Highlights: Capitals 4, Oilers 1
Ten games into last season, Alex Ovechkin had two goals, three assists, 35 shots and was begging Adam Oates to move him back to left wing.
Ten games into this season, the Caps’ 28-year-old captain has a league-high 10 goals, five assists, a league-high 67 shots and is looking like he’s played right wing for his entire life.
OK, scratch that last one.
“There's still lots of room for him to grow,” Oates told the Edmonton Journal before Ovechkin led the Caps to a 4-1 win that evened their record at 5-5-0. “He did things 23 years of his life one way."
That way went something like this:
Rumble down the left wing, cut to the middle and rip the hardest shot known to man from the left circle. In his first five seasons in the NHL that was enough to net Ovechkin 269 goals in 396 games.
But then something terrible happened.
NHL defensemen began setting up road blocks in that left circle. Goaltenders started cheating and making saves. Ovechkin kept shooting, but many of those shots were getting blocked, deflected or sailing wide of the net.
In 2010-11, Ovechkin’s goal totals dropped from 50 to a career-low 32. His point totals from 109 to 85. His shooting percentage from 13.6 to 8.7.
The following year, other parts of Ovechkin’s game showed cracks. His goal totals increased to 38 but his point totals dropped from 85 to a career-low 65 and his plus-minus plummeted from plus-24 to minus-8.
In his words, Ovechkin had become “a plumber” under Dale Hunter.
Something had to change and Adam Oates knew what it was. When Oates interviewed for the job as Capitals head coach two summers ago, he explained to general manager George McPhee his plan to move Ovechkin from left wing to right wing.
McPhee could have politely told Oates to leave his office and leave well enough alone.
But Oates persisted. He believed that by moving Ovechkin to the right side he would touch the puck more and have a greater impact on games. He insisted that Ovechkin would find more shooting lanes, showcase a quicker release and, eventually, score more goals.
Ten games into last season, the experiment looked like a complete failure.
"It took me a long time to get used to it,” Ovechkin told the Journal. “But I had patience and my linemates had patience. We figured it out. I am used to scoring goals and I had to think of doing things differently. You get different angles for your shot from right wing."
This season, Ovechkin is showing an even greater arsenal than he showed last season, when he ended the year with 21 goals in his final 20 games. He’s scoring goals off faceoffs from the left dot and the right dot. He’s scoring back-door goals from the left side of the net by cheating closer to the goal line. He’s scoring goals off deflections by crashing the net. And he’s scoring goals by moonwalking back a few steps into holes in the high slot.
"We're always looking for new ways to get him touches, at different parts of the ice, where he can be successful," Oates said.
And while 10 games may only be a small sample size, the reinvention of Ovechkin seems to be a stroke of genius.
Through 10 games, Ovechkin is on pace for a career-high 549 shots, which is 246 more than he recorded in a full season two years ago. If he continues with his current shooting percentage Ovi would finish the season with a ridiculous 82 goals.
For the record, the last time an NHL player cracked the 80-goal mark was in 1990-91 when Brett Hull scored 86 with the St. Louis Blues. And we all know who Hull’s set-up man was that year.