TORONTO - The mystery of Alexander Ovechkin is almost unprecedented.
It didn't happen to Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. It didn't happen to Brett Hull or Mike Bossy.
Somehow, at the age of 25, having averaged 53 goals a season, Ovechkin may not score much more than 30 goals in Washington.
This coming after he scored 52, 46, 65, 56, and 50 in his first five NHL seasons. This is Year 6.
Something has seemed wrong with the Washington Capitals all year long. Something, not easily quantified, has looked wrong with Ovechkin.
It isn't supposed to happen at 25.
In Year 6, Gretzky scored 73 goals, after years of 87, 71, 92, 55 and 51. In Year 6, Lemieux scored 45 goals and missed a quarter of the schedule. That came after 85, 70, 54, 48 and 43 goal seasons in succession.
The only great scorer in NHL history to demonstrate anything close to this kind of fallout was Maurice (Rocket) Richard, who scored 50 goals in 50 games in his second season, and followed it up with 27, then 45, then 28. But that was a time when no one other than Richard scored that many goals.
Through five seasons, Ovechkin finished first in goal scoring twice, second once, third once, fourth once. This season: He's 18th.
And in a National Hockey League with Sidney Crosby on the shelf, with many good players but few genuine recognizable superstars, a return to form is needed by Ovechkin.
For his team.
For the game.
This and that
A quick conversation with Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero. "When is he coming back?" I asked. "Who?" said the coy Shero. "Arron Asham." ... When Clarke MacArthur scores his eventual 20th goal, the Leafs will have their first 20-20-20 goal line since Mats Sundin centred Steve Thomas and Jonas Hoglund 11 years ago ... According to Garth Snow, Trevor Gillies is "probably the frontrunner when it comes to community events or visiting hospitals and elementary schools. He has done great things for this community and Long Island." Great, get him off the ice before he kills someone and make him director of community relations ... The Leafs may not make the playoffs, but this late-season run is the closest to playoff atmosphere around Toronto in years. Appreciate it for as long as it lasts ... After scoring just five goals in the first 25 games of the season, the shockingly impressive Mikhail Grabovski has scored 20 goals in his past 40 games for the Leafs ... There are at least eight solid candidates for the Calder Trophy and the impressive Taylor Hall is no longer one of them. And a reasonable case could be made for Jeff Skinner, Corey Crawford, Michael Grabner, Logan Couture, Brad Marchand, Cam Fowler, Sergei Bobrovsky, John Carlson and P.K. Subban all being rookie of the year. Amazing that Grabner is tied for the lead in goals and gets no power-play time with the Islanders.
Hear and there
Funny to hear people argue about whether Toronto should have made way for the World Cup of women's soccer right before the Pan-Am Games in 2015: Talk about two events you'd like to go on vacation to avoid ... Never heard anyone say: I'm staying home from work today, there's a women's World Cup game on ... We're now living in Raonic Nation, and it's already out of control. There were all kinds of television and radio reports about Milos Raonic's Davis Cup win on Friday but almost no mention of Frank Dancevic gagging away a two-set lead in the Canadian match that preceded him ... What I wonder about the emerging DeMar DeRozan: Does he score because someone has to score on every bad NBA team? Or is he for real? Is he a Lamond Murray or somebody to believe in? ... What do the weather and Western Conference NHL standings have in common? If you don't like them, wait 15 minutes and they're certain to change ... Forty years ago Monday, I listened at night to a scratchy radio broadcast of Muhammad Ali's first fight with Joe Frazier. There was no live television or pay-per-view then. I believe it was the last giant fight not accessible to the public outside New York.
Scene and heard
Need to splash just a little water on all the excitement surrounding the possibility of NHL hockey returning to Winnipeg: I remembering covering some Jets playoff games that weren't sellouts. Winnipeg may not be a sure thing but it sure as hell beats Phoenix and Atlanta as NHL cities ... Another reason why the NHL is better than the NBA: Back-to-back games in the NHL are not treated as though they're some kind of personal hardship ... The man I don't want to hire: JaMarcus Russell's accountant .... If you know the answer to the question you know WAY too much: Who has the highest plus in the NHL? Answer: Adam McQuaid of the Boston Bruins ... Should Daniel Sedin succeed his brother Henrik and win the NHL scoring the title, the Sedins will become the first brothers to win back-to-back crowns, but not the first to win titles: Max and Doug Bentley beat them to that in the 1940s ... Worth repeating. The great Roy MacGregor's words on the state of NHL violence: "In 2011, it is the league that is gambling. But not on games. On lives."
And another thing
Aaron Hill began last season hurt and never really recovered from it. He is beginning this spring training hurt: That can't be a good thing ... Alex Anthopoulos' biggest surprise of spring training? How comfortable Brett Lawrie looks at third base. The Jays didn't project him as a future third baseman. Now, they're changing their minds ... The truth on Carl Crawford: He'd rather have played for the Angels than the Red Sox. "I heard they said my contract was way too much," said Crawford. "Then they paid more to Vernon Wells?" ... I liked spring training better when the ballparks were more park and less stadium. Too many big stadiums today ... A CFL rule that needs to change but never seems to get any traction: The no-yards rule. It works wonderfully well when the ball is in the air. The minute the ball bounces, all bets should be off ... The strange part of Mike Weir being all but done. He's only 41 ... Can understand that Chris Bosh's scoring would be down in Miami. But why would his rebounding totals be the lowest since his rookie season? ... Happy birthday to Shaquille O'Neal (39), Avon Cobourne (31), Johnny Musso (61), Cookie Rojas (72), Dick Fosbury (64) and Rob Reiner (66) ... And hey, whatever became of Doug Smail?
SIMMONS QUICK HITS
The problem with shootouts in the NHL may soon be catching up to the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings — two of the league's best shootout teams.
A change in rules this year means that shootout wins will not be counted with the overall win total of teams tied for the purpose of determining a playoff spot.
In other words, should either the Rangers or Kings end up tied for the final playoff spot at the end of the season, which is not out of the realm of possibility, then they could lose those spots because the shootout wins will be subtracted from their overall total.
The first tiebreaker is win totals.
It's funny in a league that advocates shootouts and counts the points, doesn't really count them when it matters most.
NCAA FOOTBALLIt is quite convenient to conclude that college football in the U.S. is scandal ridden and a cess pool for young criminals.
The numbers seem to indicate that, especially those from a recent Sports Illustrated investigation.
But numbers can often be manipulated to make any point you'd like. Take the case of the University of Iowa, where it was reported they had 18 players with a criminal record of some kind. It turned out, 15 of those cases were alcohol related, mostly for drinking underage.
Two others were for recreational drugs.
As a father of two university-aged boys, I know of several young people, good, smart, studious, ambitious, successful, who have gotten themselves into pickles with alcohol.
It doesn't make them criminals.
It's part of learning about yourself and growing up.
There are a lot of former hockey players walking around today wondering what will become of their futures.
This is in reaction to the startling news that the late Bob Probert suffered from a degenerative brain disease that would have lead him to memory loss and dementia.
If it happened to a winning fighter like Probert, what about all the fights that have been lost, all the punches taken, the knocks into the boards, the multiple concussions former athletes are only now discovering they have suffered.
And there is fear, there has to be, about what happens to them.
How often was their bell rung?
How little was done to ensure appropriate rest and recovery.
This is a frightening time for retired hockey and football players.
This isn't fear of the unknown anymore.
This is the fear of the known.