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.
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.
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.