When Adam Oates took over as head coach of the Capitals two summers ago he knew that his longevity in Washington was tied directly to his success with Alex Ovechkin.
At the time, Ovechkin was a broken player, frustrated by his own predictability and disenchanted with the limited responsibilities he was given under Dale Hunter.
Oates came in with a bold plan. He moved Ovechkin from left wing to right wing in an attempt to get him the puck more often and in better areas to score goals.
It worked. Ovechkin scored goals from all over the ice, went on a goal-scoring tear in the second half of last season and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player.
Last summer, Oates continued building his personal relationship with Ovechkin, traveling to Moscow and spending time with his captain on his closest friends.
Ovechkin responded again, running away with his second straight Rocket Richard Trophy with 51 goals this season.
But there was that minus-35 to contend with – the proverbial mole on the Mona Lisa.
"I think for Ovi, the minus was a lousy stat this year,” Oates said. “It's a shame because he does so much for our team. I talked to him and it's one of the things that we have to address for sure.
“He can't score 50 goals and be a minus-35. It's obviously counterproductive, but we talk about it all the time. I told him that is something that for the rest of his career has to be one of his focal points, that [he has] to continually grow as a player because I feel he's our identity.”
Fair or not, the Capitals have carried the identity of their captain since he arrived in D.C. in 2005 – a high-scoring team that doesn’t play a whole lot of defense.
“You see it every single night in every building we go,” Oates said. “He is the identity. We go as he goes. He brings the electricity, he's our No. 1 goal scorer, plays a lot of minutes and I need to get him to believe -- which he does, we talk about it all the time -- that he's got to get better, because the more I can get him to work on his game, then you can do it throughout the lineup.”
It’s a pretty simple theory. If the captain of your hockey team cares as much about preventing goals as he does scoring them, it filters into the play of everyone else.
Oates will tell you – and he’s right – that Ovechkin’s minus-35 is not all about him playing poorly in his own end.
Nicklas Backstrom also finished with 79 points and was a career-worst minus-20. Marcus Johansson had a career-high 44 points but was a minus-21. And Mike Green led all Capitals defensemen with 38 points and was a minus-16.
“Let's be fair,” Oates said of Ovechkin. “There's moments he can be better, for sure. But some of that's on the goalies, some of that's on the defense, right? Some of that's on our forecheck. Some of it's him. It's all of us."
Oates says he understands that along with the accolades that come with being the greatest goal scorer of his generation, Ovechkin also carries the reputation of being a defensive liability and, as such, a lightning rod for criticism.
"I would say for Ovi, the majority of his mistakes are [defensive] reads maybe up ice,” Oates said. “I mean, that's my fault. Maybe I've had him on the ice too long.
“That's something we have to look over because obviously, I want to fix that for him because he means so much to us and I want the best for him."