Ovechkin's role in Hunter's decision

Ovechkin's role in Hunter's decision
May 15, 2012, 3:58 pm
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It has become a popular notion that whenever a coach of the Washington Capitals is removed, his dismissal is covered with Alex Ovechkins finger prints.

Fair or unfair, it happened with Glen Hanlon, then Bruce Boudreau and now Dale Hunter.

But is it true?

When you factor in Hunter's agreement to coach the Capitals for just one year and his gravitational pull toward his family-run businesses in London, Ontario, it would seem Ovechkin had little to do with his decision to walk away from the only NHL head coaching job he'll ever have.

But with a new coach yet to be named, it's worth examining the six-month relationship Ovechkin had with Hunter during his brief and occasionally stormy tenure in D.C.

It doesnt matter if I like it or not, because hes my coach and I have to listen, Ovechkin said when asked of his ability to adapt to less ice time under Hunter. He said, You have to be a plumber, so I was a plumber.

Ovechkin is not paid to be a plumber. He has nine years and nearly 86 million remaining on the contract he signed four years ago. Thats serious money for a player who finished the regular season well below his career averages with 38 goals, 27 assists and a minus-8 rating.

Under Boudreau and Hunter, Ovechkin averaged 19:51 of ice time during the regular season, well below his career average of more than 22 minutes. And if you take away the Capitals triple overtime loss to the Rangers in Game 4, he averaged less than 19 minutes in the playoffs, recording five goals and four assists and a minus-2 rating in 14 games.

And if you break it down into playoff wins and losses, Ovechkin averaged more than 19 minutes of ice time in games the Capitals won and less than 15 minutes in games they lost, excluding the triple overtime defeat.

He treat me like a soldier, Ovechkin told Comcast SportsNets Jill Sorenson.

If I play 20 minutes and the next game I only play 12 minutes I have to suck it up. If somebody like Jay Beagle is going to get 25 minutes of course Im not going to be happy. But I have to suck it up because its for the team.

According to several players, Ovechkins acceptance of his reduced role on the Capitals was a slow and sometimes painful one. There were cold stares and locker room yelling matches.

I dont know how to explain better, Ovechkin said. Sometimes you dont have to be jealous. I dont want to say it was like a jealous situation for us. Sometimes you just have to be a group together.

I dont want to say persons, I dont want to say situations, but sometimes you just know. Some guys, if you didnt play well they just look at you. You can see it, I can see it, somebody else going to see it. Thats not the way were going to win.

Through it all and Hunter was unyielding in his demands on the Capitals 26-year-old captain, keeping him on the bench in games the Capitals were leading and double shifting him in games they were losing.

Of course, I was sometimes mad about playing minimum minutes in the game and I know I can do better job if I was out there, Ovechkin said. But you have to suck it up and do what you have to do.

Hunter said he tried to explain his rationale to Ovechkin, saying he could do more for the Capitals than be on the ice for just as many goals against as goals for.

Definitely we had player-coach talks, like Dont put pressure on yourself, its a team a game out there and we need everyone to play, Hunter said.

Following Saturday nights Game 7 loss to the Rangers in New York, Hunter was asked to assess the play of Ovechkin. His terse response was, He was good.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Obviously, he didnt have the best season in points, teammate Nicklas Backstrom said. But he was blocking shots and playing good defensively and I really think he grew.

Defenseman Roman Hamrlik agreed.

We all learned in the playoffs that when youre up a goal or two you need more forwards who play better defense, Hamrlik said. I think he learned that and he scored huge goals for us. But if were losing by a goal he needs to be on the ice and make something happen.

The one thing I learned about Ovechkin is that he is hard working and he hates losing. He wants to win and hes a winner. He gives everything on the ice. There have been some situations where hes not happy. But I wasnt happy when I was a healthy scratch. But Im not looking back, Im looking forward. I think hes a good leader. He works hard every shift and thats positive.

Ovechkin said the 2011-12 Capitals molded themselves into the most tightly-knit team he has been a part of since arriving in Washington seven years ago. Whether that continues will depend largely on the relationship he forges with the new coach of the Capitals, his fourth.

Im sure were going to talk about the whole ice time situation, Ovechkin said. I hope were going to have a connection.