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It’s time to strip the C off Alex Ovechkin

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Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin can lead the NHL in goals, but can he lead a struggling team? (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

By Allan Muir

The faithful will say it’s too soon to put the Washington Capitals in mothballs because hey, anything can happen when a team sits just two points out of a wild card spot and has six regular season games left to play.

The reality is a bit more cruel.

With two clubs — Toronto and Columbus — ahead of them and a stretch of lousy hockey in their rearview mirror, the Caps have left themselves with only a 6.6 percent chance of securing a postseason berth, according to the folks at Sportsclubstats.com That’s not promising.

But it’s not just the next two weeks that should be a concern. These Caps are a mess and one bad season will surely roll into another unless this organization is willing to make some significant changes.

Those are likely to start with the dismissal of coach Adam Oates, who has made a series of curious decisions while the 2013-14 campaign slipped out of his grasp. They should continue with the turfing of general manager George McPhee, the man responsible for, among other failures, handing Oates this sack of mismatched parts and expecting him to create something more than a fringe contender out of them.

But new faces or even a new direction won’t be enough to cure what ails this organization.

Its culture needs a reboot.

And that starts with ripping the C off the sweater of captain Alex Ovechkin.

There are 70 million reasons why that’s the tough call — one for every dollar that remains on the contract that pays him $10 million per year through the 2020-21 season — not to mention that embarrassing your franchise player is a seriously risky move.

But there is one very compelling reason why the Capitals have to do it anyway. For all his charisma and once-in-a-generation scoring touch, Ovechkin has shown time and again that he’s just not cut out for the role of team leader.

We all have a vision of what a captain should be. For most of us, that guy probably looks a lot like Mark Messier in his prime: a larger-than-life figure who boldly leads the charge, demands accountability from his teammates, and backs up his message with total commitment and the occasional legacy-building goal.

GALLERY: Top 10 NHL captains of all time

Not every captain can be that guy, of course. But a player doesn’t have to be a superstar to be effective in the role. Think Adam Foote or Brenden Morrow: solid but unremarkable players who set a standard with their work ethic.

Nor does he have to be the boisterous “Follow me boys!” type. Has there been a better captain during the past decade or so than the preternaturally calm Nick Lidstrom?

But there is one prerequisite for the job: a captain has to be able to lead.

And that tool is missing from Ovechkin’s box.

MUIR: Ovechkin throws teammates under bus; more notes

Not that anyone should be surprised. He was an obvious choice, at least from a PR perspective, when he was named to the role midway through the 2009-10 season. Ovechkin was the face of Washington’s franchise, a reigning MVP halfway to his third consecutive 50-goal season.

But even then the Caps knew he was a risky call. “It will be totally different,” then-coach Bruce Boudreau said when asked to compare Ovechkin to his predecessor. “[Chris] Clark was an organizer. If there was a problem, Clark took care of the room.”

“Ovie,” Boudreau added with emphasis, “is taking care of the ice. That’s what Ovie is going to do.”

What was left unsaid was that it was going to be a process, and that the Caps were hoping Ovechkin would grow into the role as other offensive wizards like Steve Yzerman or Mike Modano had done before him, that in time his new responsibilities would add a dimension to his game and make him a more mature player who would focus on putting team goals ahead of his own.

But it never quite worked out that way because Ovechkin isn’t about team. He’s all about Ovechkin.

A captain is supposed to personify a team, to set a standard the rest of the room will follow. Not Ovi. He broke ranks first with Boudreau, then Dale Hunter, over their systems and the way he was used within them. He went to the media with tales of locker room jealousy.

But those aren’t his biggest failings.

While he continues to pile up individual accolades — he won the third Hart Trophy of his career last season — and produce league-leading numbers like his 48 goals this season, he treats defense as something better addressed by lesser players.

You know what we’re talking about. There are performances like the one that inspired this epic Mike Milbury rant:

There was the legendary “controller disconnected” shift from last year’s playoff series against the Rangers:

There were others as well, all leading up to the most recent incident. This one came in Tuesday’s must-win game against the Dallas Stars–a game that ended in a humiliating 5-0 defeat for the Capitals. And Ovechkin was front and center in this disaster:

You might expect that kind of effort from a beer leaguer. But from the captain of an NHL team that’s on the brink of missing the playoffs? It’s beyond unacceptable.

And it provoked a stunning reaction.

“Ovi quit on the play coming back,” a visibly frustrated Oates said after the game. ‘[Ray] Whitney forced [the play] down the ice and it just goes to show you’ve got to hustle the entire time, the whole entire time.”

You can’t overstate how strong that statement is. But apparently you can miss the point.

Some interpreted it as Oates covering his own hind end after his team wet the bed in a critical game. I don’t think that’s it at all.

No one has been a bigger defender of Ovechkin during the past two seasons than Oates. He’s done everything in his power to put him in a position to succeed.

But you can only sweep so much crap under the rug before you can’t mask the stench any more. Oates finally reached that breaking point and basically said what Ovechkin’s detractors have been saying for years: He doesn’t get it. And he never will.

Look, Ovechkin is human. He’s allowed to make a mistake and have the occasional bad shift. But he’s not allowed to give up. Not in that situation. Not while he’s wearing that letter.

That’s why this is a pivotal moment for the franchise. Not in terms of a playoff push, but the way they set themselves up for future success. Right now, Evgeny Kuznetsov is watching Ovechkin to learn how to play the game. So are Tom Wilson and Dmitry Orlov. Next year it could be Connor Carrick and Andre Burkovsky.

Is this the standard the organization wants set by their captain?

Ovechkin has had plenty of time to show what he can do with the role. It doesn’t suit him.

It’s time to give it to someone else. Or settle in for seven more seasons of mediocrity.

  • Published On Apr 03, 2014
  • 25 comments
    SeanKeefe
    SeanKeefe

    Adam Foote was "unremarkable" in his role as a player/leader? Sure. All he did was anchor one of the best defensive units in Colorado for more than a fifteen years. His two Stanley Cup wins hardly "unremarkable" in any way shape or form. Contrary to the point made here by the writer of this piece, Foote far eclipsed being just a player composed of a strong work ethic.

    Rick in Huahin!
    Rick in Huahin!

    Say what u want, I love the way he approaches the game. Skillful, tough on all both ends of the rink. maybe, just maybe people expect too much. he does his part, give him a supporting cast.


    He would be my first pic if I was making a team to win a game/series if my life depended on it!

    PotsosSTL
    PotsosSTL

    How lame to see Caps fans defending Ovechkin, but how great for the rest of the NHL that they'll keep trying to build a winner around a selfish, one dimension player.  I'll take a guy that scores half as much as Ovechkin, hits forechecks, and takes over a game with his 200 foot game.  If a player game that sort of effort in St. Louis, they'd be shown the door.  Oh wait, having fun in Buffalo, Chris Stewart?  ;)

    Caps should get some desperate team to trade a 1st rounder and bounty of youth for this clown and build a REAL championship team in the capital.  Until then, they're never sniff the Cup.

    CalTony
    CalTony

    As long as this clown, ovechkin, is wearing the "C" the Caps aren't going anywhere. He lollygags around like it's a warm-up, and has decided that he is above playing defence. He is immature, unreliable, stupid- not captain material. Toews, Chara, Giroux, Crosby, those are captains; not this stupid idiot. 

    Jamesonian62
    Jamesonian62

    Muir knows that removing the C from Ovi would have little affect on the Caps' performance since their problems run far deeper than just laundry issues. Were it not for his long standing antagonism towards Ovechkin, I'd think he simply overvalues the role of captain in professional hockey but this seems like something different. This piece is nothing more than Muir using the teams failures as a bludgeon with which to attack Ovi yet again. Ovechkin isn't in goal letting in those soft ones. Ovechkin isn't on the blue line jumping into the attack. Ovechkin isn't giving away prospects for trading deadline stooges. Ovechkin isn't refusing to fire GM McPhee after more than a decade of failure. How will removing that C change any of this?

    Yes, Ovechkin (Russia) is very deserving of criticism, but he's no where close to being the biggest problem on that team. As the architects of the team, Oates (Canada) and McPhee (Canada) are much more deserving of your scorn. Why don't you write whole articles about them? Hmm.....

    ShermanRichard
    ShermanRichard

    Remember when the media was trying to create a who's better debate ... Crosby or Ovechkin?

    ROTFL

    Crosby: 2 Stanley Cups, 2 Olympic gold medals

    Ovechkin: 0 and 0

    jbber
    jbber

    "But there is one prerequisite for the job: a captain has to be able to lead."

    False. The prereq is he has to be able to communicate efficiently with the refs. You are depending on the increasingly outdated model of the hockey-illiterate fan base for your relevance.

    SteveMehlman
    SteveMehlman

    I've  never been a "fire everyone" kind of fan. And I've never blamed an individual--GM, coach, or player--for the woes of an entire team.  And please, don't tell me I'm naive.  I've been following hockey for a half century.


    Nevertheless,  Mr. Muir is absolutely correct. Regarding Ovechkin's "C":  Not every player, not even every great player, is necessarily a leader.  Former Capitals Yvon Labre, Ryan Walter,  and Dale Hunter were not stars, but they were effective captains who gave every ounce of energy on and off the ice.  For all his tremendous skill, Alex Ovechkin doesn't do that.  And who knows, with the burden of the captaincy off of his shoulders, Ovechkin may revert to form as one of the greatest pure scorers in NHL history.


    George McPhee has given Washington fans decent, entertaining teams for many years, but the string has finally run out.  Time for new blood and new direction in the front office.  As for Adam Oates,  I respect him as a Hall of Famer and a skilled teacher.  And who knows, with a different team, he might well be a successful coach.  But not with this team and these players, who clearly need more of a disciplinarian (like Dale Hunter). 

    MrSideView11
    MrSideView11

    The proof is in the game films....Ovie is a one-dimensional player.  One of the best slap shots in the game, but that's it.   Terrible defensively, terrible on shootouts (even Russia wouldn't let him take shootouts in the Olympics), he tears apart coaching staffs (Boudreau is getting the last laugh in Anaheim), and his lack of leadership and giving up on plays has become viral humor across the league.  The "Captain" leads the Caps with a minus 36 in the plus/minus category...Wow.    C Sick is a fitting article title.

    driller80027
    driller80027

    "once in a generation scoring touch"…I don't think so.  He scores on power plays.  Those of us who understand hockey realize that Ovi creates just as many scoring chances for the OTHER team as he does for the Caps when he is at even strength.  He's not a good player at all.  The caps should try to trade him ASAP.  He'll be in the KHL soon enough (Kovalchuk, Radulov….same type of players).   Datsyuk is a wonderful player….he is the once in a generation Russian.  

    Rule of thumb…never draft a Russian if a Canadian is available (Kovalchuk, Radulov, Semin, Ovechkin, Yakupov).  Build your team with a core of Canadians (see Blackhawks and Bruins).  

    Matthew W
    Matthew W

    Just because he is their top offensive threat and highest paid player DOES NOT mean he should be their captain.

    From his start in the NHL, he's been lazy on defense. The clips just further remind people that he isn't 100% committed to the team. He shouldn't wear the C at all. 


    Not a Caps fan.....but who on the roster is an actual leader? One who doesn't quit on plays? The one who the other players look to for guidance since that sure as heck ain't Ovie. Give that dude the C.

    Stephen H
    Stephen H

    Caps fan here, and we can no longer bury our heads in the sand about Ovi. He is a bit piece, an amazing bit piece, but you get called that when there is only one thing you can do well. My guess is that after next season he will be traded, but it would be okay if they did it this season. One problem, owner, Ted Leonsis is very loyal, and chances are George Mcphee will keep his job.

    GeoffreyHolland
    GeoffreyHolland

    I'd say go even further and trade him. Someone would be stupid enough to give up a lot.

    gotodd
    gotodd

    All true. I was a season ticket holder and gave that up the week they fired Boudreau in November 2011. Not because they fired him - those things happen - but because in the weeks leading up the firing Ovechkin quit playing - he actively tanked games in order to get Boudreau fired. It was embarrassing and laid open the type of player he is. I still cannot fathom how the alleged tough guy, Dale Hunter, came in to coach and let Ovechkin keep the C - amazing. 2+ years later and you have a guy with nearly 50 goals (sure, many on the PP) lugging around a -1,000,000 +/- number. Sure, not the best stat in the world, but it's not nothing. For a guy that could have been great, Ovechkin is a one-trick circus pony.

    J P
    J P

    You're a couple of years too late with this pointless argument. It was stupid then and it's stupid now. The "C" means absolutely nothing; it's glorified face-of-the-franchise window-dressing, nothing more than that. I find it amazing that so many people get wound up over something so insignificant as a letter on a jersey. I'd prefer to think that the guys (especially professionals) not wearing a letter are not so emotionally bankrupt as to be dependent upon another player to somehow show them the meaning of life or whatever cosmic path to in-game greatness that they somehow are unable to grasp without "leadership" or any other meaningless platitude that some like to link to a letter.

    There's a metric shit-ton of stuff wrong withe the Capitals, 95% of which starts with the coaching or lack thereof from Adam Oates. Add in McPhee's continuing failure to adequately address glaring roster issues and you can pretty much wrap a bow around what's wrong with the Caps. 

    Ovechkin has never, ever played any kind of defense and it's silly to think he's gonna start at this point in his career. If you wanna minimize that liability you can easily coach around it by not pairing his line with the bottom D pairing which Oates has done far too often this season. You can also mitigate this by pairing him with a center other than Jay Beagle. More offensive zone time means less defensive zone time. Beagle with his hands of stone and zero capability to generate offense does not allow for sustained zone time. Hence, odd man rushes against the swiss cheese defense that Oates' system allows. 

    Anyhow, on the long list of things that make up what's wrong with the Capitals, the letter on Ovechkin's jersey is dead last.

    Oh, any time you use a Mike Milbury rant (TROLL) to make a point, a baby seal gets clubbed to death, the baby Jesus cries, and you automatically lose credibility.

    Rick in Huahin!
    Rick in Huahin!

    No defense? The guy is a hustling, backchecking maniac! And tough! Part enforcer many times!

    thekels
    thekels

    @CalTony  So who should wear the C? Changing the jersey won't change the team.

    Matthew W
    Matthew W

    @driller80027  

    Yeah

    Federov, Kozlov, Konstintainov, Fetisov, and Larianov were utter garbage holding back the Detroit Red Wings. 

    thekels
    thekels

    @driller80027  Incorrect. You are basing this on just this year. Look at Ovi's previous years - he can easily score during 5-on-5.

    thekels
    thekels

    @Stephen H  They won't trade Ovi. He's the franchise player. Best one they've ever had. Caps are stuck with him.

    CalTony
    CalTony

    @thekels @CalTony  I wouldn't mind seeing Joel Ward or Nicklas Backstrom wearing the 'C".  I don't think they would give up on a play, or point fingers at their team mates and coaches. The Caps have to be patient and smart. They deserve a better captain.