Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Top Ten Stories of 2010 -- Number 8: Oh Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

On January 5, 2010, the Washington Capitals named Alex Ovechkin the 14th captain in the history of the Washington Capitals’ franchise. He had already achieved much in his brief career – scoring titles, most valuable player awards, most outstanding player awards – and he was by that time the living face of the franchise. It seemed inevitable that he would, when the opportunity presented itself, become the team’s captain.

That opportunity was presented when the Capitals traded then captain Chris Clark to the Columbus Blue Jackets along with defenseman Milan Jurcina for forward Jason Chimera. The change in captaincy was stark, to say the least. Clark was a heart-and-soul guy with a reputation for leaving everything on the ice. He was a gung-ho sort whose physical skills had begun to betray him as a result of a series of injuries – shoulder, face, groin, forearm among them. By the time of the trade Clark was a shadow of the player who scored 50 goals over his first two seasons in a Capitals uniform, often playing along side Ovechkin on the top line. What it meant was that Clark was more a locker room captain.

Ovechkin would be a captain on the ice, and by that we mean a leader by performance example more than he would be a vocal captain. The change bore immediate dividends. Starting on January 5th, with a 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Caps went on a 17-1-0 run in Ovechkin’s first 18 games wearing the “C.” And you could say he led by example on the ice. In those 18 games Ovechkin went 16-20-36, plus-23. He had three multi-goal games (including a hat trick against the Pittsburgh Penguins) and six games in which he registered at least three points, including a five-point game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 6-1 win on January 15th.

The Caps barely slowed down after that white-hot run. After losing three straight leading into the Olympic break, the Caps finished the stretch run of the regular season going 13-2-5. Overall, the first season (partial) of Ovechkin’s captaincy resulted in a record of 30-4-7. Things were going better than any reasonable person might have scripted them.

But then, the Caps were bounced from the playoffs in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens, and as quickly as Ovechkin was praised for leading the team to the powerful regular season finish and the team’s first Presidents Trophy, he was being criticized for not being able to lead the Capitals out of the first round. After summer of having to stew over that misfortune, Ovechkin returned for the 2010-2011 season as leader of a team looking for some measure of redemption for their early exit. Again, his was a lead-by-example style, and he was fast out of the gate in applying that style. In his first five games of the new season he was 4-4-8 with a pair of game-winning goals and recording points in all five games as the Caps started 4-1-0.

The “example” on the ice, however, hasn’t been quite as bright a beacon to lead with, though, since those first five games. In 36 games since, Ovechkin is 10-24-34. He has not scored a power play goal in more than two months (has not scored one at Verizon Center all season), has not had a multi-goal game since his two power play goal effort against Calgary on October 20th (his only two power play goals of the season). He is 4-13-17 over his last 23 games and is on a pace to finish the season 28-56-84. Not a bad season, but Ovechkin has set a high bar for his performance, and this pace is well under that bar.

From the stands he appears to have been trying to fill the gaps by being more vocal and encouraging of others on the ice, leading cheers from the bench, and being more assertive with referees. And his performance, while not reaping as much as fans are used to in terms of results, has for the past couple of weeks been of the sort that might have one saying, “he’s this close to breaking out.”

Ovechkin is a work in progress as captain. The jackrabbit start to his captaincy, when the Caps won 17 of 18 games, probably did him no favors in this role. It made things look a bit too easy, especially when the Caps did a face-plant in the first round of the playoffs. But take away that 17-1-0 start for Ovechkin as captain for a moment. He is 36-15-13 in the regular season as captain since, still a 109-point pace for his club. He is doing something right.

Leadership is a subject bandied about in books, blogs, and board rooms. What it is and whether a person is born with the talent or can develop skills to learn it is a matter of endless discussion. Whether one type of leader is more effective than another seems more a matter of taste than science, except for this – if you are winning, in the marketplace or on the field of play, leadership is not a problem. The Caps suffered a profound disappointment in the playoffs last spring, and as the team’s captain Alex Ovechkin bears no small share of responsibility for that outcome. But 2010 – the year in which he assumed the duties and responsibilities as team captain – his team finished the calendar year 52-16-12, too. If he is going to get a measure of blame for the early playoff exit, he deserves praise for the regular season results, too. And for all of that, Alex Ovechkin assuming the captaincy of the Washington Capitals is one of the top-ten stories of 2010.

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