The man has received more than his share of hosannas. He has been called the Russian Evolution and the Great 8. Google Alex Ovechkin and spectacular and you get about a million matches. Substitute incandescent and that ups the hits to nearly 7 million, almost as many as scintillating. Ovechkin—dynamic, impish, sublime, fill-in-the-blank—does not defy description as much as invite it. He demands adjectives in the same way Bruce Boudreau, his former coach with the Capitals, lends himself to casual profanity.
Now the compliments for the left wing are turning lefthanded. After making Washington fall in love with hockey, after turning the nets at the Verizon Center into D.C.'s family friendly red-light district, after filling a den full of trophies and receiving gushing superlatives, the halo that once backlit Ovechkin's six-year career is in danger of losing its glow.
"Coach killer?" he is asked. "Have you ever heard the phrase coach killer?"
"Huh?" Ovechkin replies in the darkened hallway outside the dressing room at the Capitals' practice rink.
December 12, 2011
The question is repeated.
"No," he says. "What is it?"
THE NHL coaching wheel spun dizzily last week (page 116), a 33 rpm album whirling at 78.
Within four hours on Nov. 28, Capitals general manager George McPhee dismissed Boudreau and Hurricanes G.M. Jim Rutherford fired Paul Maurice for the second time in eight years. But even before McPhee met with Washington media around 11 a.m. to announce he had canned Boudreau five hours earlier, he sent a text message to his freshly unemployed coach to ask if he were ready to take over another team. Things were percolating on the other coast. Two days later the Ducks fired 2007 Stanley Cup--winner Randy Carlyle, a fine hockey mind but a coach who wears his players to the nub, and installed Boudreau, a gregarious fellow with a lighter touch. (Not to mention, for those who recall his star turn last year on HBO's 24/7, a mouth that needs the occasional application of soap.) McPhee and Anaheim G.M. Bob Murray both said their teams needed "a different voice," suggesting to some that the Capitals and the Ducks should have simply traded coaches the way the Indians and Tigers swapped managers in 1960. Trading coaches is virtually unworkable under NHL rules, and so McPhee hired Dale Hunter.
Hunter was familiar with several of his new assistants. He had fought one of them, Dean Evason, a former center for the Whalers, three times in one period on New Year's Eve in 1985, their own Ali-Frazier trilogy on speed dial. Hunter had also tangled with ex-defenseman Jim Johnson, who was added to the staff on Nov. 29. The Capitals' new coach is the only NHL player with more than 1,000 points and 3,500 penalty minutes. He was notorious for, in the words of former teammate and current Washington associate goaltending coach Olaf Kolzig, "playing to the whistle or through the whistle he didn't hear." Kolzig's description is a sly reference to the 21-game suspension Hunter received for ambushing Islanders center Pierre Turgeon a slew of one Mississippis after Turgeon had scored a goal that essentially eliminated the Capitals from the 1993 playoffs. Hunter—square jaw, piercing blue eyes, thick hair, a little twitchy—was Chuck Norris on skates. One of four Capitals to have his number retired, he already had been in the faces of Washington players for years: His larger-than-life image, in full stride, is plastered on the north wall of the practice rink.
Hunter, who for 10 years had been coaching the London (Ont.) Knights, the junior team he co-owns, arrived last week in his one, good-for-coaching-weddings-and-funerals suit, which is blue, and a green tie. (Owner Ted Leonsis's wife, Lynn, picked out two red ties for Hunter to match the Capitals' color scheme although the Herm√®s labels might have been lost on the soybean farmer from Petrolia, Ont.) In any case McPhee replaced a simple man who talked blue in favor of a simpler man with a blue suit.
"I don't think Ovie's a coach killer," McPhee says. "Our whole team wasn't going well. The change of Bruce had nothing to do with Ovie and everything to do with the way we were playing. Yes, he's the captain. He sets the tone. And when he's going well, we're following."
There is a corollary. When the 26-year-old Ovechkin is scuffling—he had one goal in his past 11 games through Sunday; he had not had a multiple-point game since Nov. 4; and with just eight goals in 25 games he lags behind his dilatory pace of last season, when he scored a career-low 32—he is equally capable of dragging down a team. On the morning Boudreau was fired, Washington stood eighth in the Eastern Conference.
Will the change matter? Ovechkin had thrived under Boudreau, at least for the first two years after the coach was hired in November 2007. The winger had an NHL-best 171 goals between the '07--08 and '09--10 seasons. (Ovechkin, of course, also had zipped along nicely in his first two years under Boudreau's predecessor, Glen Hanlon, winning the Calder Trophy and averaging 49 goals a season.) And Hunter, who ranks 158th in career goals with 323, certainly did nothing to stunt the growth of the offensive wizards he coached in juniors, including the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane and the Islanders' John Tavares. "[Hunter] reminds me of my first coach [Zinetula] Bilyaletdinov [at Dynamo Moscow]," Ovechkin says. "He's a straight-up coach. If you make mistakes, you're going to know it right away. Of course if you play good defensively, you have a chance to play offensively well."
Ovechkin had not been playing well offensively on Nov. 1, when, with 87 seconds remaining and the Capitals pressing for a tying goal against Anaheim with an extra attacker, Boudreau kept his captain on the bench following a timeout. Ovechkin responded to the snub by swiveling his head to the left and saying, "Fat f---."
When Ovechkin looses an epithet in an arena, it almost always is in Russian. This was in playground English. If Ovechkin did not necessarily plan to let the hockey world know his thoughts via intrusive TV cameras and, within moments, the Internet, he had not been shy about expressing himself within earshot of teammates. Washington tied the score and won 5--4 in overtime—Ovechkin set up the game-winner—but the comment, which Boudreau says he never heard, lingered. As Kolzig notes, "You read lips. I read lips."
The Capitals bumbled through November, going 5-8-1. In the final minutes of a tight game against the Predators on Nov. 15, they stopped skating in anticipation of an offside whistle, and Nashville scored to tie the game, on the way to an eventual 3--1 win. The brain lock turned into system failure in catatonic road losses to the Jets and the Maple Leafs later that week; a pointless Ovechkin was -5 in those three matches. The death rattle for Boudreau came on Nov. 26 against the depleted Sabres. Early in the third period Buffalo center Luke Adam won the puck, skated unimpeded from the corner to the slot and rapped home the fourth goal in a 5--1 Sabres victory. Ovechkin, purportedly checking on the play, was as animated as his statue in Madame Tussauds, a few blocks from the Smithsonian. This was life imitating wax.
Thirty-six hours later McPhee essentially told the nation's capital: Read my lips. No new lapses.
"We had a good relationship," Ovechkin says in the hallway. "Somebody thinks I want to fire Bruce or something. Of course nobody was happy with how we play. [If people say] I'm not going to play hard because I want Bruce to be fired, it's not that way."
Washington winger Mike Knuble: "People seem to be looking at Alex a lot, but a lot of guys were guilty in that Buffalo game. I'm his teammate. I would never say something like [he's a coach killer]. I would never agree with a statement like that. But maybe that [play] was just everything in a nutshell."
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik: "You don't have to love your coach, but you have to respect him. As soon as that goes, the team's done. I don't know what went on there, but it's pretty easy to tell stuff if you watch."
Boudreau: "I'm really naive. I always thought me and Alex had a good relationship. I don't know if it's true or not true, but I don't want to believe it. The proof will probably be in how he plays a month from now."
Adjacent to Leonsis's desk in his Verizon Center office is an easel that holds an oversized tablet of lined white paper, a sort of Brobdingnagian legal pad. There are lines and arrows and one elongated swoop on the left side that veers to the top of the page. That swoop, the Capitals' owner explained last Thursday, is Ovechkin. Earlier Leonsis had been diagramming a play for Ernie Grunfeld, president of the NBA's Wizards, another Leonsis property, to show a basketball guy what his hockey people wanted from their star. "Hard work, determination, adaption," Leonsis said. "Alex has two or three people on him at all times. You might not enjoy dumping the puck and then getting it, but that might be what you need to do to win."
A few hours later Ovechkin would go back to the drawing board against Sidney Crosby. There is an air of anticipation to their meetings, of course, but since their bravura displays in a second-round playoff series in 2009—Ovechkin and Crosby combined for 16 goals and 27 points as the Penguins won in seven games—Ovie versus Sid seems as dated as Athens versus Sparta. There is hardly any dissent that Crosby, even after missing more than 10 months with post-concussion symptoms, is the dominant player in the world. Ovechkin might have trouble making the case that he is No. 2.
The reason: adaptation. Ovechkin was the Russian Evolution when he entered the NHL with Crosby in 2005--06—a unique blend of speed, skill and physicality—but Crosby has evolved. He has improved his shot and scoring range. He has become a master at deflections. He has become a force on face-offs. Ovechkin, who topped 45 goals in each of his first five seasons, still draws gasps when he hurtles down the wing, but too often he dips to the middle and rifles a 25-footer. Undeniably the two men remain hockey rock stars. But Crosby has moved on to Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band while Ovechkin has never left his Meet the Beatles phase. Sure it's a classic, but....
"When Ovie came into the league the game almost came easy to him," McPhee says. "Like [Teemu] Selanne or [Alex] Mogilny, guys like that. At some point you have to start making adjustments because the league's made adjustments to you. Ovie's been guilty of relying too much on the outside shot and not going to the net enough, [the place where] most goals are scored."
He also has coasted, literally. When deigning to backcheck, he often glides, skating nearly upright, into the defensive zone. The feral hunger, an attribute that seemed to make the 13-year, $124 million extension he signed in 2008 a worthwhile investment—Ovechkin's annual salary-cap hit will be $9,538,462 until 2021—has been mostly absent. "The first couple of years, anytime he stepped on the ice he was full bore—go, go, go," says Kolzig, a teammate for Ovechkin's first three seasons. "I think he's gotten away from that. He's not looking for the easy play, but he's not taking the bull by the horns like he did. And I think Dale will probably get that back out of him."
In his second game, against Pittsburgh, the coach certainly extracted something Boudreau recently had not. Ovechkin backchecked on one first-period play as if his hair were on fire. He was credited with 10 hits. Ovechkin looked like a highly motivated student trying to impress his new teacher. But his once symbiotic connection with center Nicklas Backstrom still seems mildly disjointed—six minutes into the second period Backstrom failed to bury a sweet Ovechkin feed from the half boards into an open net. The Capitals, who "used to score six goals for sport," in Pittsburgh G.M. Ray Shero's memorable phrase, were outshot 35--17 and again lost 2--1 as they had in Hunter's Nov. 29 debut against the Blues. They did rebound last Saturday to give Hunter his first win, a 3--2 overtime defeat of the Senators. Ovechkin had the primary assist on the second goal.
"It's coming back," Ovechkin says. "It doesn't go away in three months or five months.... It's just coming. It's coming back."
Loose lips aside, there is a chance that Ovechkin is not the coach killer. The fatal wound could have been self-inflicted. When Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak, in the best two weeks of his career, stoned the Presidents' Trophy--winning Capitals in a 2010 first-round upset, Turn-'Em-Loose Bruce and McPhee, on the heels of consecutive playoff disappointments, concluded that a you-score-five-we'll-score-six mentality would never work in the spring. The team embarked on an identity makeover. The logical endgame in a quest for more structure was to hire a coach who, on his first day, said that he didn't "believe in run-and-gun-hockey." Says Hunter of Ovechkin, "I've talked to him.... Good guy. He wants to win. We need him to score goals."
"I've been most impressed with Dale behind the bench," veteran center Jeff Halpern said the morning after the Pittsburgh loss. "His feel during the game, his understanding of where the game is shifting and his being able to respond is excellent. He's probably not going to volunteer to do public speaking. But for whatever reason, when the game starts, he comes to life."
The hometown hero is back to make players on his old team care as much as he did, as if that were possible. He brought with him one blue suit, a proud legacy and safety-first hockey. For Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, this could be the yawn of a new era.
"I DON'T THINK OVIE'S A COACH KILLER," SAYS MCPHEE. "THE CHANGE OF BRUCE HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH OVIE AND EVERYTHING TO DO WITH THE WAY WE WERE PLAYING."
WHEN HE DEIGNS TO BACKCHECK, OVECHKIN OFTEN GLIDES INTO THE DEFENSIVE ZONE. THE FERAL HUNGER HE ONCE HAD HAS BEEN MOSTLY ABSENT.