ARLINGTON — Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan offered a brutally honest critique of star winger Alex Ovechkin on Tuesday as the organization assesses how to move past another devastating Stanley Cup playoff exit.
“I think [Ovechkin] had a down year,” MacLellan said. “The less ice time would correlate with less production, but I think even talking to him at the end, he was disappointed in the playoff performance and the results he had and the results our team had. He’s frustrated as much as we all are.”
Ovechkin’s ice time dropped almost two minutes per game to a career-low 18:22. That was part of a pre-determined strategy to keep him fresh for the playoffs, but it also meant his numbers fell to 33 goals and 36 assists (69 points). Ovechkin was coming off three consecutive 50-goal campaigns. But with his age-32 season looming, MacLellan believes Ovechkin needs to adjust how he plays.
“For [Ovechkin] moving forward, he’s getting in the low 30s, I think he’s going to have to think of ways he can evolve into a player that still has a major impact on the game,” MacLellan said. “The game’s getting faster. He’s going to have to train in a different way – a more speed way instead of a power way. He’s gonna have to make adjustments to stay relative in the game.”
MacLellan stopped well short of advocating stripping Ovechkin of his captaincy. That’s not something the organization wants to do. He also addressed opinions from national pundits that the Caps should trade Ovechkin now with four years left on his original 13-year contract to extract the most value. Whether a directive from ownership not to do that or a deal being difficult to pull together, MacLellan said that, too, is unlikely – though he left the door slightly open.
“People are looking for a major solution to what we have going on. I think part of it is they watch certain things in [Ovechkin’s] game, and then it shows up and they say that’s not acceptable,” MacLellan said. “But he’s a big part of our franchise, a big part of our history. He’s been a big part of where we’re at as an organization and just to casually say, ‘Let’s trade him.’ For what? For who? I don’t think it makes sense from an organizational point of view. Maybe at some point if there’s a legitimate hockey deal that came available, but I don’t know if that’s where we’re at right now. I just think he’s got a history here. He’s a big part of this franchise, and he’ll continue to be going forward.”
Ovechkin played through a knee injury and a hamstring injury during playoff series against Toronto and Pittsburgh and still managed five goals and three assists. He chose not to play for Russia at the World Championships after the season ended, as is his common practice. He was also moved down to the third line during the postseason.
MacLellan cited a busy summer for Ovechkin last year with his wedding and his stint for Russia at the World Cup. But no excuses. He has to be better, especially during 5-on-5 play. Ovechkin will always be a threat on the power play, MacLellan said, especially with the talent surrounding him there. Ovechkin had just 16 goals and 27 assists at even strength, which isn’t good enough. That ties his fewest even-strength goals in his 12-year NHL career.
“I don’t want to stay on the same level,” Ovechkin said earlier this month. “I want to be better, I want to get better and I have to work much harder this offseason than those previous to get success and to get the goal of the Stanley Cup.”
MacLellan insisted the Caps have other issues to address. They are in a salary-cap crunch and will struggle to re-sign any of their top free agents (forwards T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk). Their restricted free agents (center Evgeny Kuznetsov, winger Andre Burakovsky, defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt) will all need raises. The expansion draft to stock the roster of the Vegas Golden Knights will cost Washington at least one player.
But Ovechkin rebounding at age 32 will play a big part of whether the Caps remain a competitive playoff team. It might not be fair to put so much on one player, but it’s reality.
“That’s part of being a captain, part of making the money he makes,” MacLellan said. “You have to expect that responsibility if that’s the chair you’re sitting in. And I think he should. But internally, we have other things too. It’s not just Alex. There’s other players who could have played better here, too.”
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