Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 51 goals as a right wing last season but was third from the bottom with a minus-35 rating, a big reason he received just one fifth-place vote in Hart Trophy balloting.
Speaking to reporters Saturday near the end of the NHL draft in Philadelphia, new Capitals coach Barry Trotz says he’ll keep Ovechkin on he right side to start next season, but will need to see less “glide” to his captain’s game if he hopes to erase that career-worst minus rating.
“To me it’s not necessarily the defensive end,” said Trotz, who met with Ovechkin last week in Las Vegas prior to the NHL Awards ceremony, where Ovechkin picked up his fourth Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer.
“Alex has got a little too much glide maybe in his game. He’s trying to score too much, so he’s getting not as much space actually. You remember Alex when he would get that speed and he’s moving and he can do things with the puck. He can beat you with his skill, he can beat you with his size and speed and hold you off. When you’re standing still you’re really easy to cover.
“I was just talking to Alex and said we gotta get a little more space for you. Sometimes that’s coming back [into the defensive zone] and getting the puck in a good position. Sometimes when you’re standing still you think you’re in a position where if I get the puck I’ll score. But you’re easier to cover and we talked about that. That’s a process.
“I think if he gets a little less glide in his game I think he’ll be as dynamic and as hard to handle as he ever was and as productive. I told him, ‘You scored 52 goals last year [actually 51] and no one else did that in the league. I want him to do that again. I just want to get him to be even [on the plus-minus ledger]. If he gets 52 and he’s even I think we’ll be in good shape,”
Like former Capitals coach Adam Oates, Trotz believes Ovechkin can be more effective as a right wing than as a left wing, where he played the first seven seasons of his NHL career. He did not rule out the possibility of Ovechkin going back to the left side, but said he’ll start training camp as a right wing.
“Right now I know he can go on the left,” Trotz said. “He did pretty good on the right side. I think there are a lot of benefits from the right side, coming out of your own end you’re naturally turning into the play and facing the puck.
“Offensively, getting over to the left side, he uses people as screens and that helps offensively. With the system we play, he’ll end up on the left side anyway. We’ll balance it out. I told Alex, ‘I know you can play both sides but right now let’s start you on the right. You had good success last year.’”
By keeping Ovechkin on the right side, the Caps face a similar dilemma as last season, when rookie right wing Tom Wilson was relegated to fourth-line duty behind Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward.
Caps general manager Brian MacLellan said he would like to see Wilson’s ice time increased next season, which could mean a trade involving Brouwer or Ward.
The Caps’ roster will begin sorting itself out on Tuesday when the NHL’s free agent season opens. In the mean time, Trotz said he has been speaking with his core players about the importance of changing the culture of the Capitals.
And it starts with Ovechkin.
“That’s the first thing,” Trotz said. “We’ve got to have a relationship and trust with our top layers. There’s a partnership there. Alex is maybe the best goal scorer in the National Hockey League right now, but at the same time we still have to grow his game.
“If we’re going to win a championship in Washington everybody has to give something. We didn’t make the playoffs so we can’t stay the same, so let’s get better. My job is to make every player on that team better.
“There are still things Alex can do better. He gets a lot of focus because he’s been the face of the franchise and got the franchise turned around.
“I think he’s like a coach sometimes. When they win he gets a little too much credit and when they lose he gets too much blame. And that’s hard for a star in this league because he gets a lot of criticism. My job is to deflect some of that and have his back when it’s not his fault and praise him when he does the things he needs to do.
“… I think Alex is all in on the team buy-in, but he also wants everybody else to buy in, too, and everybody has to do that. That’s my goal as a coach, so everybody can accomplish more.
“The team aspect and the culture is going to be really, really rectified. We want to be known as a team that’s going to be a contender for a number of years, so we want to play a certain way. We want to play with speed. We have some great offensive people and we want to use that aspect. We want to be hard to play against, and we want to be consistent. At the end of the day we want teams to say,’ Man, those Washington Capitals are hard to play against.’”