If Alex Ovechkin’s drop in production this season is because he’s lost a step or is not in top physical condition – a question that was raised on 106.7 The Fan on Wednesday morning – that’s news to his teammates.
Asked after Wednesday’s practice if Ovechkin is just as fast and just as strong as he was when he entered the NHL as a Category 5 hurricane in 2005, Nicklas Backstrom and Karl Alzner had identical responses.
“Absolutely, I think so,” Backstrom said. “He’s still strong and powerful out there. I think [the offense] is coming.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s all there. The one thing I can say about him is that everyone plays him so hard now. I can’t imagine.
“I know what we do when we scout teams and we study everything a guy does. If everyone was studying what I did out there I wouldn’t be able to do anything. It’s amazing he can still put up some numbers with all that. That’s why the best players adapt the way they do.”
Ovechkin’s ability to adapt is perhaps the most significant back story of the Capitals’ 2012-13 season. In a bold move by first-year head coach Adam Oates, Ovechkin, who shoots right, was moved from left wing to right wing and after 15 games he is off to the slowest start of his career with five goals.
Here’s a quick breakdown of Ovechkin’s production after 15 games through the first eight years of his career:
2005-06: 12 [finished with 52]
2006-07: 10 [finished with 46]
2007-08: 9 [finished with 65]
2008-09: 7 [finished with 56]
2009-10: 15 [finished with 50]
2010-11: 8 [finished with 32]
2011-12: 7 [finished with 38]
2012-13: 5 [finished with ??]
Oates says 15 games is too small of a sample to start judging Ovechkin’s ability to play right wing. His players agree it was a necessary move and one they think will pay off in the long run.
As a left defenseman, Alzner has been defending against Ovechkin at practice this season and says it’s true that he’s more difficult to stop when he’s barreling down the right side than on the left.
“If you see a guy on his off-wing coming at you, you know that if he wants to get a shot he’s going to have to push to the middle and try to shoot, which makes it easier for me to read,” Alzner said, referring to the old Ovi.
“If he does make a move to try to go through me he’s going to at least be moving to the outside.
“I think [Ovechkin] on his strong [right] side makes it tougher to play against him. He can hang the puck out further without me being able to poke it. I think it’s nice to give teams a different look and make them adjust a little bit.”
Asked if Ovechkin has spent any extra time trying new moves against him at practice, Alzner said, “A little bit. I think he’s relying more on his shot again, which is his strong suit, being able to let that thing go.
“That’s really important, to get back to what everybody first knew him for, being able to shoot the puck. He’s getting back to that and the more confidence he gets on that side the more you’re going to see him try to weave in and out.”
Through 15 games Ovechkin ranks fourth in the NHL in shots with 64 and he’s had another 27 miss the net, which ranks third in the NHL.
Against the Rangers on Sunday Ovechkin finished with 14 attempts at the net. Seven shots got through, three were blocked and four missed the net.
“He gets shots from [the right side] now that he didn’t get before,” Oates said.
But Oates said there is more to Ovechkin’s switch to right wing than generating shots. He noted the scoring chance Ovechkin created for left wing Jason Chimera early in the game. Ovechkin took a pass from center Mike Ribeiro on his forehand and snapped a cross-ice pass for a streaking Chimera down the left side for a scoring opportunity.
“Because he’s on his forehand he just caught it and threw it right across the rink to Chimmer, who’s flying,” Oates said. “If that goes in the net we’re up 2-0. It changes the outcome. Every little play matters in a game.”
Oates saw a similar transformation take place with Ilya Kovalchuk last year with the Devils when the Russian winger switched from left to right wing. He said it took more than a month for Kovalchuk to get the hang of it and said the Ovechkin has had “a very short time” to adapt.
Backstrom, who has one goal this season, said he’s not one to pass judgment on Ovechkin’s slow start – “because I haven’t scored either” – but he likes the look of Ovechkin on the right side.
“Obviously, all the teams are looking at him and what he does out there,” Backstrom said. “Now with him changing sides on the right wing it should be a different look for teams. I don’t know. Maybe teams are more desperate and playing better defense. Teams scout us and they should know a lot about every guy on our team.”