Time for Ovechkin to answer critics

Time for Ovechkin to answer critics
February 18, 2013, 5:45 pm
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Oates: "We still made a lot of mistakes"

If you are an Alex Ovechkin fan, there is a story on SI.com today that should warrant your attention.

If the headline – ‘What’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin?’ – doesn’t pique your interest, the Twitter teaser – ‘Is Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals washed up?’ – certainly should.

Unfortunately, it is a story that may be written many times this season and many more times during the remainder of Ovechkin’s career if his production continues to stagnate.

The reason is painfully clear. Ovechkin spoiled us in his first five years in the NHL, luring us into thinking he could be invincible forever.

That’s what happens when you score 65 goals at the age of 22, especially in a sport where players hit their prime at 27.

Alex Ovechkin is 27.

But instead of beating his chest at the rest of the hockey world, he seems burdened by the task that lies ahead of him.

Having seen his goal totals drop to 32 two years ago and 38 last season Ovechkin has been asked to re-invent his game – not because he’s suddenly washed up, but because he has become too predictable.

“The game has changed a lot in the last three, four years,” Capitals general manager George McPhee told the New York Times over the weekend.

“Coaches have found ways to make it much more difficult to come through the neutral zone with steam with one guy carrying the puck and Ovi likes to do that.

“In some ways he became a little too predictable. So now he’s making adjustments and he’s really been effective the last few games.”

Before the Capitals’ 2-1 loss to the Rangers on Sunday, Ovechkin had found his groove with three goals in his previous four games.

But through 15 games, the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder from Moscow remains a work in progress. With just five goals and 10 points, Ovechkin is on a pace that, if this was an 82-game season, would leave him with a career-low 27 goals and 55 points.

Those are scary numbers for a team that has eight years and $79 million committed to Ovechkin after this season.

That explains why Adam Oates was completely serious when he asked his star left wing to make the switch to the right side, a monumental undertaking for a player who spent 20 years perfecting the same three or four moves that resulted in hundreds of goals and millions of dollars.

It also explains why, when Ovechkin asked to move back to left wing after four futile games on the right side, Oates placed him with grinders Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb.

Four games and no even-strength goals later, Ovechkin agreed to go back to the right side and was rewarded with playmaking center Mike Ribeiro as his linemate.

This is all part of the re-making of Ovechkin, the results of which we still don’t know.

Through 15 games the Great 8 has merely been good. He ranks third in the NHL in shots [64] and second in missed shots [27]; 43rd in goals [5]; 79th in points [10], 661st in plus-minus [minus-6] and 299th in shooting percentage [7.8].

With all of that in mind, Oates was asked if moving Ovechkin to the right side was a difficult decision.

“Not for me,” he said. “I think it’s progressing fine. It’s obviously a huge transition for him, but he’s getting the puck a lot more, and getting a lot more opportunities.”

It is up to Ovechkin what he does with those opportunities.

Will he continue to drift to the left side of the ice and take shots from areas that opposing defensemen and goaltenders have come to expect, possibly relegating him to a 30-goal player?

Or, will he put the necessary time and practice into perfecting moves from the right side that will allow his lethal shot to find its way past unsuspecting defenders and goaltenders, making him a real threat to return to his status as a 40- or 50-goal scorer?

That may be the key that unlocks the question of whether Ovechkin is washed up or simply ready to get dirty.