May 2, 2012
Hunter's leash on OvechkinWinger's star fading under coach
By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin used to relish being the star, the front page story, the one player everyone talked about.
Not so much anymore.
The ongoing debate about Ovechkin, ice time and coach Dale Hunter’s stubborn convictions is not about to go away. Not until their playoff season ends.
It weighs on Ovechkin, this constant poking and prodding, the discussion of whether he’s a star anymore, a one-dimensional threat or trying after all these uneven years to define exactly what he is. All the analysis, all the questions gnaw away at him as this Eastern Conference semifinal grows closer and tighter. And as Ovechkin’s usage takes on an historical and slightly hysterical proportions, there is so much to discuss and wonder about.
This hasn’t happened with Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier or any player you could name among the largest stars in hockey history. What Hunter is doing with Ovechkin is unprecedented, playing him a little, then a lot depending on the game and circumstance. Hunter will remove him from the doghouse one night and put him behind a guy named Beagle the next.
“I don’t think it’s the time right now to talk about this,” Ovechkin said when asked about his game and whether he is on board with how inconsistently he has been used by Hunter. “Everybody wants to be on the ice. But in different situations, you have to do what you have to do.
“If it takes giving me 13 minutes of ice time and we win the game, I’ll take it ... Let’s talk about the game.”
So Ovechkin’s lying. Just a little. And we’ll give him that. Nobody wants to play 13 minutes. Nobody wants to be singled out and embarrassed. Not when you see yourself as a game-changer. Not when you’re paid to make a difference.
In Game 2 of the Caps' Eastern Conference semifinal against the New York Rangers, Ovechkin was an afterthought until he scored the winning goal. That’s the ballsy brilliance of Hunter. He will play Ovechkin a lot when the Caps are behind and need a goal, but he won’t play his captain as much when they’re leading.
This philosophy goes against everything Hunter did as coach of the OHL's London Knights. There, he over-relied on his stars. In tie games, he goes with his gut. That is the opposite of the way it usually works in the NHL playoffs. Mike Keenan always over-played his stars. Same with Scotty Bowman. Hunter is showing some guts by alienating his best player while trying to advance at the same time.
All around the Caps dressing room the same questions about Ovechkin are being asked. Is he still a star? Is he still the leader of the Caps? Is he still an important player? How do you feel about getting more ice time than Ovie?
“There is no hierarchy in this room,” said Brooks Laich, the Caps' veteran forward. “This should motivate everybody. If you play well, you get minutes. If you don’t ...”
At home Wednesday night, Ovechkin came out flying. He knocked two Rangers defenceman to the ice in the first period to go along with several scoring chances. He played more minutes -- 14-plus -- through two periods than he played in all of Game 2 where he played just 13:36.
In the six periods played Game 3, Ovechkin logged 35:15, a huge chunk of ice time but six minutes less than New York captain Ryan Callahan.
In that amount of time for Ovie he produced no points, hit a post in overtime and suffered a stunning defeat.
Weirdly for Ovechkin, less somehow produced more.
“Look what happened (in Game 2),” said Laich. ”I had my neighbour over last night to watch hockey and we were talking about the goal Alex scored. There’s maybe two three guys in the world who could have scored that power-play goal. (Steven) Stamkos, him, other than that, I don’t know.
“That’s the thing with Alex. He can do what others can’t. He’s absolutely a star.”
A strange theory brought forth Wednesday by a front office person said maybe Hunter is on to something. Maybe Ovechkin is better off playing less than playing more. Ovechkin is so intense, the executive said, that maybe that’s the best way to manage his effectiveness. That was the story in Game 2. In Game 3, the theory changed.
Ovechkin’s facial expressions say he clearly disagrees. He just won’t say anything now. This isn’t the time or the place. And if he’s not buying in, his teammates certainly are.
“We’re not here to debate hockey history,” Laich said. “We’re here to win.”