest total of his career. Astonishingly, he's 60th in league scoring. Even more concerning is that when you take into account his ice time, he's actually scoring at the second lowest rate of all Capital forwards; only Matt Hendricks scores less over the course of 60 minutes.

The Capitals could live with Ovechkin's lack of scoring if it was the result of a more defensive effort from their captain. They could live with it if it was helping the team win. But it's not. The Capitals have lost three in a row and are slipping down the Eastern Conference standings, sitting tied for 8th with three other teams.

Playing on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday put Ovechkin's problems under a microscope. What didn't help was that Ovechkin coasted through a brutal 7-1 loss to a slumping Maple Leafs squad that was missing seven regulars. It was supposed to be a slam dunk for the Capitals; they were supposed to win 7-1. Ovechkin did get off eight shots, but was a -3 on the night and seemed disinterested throughout most of the game, really only turning it on in the last five minutes when it was all but decided.

CBC essentially made the broadcast an edition of 'What's Wrong with the Great 8?', taking every opportunity they could to criticize his play. The entire Satellite Hotstove was practically about what the Capitals can do with Ovechkin. Glen Healy suggested playing him until his legs fall off, basically refusing to hold him accountable, and others suggested trading Alex Semin and bringing in an older Russian to mentor Ovechkin. There were even thoughts that Bruce Boudreau might be the problem.

It's apparent that something has to give. CBC's Elliotte Friedman makes the case that firing Bruce Boudreau isn't the right course of action. He's won 70% of his games in Washington and completely turned the team around upon his arrival.

Boudreau has been harder on Ovechkin this season, famously benching him in the dying minutes against Anaheim, and it appears like Ovechkin is chafing under the coach's new bad-cop routine.

Is this a necessary growing pain in Ovechkin's evolution into a more complete, two-way hockey player? Or is this simply a player who doesn't care about the team and is bailing on his coach?

Ovechkin might come off as a selfish, me-first hockey player now, but plenty of the game's best two-way forwards started out that way. The most oft-cited example of a superstar buying into a team system is Steve Yzerman.

Early in Yzerman's career, he was as prolific of a scorer as Ovechkin. He had six straight 100-point seasons from 1987 to 1993, and twice broke the 60-goal barrier. One of those 60 goal seasons ended with Yzerman scoring 155 points, the highest of any player not named Mario Lemiuex or Wayne Gretzky (quick side note: Gretzky and Lemieux are so good that Yzerman's 155 points is only good for 14th highest all-time).

But despite Yzerman's individual success, the Red Wings never went anywhere. From 1987 to 1993, the Red Wings won a total of five playoff series.

Then Scotty Bowman stepped in before the 1993-1994 season and demanded defensive responsibility of all his forwards, especially Yzerman. Initially, Yzerman and Bowman clashed. If you were just below the level of the two greatest hockey players of all-time, you wouldn't be too quick to change your game either.

But Bowman realized that Yzerman was the key to turning the Red Wings around. If he was able to convince the team's captain and leading scorer to buy into a team concept, everyone else would fall in line.

To convince Yzerman that it was the team or nothing in Detroit, Bowman and the Red Wings considered dealing Yzerman to the fledgling Ottawa Senators, the league's newest expansion team. The proposed deal would centre around Alexei Yashin coming to Detroit, plus a handful of picks and prospects.

Bowman admitted years later that Yzerman wasn't seriously close to being traded, the move was simply a tactic from the coaching master to get Yzerman to buy into Bowman's system. It clearly worked. Even the threat of sending Yzerman packing to a start-up team was enough to convince him of the benefits of team-first hockey.

Yzerman eventually evolved into one of the game's premier two-way forwards and was rewarded almost immediately. The Red Wings went to the Stanley Cup Final in 1995 and won the Stanley Cup in 1997, their first of three with Yzerman as captain.

But Yzerman didn't win his first Stanley Cup until he was 32-years-old and didn't begin to change his game until he was 28. Alexander Ovechkin is only 26. There is still time in Washington, but it's clear the Capitals are at a pivotal moment in the team's history.

The near trade between the Red Wings and Senators is important for another reason: it shows the different paths Ovechkin can take. Ovechkin can make a choice: does he want to be like Steve Yzerman or Alexei Yashin?

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