The next question is the same question…”Does he have what it takes?”
Different subject this time, though – Alex Ovechkin. But this one is more complex, because it can be applied to a variety of situations concerning Ovechkin and his role on this team. Does he have what it takes to be captain going forward? Does he have what it takes to be “the best player on the planet” once more? Does he have what it takes to be a winner?
The 2010-2010 season for Alex Ovechkin might not have been as obviously disappointing as the 2009-2010 season (when he was suspended twice, skated in an embarrassing performance by Team Russia in the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, and captained a team that was ushered out of the Stanley Cup playoffs when it lost the last three games of its opening round series). But it was disappointing, nonetheless. Personal numbers dropped significantly, nagging injuries, another one-and-done playoff performance. Not all of blame, then or now, could be laid at the feet of Ovechkin, but when you are mentioned in the same sentence that starts, “the best players in all of hockey are…,” then yours is the name that is mentioned most when it comes to underachieving.
Let’s take the parts of the question in turn. Whether by example or by personality, the captain of a hockey team occupies a unique leadership position among team sports. No doubt one can find instances in which one team or another might look to a player who is not captain for leadership (the Flyers and Chris Pronger comes to mind at the moment), but generally the captain is that team’s leader. And looking at successful clubs over the past several years (that is, Stanley Cup champions), there seems to be little doubt that the captain was that team's leader – Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina, Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim, Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit, Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, Jonathan Toews in Chicago. Young or old, whether by example or by personality, there was not much dispute over their being the leaders as well as captains on those champions.
Does Ovechkin measure up in this regard? Well, we are not sure. We cannot know what goes on in the locker room or in private conversations and meetings among teammates. His performance example certainly seems of “leadership” quality, but does he have the presence at this point in his career to lead by personality or by example that does not involve prolific scoring? Again, knowing for sure whether or not that is true is difficult, but inferences can be drawn. In recent years the Caps have brought in Sergei Fedorov, Mike Knuble (both before Ovechkin’s ascension to captain), and Jason Arnott. All were on the back half of their careers as productive hockey players, but all were veterans with championship pedigree and/or demonstrated leadership characteristics. It is not a knock on Ovechkin to say that bringing in a Jason Arnott this season filled a leadership void. Ovechkin might not have been (and might still not be) ready to shoulder those responsibilities. It begs that question, “does he have what it takes?” And the best answer we can come up with is that in retrospect, perhaps “not yet.”
What of the “best player on the planet” level of performance? Well, we are six years into Ovechkin’s career. It is an impressive regular season resume he has built. In 475 career games he has averaged 52-54-106, plus-15, per-82 games. His playoff record isn’t too shabby, either; better in fact than his regular season numbers (on a per-82 game basis) – 55-55-110, plus 29. But you could argue that being the “best player on the planet” means bringing his teammates along as well as putting up his own big numbers. And his teams have not matched his performance. Why? Two things come to mind. First, even with his prodigious numbers, the very nature of his position works against him. Among forwards, wingers are not as likely to impact teammates’ performances as a center. Even a prolific scorer such as Ovechkin has limits in the degree to which he can influence results through his teammates. Second, despite the numbers, there is an odd character to his performance. In 17 playoff wins in his career he is 15-12-27, plus-15. In 20 losses he is 10-13-23. No surprise that his production drops off a bit in losses, but the lingering question there is whether that is a product of better defense by opponents or his trying to do too much when the Caps fall behind, taking too much on his own.
The big question, though, is “does he have what it takes to be a winner.” We have made the point before that to be mentioned in the same breath as the all-time greats in the game, you have to win the sport’s ultimate prize, and with all due respect to the folks who sponsor the World hockey championships, that’s not it. Not even Olympic gold qualifies (mainly because most of the game’s all-time greats were not eligible for participation in that tournament in the past given their professional status). The Stanley Cup is the measuring stick, and among the all-time greats, they won that prize for the first time at a comparatively early age (most of them younger than Ovechkin will be next season when he tries for the seventh time to win that prize). This is, to date, the unfulfilled aspect of his career, and the fact of the matter is Ovechkin has two championships on his resume to date – one of them won at the 2003 World Junior Championships, the other at the 2008 World Championships. He has not gotten past the second round in any of the four NHL playoff tournaments in which he has participated.
Hockey is enough of a team sport so that one could say the lack of NHL post-season is not his doing alone, but neither is hockey (or any sport) fair in this regard. Ovechkin is the face of this franchise over the past six seasons and for many to come. If he has not won, or will not win a Cup, he is not going to be mentioned in quite the same breath as a Gretzky, an Orr, a Richard, a Howe, or a Lemieux. He will not, by definition, be a winner.
When the puck drops on Opening Night for the 2011-2012 season, Alex Ovechkin will be 26 years old and entering his seventh season in the NHL. He has accomplished much in his first six seasons in the NHL – the Calder Trophy, an Art Ross Trophy, twice a Maurice Richard Trophy winner, twice a Hart Trophy winner, three times a Ted Lindsay Award winner. But these are individual awards. Ovechkin has expressed an opinion that such things matter less than winning a Stanley Cup, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity.
But there is a darker side to this question that does not generally attach itself to the greats in the game. In 2009-2010, Ovechkin had a difficult season, reflected in suspensions for overly aggressive play, disappointing tournaments in the Olympics and the Stanley Cup playoffs, and what some might have perceived as a surlier attitude. These things happen to players. But this past season, there were questions about his preparation. Was he in shape? Was he partying too much? True or not, and we (and you, too, dear reader) don’t know, it is in the questions themselves that a problem exists. Would such questions have been asked of those other legends mentioned? Would they be asked of many of his contemporaries who are considered elite players?
We are still left with the question, “does he have what it takes?” To lead a team to success, to lead that team to a championship. Not only have the hoped-for results failed to materialize, but the performance of the team he is leading has been especially disappointing. It would not be unreasonable to ask whether the club should revisit the matter of who serves as captain. Putting a kinder spin on things, at 26 next season he will still be a work in progress as a leader, that progress hopefully leading to becoming a winner at the sport’s highest level.
But given how the greatest in the game achieved their championships, how they became winners (more often than not before they reached his age), the clock is ticking.