Adam Oates would like to be clear about something: Alex Ovechkin is being held accountable for everything he does on the ice.
Just like Jason Chimera, John Carlson, Troy Brouwer, Karl Alzner and every other player on the Capitals’ roster, regardless of their goal totals or salary figures.
“Everybody’s accountable, and [Ovechkin] knows it.”
Since the start of this abbreviated season Oates has charted every scoring chance, every giveaway, every bad penalty, every check, every missed check, every great pass and every errant pass.
For every player.
But because Ovechkin is one of the NHL’s biggest stars, and because the Capitals own the second-worst record in the league [10-14-1], and because Ovechkin has one goal in his last eight games, criticisms of the 27-year-old Russian have mounted like stacks of hockey sticks on a bonfire.
“Obviously, he has [bad] moments, but he gets a breakaway a game,” Oates said on Wednesday, before boarding a flight for Raleigh, where the Caps will play one of their biggest games of the season Thursday night.
“He gets chances every night. He’s getting Grade A’s and it’s not going in.”
In Tuesday night’s loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, Ovechkin did not record a shot but set up two golden scoring chances by Marcus Johansson and led the Caps with five hits.
“Well, if I have him wide open, why I have to shoot?” Ovechkin said of his decision to feed Johansson.
“He passes to Marcus and he gets two breakaways,” Oates said. “To me, that’s part of [Ovechkin]. We have to be doing something right. We’re all over them and when you don’t score it filters through the team. We score two early and we might win 6-1.”
But when you lose 4-0 against a team you’re chasing in the Southeast Division almost everyone looks at the captain. Oates says he gets that.
“There’s pressure and obviously Alex has the most,” Oates said. “He feels when he drives to the rink that he has to score. And while I agree with that, he gives Marcus two breakaways and that’s still good enough for me.
“To me, it’s about playing a complete game and being physical. He hit [Hurricanes defenseman Joe] Corvo in the third period and almost destroyed him. He’s still the only guy that separates people from the puck every single time he hits a guy. That’s just as important to me as scoring. That’s important for the team.
“People forget that. That’s what people don’t see all the time. He makes mistakes in the neutral zone. Yeah, OK, it’s a mistake. But did anybody see the five hits that he separated guys off the puck? That’s something that, in our relationship, is important to me.”
Last year’s first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins was a perfect example. Ovechkin scored just two goals in the series but he was a physical force against Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and Milan Lucic and the Caps prevailed in seven games.
“I think he and [Braden Holtby] won that series,” Oates said. “Who else took on Seidenberg? Who else took on Chara? Who else took on [Brad] Marchand and [Patrice] Bergeron? His physical play is one of his gifts, right? And it’s very tiring for a forward to play like that.”
The argument, of course, is that Ovechkin is paid $9.5 million a season to score goals. And after averaging 54 goals in his first five seasons in the NHL, Ovechkin has averaged 35 in his last two seasons. If this was an 82-game season he’d be on pace for 30 this season.
Asked if scoring 65 goals in his third NHL season set the bar unrealistically high for Ovechkin, Oates said he believes it did.
“I think [those expectations are] unfair for the style of game he plays,” Oates said. “But he also gets a lot of chances. So if he was on a bit of a roll he’d have 15 or 20 [goals], no question. He gets a breakaway a game.”
Oates pointed out that Ovechkin agreed to switch from left wing to right wing this season “and that’s already been forgotten, but not by me.”
That’s why Oates has a problem with the critics who accentuate Ovechkin’s mistakes -– like the two penalties he took against the Rangers on Sunday and his poor performance in Philadelphia two weeks ago -- and fail to recognize his contributions.
“I measure him by everything, like I measure everybody,” Oates said. “Now, does he have responsibility? Yeah. And I want him to keep playing better because I don’t want Mike Milbury to say that about him. I don’t. That’s part of our process between me and him.
“[Ovechkin] also thinks that if he doesn’t score that he’s letting us down and that’s not quite accurate. I appreciate what he’s done and the process.”