Theme: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”
-- John Greenleaf Whittier
Last year was a “might have been” season for Alex Ovechkin. The two-time reigning Hart Trophy winner had the stars in his sky aligned for what might have been a season for the ages. The most compelling force in the NHL and perhaps its most market-friendly would see his Washington Capitals mentioned often as contenders for the Stanley Cup. He would be named the 14th captain in Capitals history (and first European). He would be the centerpiece of a Team Russia squad that would be among the favorites for an Olympic gold medal. And he could have been the only the third player in NHL history to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player three times in succession, joining Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr.
To say that 2009-2010 was a disappointment would be an understatement. His reputation took a hit after serving a pair of two-game suspensions for hits on Chicago’s Brian Campbell and Carolina’s Tim Gleason. He missed six games to a shoulder injury, the first significant injury of his career (although he was also injured in his hit on Gleason, a knee-on-knee collision). His Team Russia lost in embarrassing fashion to Team Canada in a quarterfinal round game, denied a medal of any kind. During those Olympics his reputation took further abuse as a result of a perceived surly attitude toward the press. His Capitals were bounced in stunning fashion in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens after taking a 3-1 lead in games. And, despite finishing the year with his best points-per-game average of his five-year career, he did not win that third consecutive Hart Trophy.
It is easy to forget that Ovechkin was on a pace for a 57-67-124, plus-51 season. That despite missing those ten games he still finished one goal away from his third consecutive Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer. That despite missing those ten games he still finished sixth in assists (second among wingers) and ahead of Sidney Crosby (in nine fewer games played). That he still finished fourth in game-winning goals. That he still finished in the top-20 in hits among forwards. That he still won the Ted Lindsay Award as the league’s outstanding player as voted on by the players, only the third player to win that honor in three consecutive years (including when it was awarded as the Lester B. Pearson Award) since the award was established in 1971. That he was 30-4-7 as captain after taking over from Chris Clark when the latter was traded to Columbus.
We have droned on and on about Ovechkin’s consistency since he came into the league, but last season he might have topped himself. In 72 games he was held without a point in consecutive games only twice and on neither occasion for more than two games in succession. If you went to see him play in person you had about a one-in-two chance of seeing him score a goal (35 games out of 72). Only once all season did he have as many as two consecutive games on the minus side of the ledger.
For all the grief he took for his teams’ lack of success in the Olympics and the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ovechkin finished second among the Russians in scoring in the Vancouver Olympics; and he was 5-5-10, plus-5 in seven games in the Montreal playoff series, the second best points per game mark in the post season.
Still, given the possibilities this year offered, by the standards of performance Ovechkin has set for himself, it had to be looked at as a disappointment.
Fearless: In 28 post season games to date, Ovechkin is 20-20-40, plus-14. That works out to a 59-59-118, plus 41 82-game pace, just for comparison. For all the negative press he got last year for being a dirty player and out of control, he was not whistled for a single penalty minute in the playoffs. He showed he could respond to a punch in the nose – after being held without a shot in Game 1 against the Canadiens, he came back went 1-3-4, plus three in Game 2.
Cheerless: In four Games 7 in his post-season career Ovechkin has two goals on 27 shots (7.4 percent shooting percentage). In 24 other playoff games he has 18 goals on 134 shots (13.4 percent).
In the end…
In 25 games against Eastern Conference teams that made the playoffs last year Ovechkin finished 20-22-42, plus-31. That is not a typo. That is a 66-72-138, plus-101 pace over 82 games. He isn’t puffing up his numbers against the also rans in the league. But the reputation of great players isn’t built on gaudy regular season statistics. In 1998 The Hockey News compiled a list of the 100 greatest NHL players. The top 25 players on that list have a total of 100 Stanley Cups among them. Of that group 21 players have multiple championships. None are without at least one Stanley Cup.
This is now the standard of comparison for Alex Ovechkin. Is he among the greats to play the game? To answer that question in the affirmative, he is going to have to add a Stanley Cup to his resume. Part of that, we maintain, is the ability of those in the front office to surround him with a capable supporting cast. It happened for Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh; it happened for Patrick Kane in Chicago. There is certainly a capable supporting cast in Washington, even with the holes that many think exist on this team. Ovechkin is the Captain, the lightning rod for all that happens – good and bad – for this, his team.
Ovechkin is entering what should be the prime of his career. But it is worth noting that Wayne Gretzky did not win a Stanley Cup after the age of 27. Mario Lemieux did not win one after the age of 26. While it is certainly possible to win a first Stanley Cup after reaching 30 (Steve Yzerman) or even after reaching 40 (Raymond Bourque), the point is that it all goes by so fast, too. And before you know it, one might be left to ponder what might have been.
80 games, 57-58-115, +36