Capitals coach Adam Oates wants people to see what he sees. Reporters, fans, ex-NHL players – the number of critical opinions dropped on star winger Alex Ovechkin seems to increase by the day from all across North America. Some of the barbs are justified and nuanced. Some of them are over-the-top and simplistic.
Just on Wednesday, former NHL player Ray Ferraro, a TSN analyst, was on radio in Toronto explaining that Ovechkin just doesn’t have a high hockey IQ. He doesn’t think the game the way other elite players do. Forget the specifics of that criticism. While there was a lot to like about what Ferraro said, for Oates the constant badgering has become a bit much. He doesn’t want people to miss the good in Ovechkin’s game.
“Because people forget that. That’s what people don’t see all the time,” Oates said after Washington’s practice on Wednesday when pressed about Ovechkin’s recent play. “Yeah, he makes a mistake in the neutral zone. Yeah, okay, it’s a mistake. But did anybody see the five hits that he separated guys off the puck? And that’s something that, for me and him and our relationship, that’s important to me.”
Oates acknowledged that the pressure is highest on Ovechkin. He has nine goals and 11 assists and his team is in 14th place in the Eastern Conference. His salary-cap hit is $9.5 million, tops in the NHL. People expect points. After virtually every game Oates is asked specifically about Ovechkin’s play, good or bad.
“Everybody’s accountable,” Oates said. “And [Ovechkin] too. And he knows it. But he also thinks that if he doesn’t score that he’s letting us down. And that’s not quite accurate.”
And there remains Oates’ greatest challenge as a first-year coach: Convincing Ovechkin that he can contribute in other ways besides scoring. Now, the Caps need that, too. You can’t pay a winger this much cash and not get at least 35-to-40 goals in a full season. But the days of 65 goals are gone. It’s an unfair standard. Oates has in the past compared the NHL to the NFL. Everyone has video and every flaw in a players’ game is broken down repeatedly and available for consumption. Ovechkin had certainly grown too predictable – hence this year’s move to right wing – but only five players have even scored 50 goals since Ovechkin’s incredible 65-goal 2007-08 season. If that remains his own standard he likely won’t ever measure up to his own expectations, let alone anyone else’s. Find other ways to contribute.
“I measure [Ovechkin] by everything. Look, I measure everybody,” Oates said. “Now – does he have responsibility? Yeah. And I want him to keep playing better because I don’t want [NBC hockey analyst] Mike Milbury to say that about him. I don’t. I don’t want him to make a mistake that Mile Milbury says that. I don’t. So that’s part of our process of me and him.”
If it sounds like Oates is taking some of this personally it’s because he does. That, too, is part of building a relationship with a player. You have to identify with him, have his sleights become yours, without blindly defending the player. The way Oates sees it, you can do that while still holding a player accountable for his decisions on the ice.
“For me, [Ovechkin] changed positions for this organization. And that’s already been forgotten,” Oates said. “Not to me.”
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