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Is Alex Ovechkin a good leader? Teammates come to their captain's defense

Is Alex Ovechkin a good leader? Teammates come to their captain's defense

After another disappointing postseason result, the hockey world is once again left with the question, why can’t the Caps win in the playoffs? As always, the spotlight shines brightest on superstar captain Alex Ovechkin who has yet to bring Washington past the second round in his career.

Ovechkin tallied eight points in 13 playoff games and five points in seven games against Pittsburgh. Considering he was playing much of the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins with both a knee and a hamstring injury, those numbers do not seem all that bad. In fact, if we are going to dissect the Ovechkin era, it’s hard to find any fault with his postseason production. Ovechkin currently ranks ninth among active players in playoff points per game with .928, higher than players like Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar and Joe Thornton.

But that’s not what people are really attacking him for. It’s not so much the numbers on the box score so much as it is the C on his chest.

As captain of the team, Ovechkin is its leader. Of course, there are others who can be considered team leaders as well such as Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Orpik and Justin Williams, but none of them wear the C.

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Washington’s postseason struggles have led many to question whether Ovechkin’s position as captain is part of the team's problem. Those questions, however, come from people who aren’t in the locker room. Only a small handful of people really know what Ovechkin is like as a leader and they were supportive of the captain.

“I think he's a great leader,” Karl Alzner said at the team’s breakdown day. “I think he's a heck of a guy, great player. I think everybody who's been here for a while has seen him change over the years. He wants to win really, really badly and I think he's probably like the rest of us, a little frustrated trying to figure out what the problem is. He's with us all, but yeah he's been a really, really important piece of this puzzle and great guy to learn from.”

“There's all different types of leaders,” T.J. Oshie said. “I think when you see O go out there and he's hitting guys and shooting pucks and playing hard, I think that's when he leads by example.”

Ovechkin is not someone likely to make any rousing locker room speeches any time soon, but he is someone who leads by example with his play and his attitude. He is a different player to the team than he appears to the rest of the world. Just ask newcomer Lars Eller who just wrapped up his first season in Washington.

“You get to see a little bit some sides that you don't see compared to when you play against him,” Eller said. “It was positive. He always has a positive mindset, comes with a smile to practice, to every game. He wants to win as badly as anybody. There's only good things to say about him.”

And yet, the Stanley Cup has remained elusive.

For his part, Ovechkin knows the Caps’ postseason struggles reflect on him and he said all the right things about working to get better to finally claim the NHL’s ultimate prize.

“I don't want to stay on the same level,” Ovechkin said. “I want to get better. I have to work much harder this offseason than I was previous to get success and to get the goal of the Stanley Cup. I'm pretty sure everybody wants to win the Stanley Cup. It's hard.”

But while he acknowledged he would need to work harder to finally get Washington over the hump in the playoffs, no one else was ready to blame him for the team’s issues. From the outside he remains an easy scapegoat, but none of his teammates seem willing to put the blame on their captain’s shoulders.

“He played hard and, like all of us, had some really good moments and then he had some blunders like everyone,” Matt Niskanen said. “He played hard though, I think he did everything he could though trying to make a difference.”

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Caps make 17 cuts Sunday, pare roster to 36

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Caps make 17 cuts Sunday, pare roster to 36

The Capitals have made another significant round of cuts, reassigning 16 players to AHL Hershey and releasing another.

Among the players headed to the Bears are: forwards John Albert, Mathias Bau, Chris Bourque, Dustin Gazley, Hampus Gustafsson, Tim McGauley, Garrett Mitchell, Mason Mitchell and Wayne Simpson; defensemen Kristofers Bindulis, Connor Hobbs, Tommy Hughes, Lucas Johansen, Hubert Labrie; and goalies Adam Carlson and Vitek Vanecek.

The club also released forward Stephen Collins.

The highest profile cuts were Johansen, the team's first round pick in 2016, and Hobbs. The Caps have high hopes for the young blue liners, but it’s obvious both will benefit from some seasoning in the minor leagues as they make the leap from junior to the pro ranks.

Hershey’s training opens on Monday.

After taking Sunday off, the Caps will return to practice on Monday with a roster of 36 players—and three preseason games left to sort out the position battles.  

Forwards Riley Barber, Travis Boyd, Alex Chiasson, Tyler Graovac, Liam O’Brien, Anthony Peluso, Zach Sill, Devante Smith-Pelly, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana and Nathan Walker are left battling for the three available jobs up front.

Meanwhile, defensemen Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Jyrki Jokipakka, Tyler Lewington, Aaron Ness, Jonas Siegenthaler and Colby Williams are competing for the two open spots on the backend.

Although some players, such as Chiasson and Walker, have already begun to separate themselves from the others, you can expect the competition to intensify over the next week. The Caps host the Devils on Wednesday, then play at the Hurricanes on Friday and at the Blues on Sunday.

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Did Barry Trotz show us what his fourth line will be to start the season?

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Did Barry Trotz show us what his fourth line will be to start the season?

Barry Trotz likes to play his cards close to the vest. With roster battles and lineup holes surrounding the team, there are plenty of questions for the Caps that need answering this preseason. If you look at how Saturday's 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes ended, however, he may have given us at least one answer.

At the start of the game, Jay Beagle centered a line with Devante Smith-Pelly and Wayne Simpson on his wings. By the end of the game, Nathan Walker was playing on the left with Beagle at center and Smith-Pelly on the right.

"Walker was giving us some energy, he was giving us some speed and I just made that flip," Trotz told reporters after the game. "I just thought Walks was starting to make things happen. His speed was noticeable, his will on the puck if you will was really good. I thought that'd be a good fit. I just moved him over there and I thought he had an effect on the game."

Could that have been a preview of the team's fourth line?

RELATED: CHIASSON, WALKER MAKE THEIR CASE TO MAKE THE TEAM

Walker turned in another tremendous performance showing great energy, speed and grit. Despite being 5-foot-8, he still remains a feisty player who could be found at the center of every scrum. He exchanged hits and jabs with the 6-foot-3 Klas Dahlbeck multiple times throughout the game and even drew a penalty on the Carolina defenseman as he drove the net after managing to slip away from a hit along the boards.

"He's one of those hard guys to play against because ... they're on you all the time," Trotz said. "When you can affect the opposition and take them out of their game because the way you play, then you're pretty effective."

That brings us back to the lines. The Caps have not one, but two openings on the fourth line to play alongside Beagle. The fact that Trotz put Walker and Smith-Pelly on that line, two players fighting for a spot in the lineup, could be a preview of what the fourth line may ultimately look like to start the season.

That would be just fine with Beagle.

"It's fun to play with a guy who brings that much energy," Beagle said of Walker. "He's always had that energy and he's always been a little guy who grinds it out and isn't afraid to get in there and get in the corners and wins a lot of battles. He's awesome to play with. He's a lot of fun."

At this point, given how he has played in his two preseason games, it is hard to see how Walker does not make the roster. His energy and style are a perfect fit for what the Caps need on their fourth line. He would be an excellent compliment to Beagle and that has not escaped Trotz's notice.

"I think they might enjoy playing together, but they're effective together," Trotz said. "They get on the puck, they work you over and they tire you out. I'll tell you that."

With other players such as Alex Chiasson, Riley Barber and Anthony Peluso still vying to make the team, it is still too early to tell if this is definitively what the fourth line will look like, but the trio certainly made their case.

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