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.