Wednesday, January 24, 2007

More grit needed? . . . or better judgment?

Read Tarik El-Bashir's column this morning in the Washington Post on the Caps trying to add "grit" to the game of Alex Ovechkin. What came to mind by the time I finished it was, "right church, wrong pew."

The argument goes something like this . . . Ovechkin is a gifted offensive player -- a young, gifted offensive player -- who someimes cheats a little too much for his own good trying to get a jump on the offensive attack. No quarrel there. Anyone who has attended a Caps game in person can testify to the "peek" . . . when Ovechkin peeks back to see if a Caps player is about to get possession of the puck, upon which he turns and heads up ice. Trouble is, sometimes, the Cap player doesn't end up with possession, and it's a 5-on-4 in the Caps' zone. Not a good way to endear yourself to your goaltender, as one might interpret from Olaf Kolzig's comments:

"It's not blowing the zone to get a head start on a defenseman . . . It's not about cheating. It's playing the system and playing it right in his own end. He's made strides, but then he takes a step back. He's got to remind himself every game that it's defensive zone first. Because you win championships with defense. And he's the kind of guy who can help us win a championship, but he's got to be committed in his own end."
There is truth in this, but there was something in the comments of George McPhee that made me a bit uncomfortable:

"He's already proven to a lot of people that he's an elite player . . . But he wants to win a Cup. Our objective is to find how he can help us get there. Look at a player like Steve Yzerman. For years, he scored lots of points, but he really needed to learn how to play defense in order to win a championship."
I don't know that this is precisely the problem, or the solution. What Yzerman learned (and Messier and Gretzky -- also cited by McPhee in the article) is judgment. There is a time for flat-out, pedal-to-the-metal attacking, and there is a time to be a rock in your own end. The trick is judgment -- knowing what is needed in each game, on each shift. Yzerman, Messier, and Gretzky learned those skills and, more important, how to apply them in situations that called for them. Ovechkin always will be an "offense-first" player. It does not absolve him from learning and applying the discipline that comes with playing sound defense. But the trick for the Capitals' braintrust is not in just making Ovechkin a better defensive player -- that's half the battle. The trick is to impart to him a sense of what needs to be applied on every shift -- of being the kind of player who knows instinctively and precisely what is needed on that shift and how to apply it.

Yzerman is probably the best example of a player who learned those skills and who developed a sense of judgment to figure out what was required of him on every shift. It's part of what made him the leader he was, especially over the latter half of his career.


JP said...

I also see these comments as not only a challenge to AO, but a message to the rest of the team that no one player is bigger than the team and everyone has to be pulling in the same direction at all times. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the way things were run under the previous (failed) administration.

The Peerless said...

Absolutely. If the goal is the Cup, that can be accomplished only in the team context, with all the players pulling their share at both ends of the ice. You can't just mouth the words, "I want to win the Cup," you have to exhibit the commitment to the little things and even perhaps subordinate some aspects of your game to achieve that.

Steven said...

Truthfully, can there be any other goal for an NHL player than winning the Cup? Hanlon, McPhee, and probably to the greatest extent, Kolzig, know that if this organization as currently constituted has any Cup aspirations, that it's going to be with Alex leading the way. Perhaps this is their way of seeing how he responds to this critique of his game. The three of them seem to be singing in harmony, so I'm sure that this will not be something that blindsides him. It should be noted that when Alex was playing more responsibly in the defensive zone, the Caps were winning with more regularity.