Since the day he was hired to coach the Capitals last June, Adam Oates has watched hours upon hours of film on Alex Ovechkin.
Those sessions confirmed what every coach and every defenseman in the NHL already knew – that Ovechkin had become too predictable.
Oates recognized that what worked for Ovechkin in the first five years of his career, when he averaged 55 goals and 432 shots a season, had stopped working in his last two seasons, when he averaged 35 goals and 335 shots.
Oates also recognized that Ovechkin’s favorite moves [left-to-right cut-ins] and favorite shooting areas [top of the left wing circle] hadn’t changed.
And so he’s trying something completely different by moving Ovechkin from left wing to right wing.
With just one game of evidence, Saturday night’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the early results on the Ovi Experiment are less than flattering.
“Because I’m on the right side I have to think more,” Ovechkin said. “It’s not going to click right away, but I think it’s getting closer and closer.”
Ovechkin managed four shots Saturday night, all in the first period, missed the net on three others and had one shot blocked. His linemates, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, combined for four shots and a minus-3.
“It’s all about us,” Ovechkin said. “We made some stupid plays out there in the neutral zone and in the offensive zone. If you look at the whole game we have only a couple rushes and we never stopped in their zone. Blame on us. We have to play much better in the offensive zone.”
Last week Ovechkin said he was “lost” in the defensive zone and on Monday he said he sometimes swung behind Backstrom’s left when he should have swung right.
Oates said he’s willing to deal with his captain’s mistakes because he believes Ovechkin needs to become a scoring threat somewhere other than his favorite spots.
“I think it balances his game out and gives him the opportunity to get more pucks on both sides of the ice,” Oates said. “I watched him in the past and I know his spot and I know where he loves [to shoot] and I’m not taking that away. We’re just trying to add and get him more touches.”
Oates was quick to point out that Marty St. Louis and Ilya Kovlchuk were asked to make similar changes with the Lightning and Devils and both adapted well.
In Oates’ only season in Tampa, St. Louis’ point production jumped from 80 to 94 points, and in New Jersey last season, Kovalchuk’s production improved from 60 points to 83.
“I don’t think it will take long at all,” Oates said. “I saw Kovalchuk do it in a couple games last year and St. Louis do it the year before. [Ovechkin] is an upper-echelon player. I think he’ll figure that stuff out.”
Against the Lightning, when the Caps had three power plays in the first period, Ovechkin played his familiar spot in the left circle. But in the second and third periods, when he played most of the game at even strength, he admitted taking wrong routes up the ice.
“Sometimes when you’re on the right side you want to go all the time on the left,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes [Backstrom] had the puck and I have to go straight but I go behind him and I try to be on the left side. It’s a situation you have to realize and think about it.”
While playing the right side is an adjustment for Ovechkin, it’s also new for Backstrom, who is accustomed to seeing his linemate steamroll past him on the left.
“If I go to the left side and Backy passes the puck to the right side, I’m not there,” Ovechkin said. “It’s not about the system, it’s all about me and where I have to go.”
Oates said there were times in the second and third periods that Ovechkin free-lanced too much, ignoring his positional responsibilities to his linemates. He said those “growing pains” will be short-lived and that it won’t be long before Ovechkin sees the benefits of playing right wing.
“There will be times he’ll be stuck, and times Nick will be stuck because he’s used to seeing him come from a different direction,” Oates said. “But the goal is to get him more touches and get Ovi in more [scoring] situations.”
The next opportunity comes Tuesday night at Verizon Center when the Winnipeg Jets come to town.