Sports Opinion & Analysis

Alex Ovechkin as the Scapegoat of Hype

In NHL on February 19, 2013 at 4:57 pm

By Chris Carosi

NHL players just aren’t the same type of athlete found in other North American sports. There’s less personality, less “good” sound bites. Hell, if a player is mopey or even remotely upset after a game, the opponent team’s media automatically rips them for being “soft” or “emotional.” This is old school. At it’s best, the lack of personality or controversial sound bites after a game makes the game that much more refreshing to me, because the players just play and that’s it. It’s kind of nice.

The NHL is pretty conservative as a rule, and so is the approach of these athletes in terms of their own personality. The vast majority of these guys really do buy into team sports in a real way. It’s no surprise that ESPN has no interest in the NHL (and vice-versa): there’s no media heat coming off of it besides wins and loses.  There is little controversy, and very few, or any, players commit crimes. The NHL is the Fugazi of sports. Case in point: Alex Ovehckin’s passionate after-goal celebrations are seen as controversial by the powers that be. Yeah.

“One game at a time. Play as a team. Play our game. Blah bu-blah blah.”

For the sake of this article, you can think of Russian players in the NHL like a ballet version of the game, weaving between players and holding the puck trying to score on elaborate and beautiful individual efforts. Players like Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, and Pavel Datsyuk are dazzling in their ability to control the puck and move fluidly by sheer will into the attacking zone, dangling the puck between defenders and breaking the ankles of goaltenders. Ovechkin and Kovalchuk are wingers, and rely almost entirely on their strength and ability to shoot in the offensive zone while Malkin and Datsyuk, as centermen, combine offensive and defensive skills in both zones, scoring as much as they set up plays.

So, given the nature of the “Crosby vs. Ovehckin” dynamic, why was Ovechkin chosen at all? Crosby, as a centerman, plays an entirely different position with different responsibilities and different wrinkles to his game (and more pressure as a leader). Ovechkin, shoved into the role as leader and “rival”, is all muscle and speed with no real defensive game.  His defensive game is basically delivering crushing body-checks.

It’s fair to say that Crosby was bred since he was a fetus to be a leader and superstar, as weird as that sounds. It’s true. Ovechkin, with his abilities on paper (skate, shoot, hit, repeat), seems like an unlikely foil. He’s a winger: much easier to defend especially with all the hype.

Despite this article, this picture is awesome.

The comparison makes about as much sense  as Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. And by that I mean it only makes sense in Reagan-era terms: big, powerful, tank meets modestly sized hometown pride and hometown pride wins. Seriously, wasn’t Drago in a different weight class than Rocky? Cocaine is a hell of a drug. This is my point: it’s not that Ovechkin is worse or better than Crosby, it’s that they are in different weight classes, different stratospheres, of the game.

And unlike Crosby, surrounded year after year with quality supporting players and goaltending, Ovechkin has a clueless front office to deal with. The Capitals, who have never passed beyond the second-round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Ovechkin era, have been managed like a twelve-year-old playing NHL ’96. Instead of pushing talent toward the middle of the ice and stacking up defensively, they’ve created an offense with a one-note winger as its lead, with mediocre to decent players backing him up. And no consistency in goal. Ovechkin’s massive contract might put pressure on the front office to make hard decisions, and I won’t go as far as saying that he didn’t deserve it way back when. It’s something to think about.

“Let’s have a fair fight, gentlemen…um, given the seventy-five pound disadvantage.”

Washington’s attempts to bring the team back to basics with the hiring of defense-first Dale Hunter last year found Ovechkin feeling frustrated (despite still putting up 30+ goals) and the team floundering again: losing in the second-round of the playoffs to the Rangers. This year, new coach Adam Oates (himself once a very solid centermen) has a seemingly tissue paper squad, and an even more lost Ovechkin sharing a line with new linemates instead of setup man Nicklas Backstrom. So now, as the Caps wane into the background considerably, the media turns on Ovechkin, the unlucky leader of a damaged brand.

Caps owner Ted Leonsis. Just for Men equals hockey.

Ovechkin was never meant to lead. That was never his game. He plays hard and his talent in the offensive zone is truly one-of-a-kind. His shot is lethal and impossibly hard, like John Elway’s arm with the added torque of a composite propeller. His speed and power between areas on the ice (especially considering his size) is unmatched. His ability to use retreating defenders as screens while entering the zone is a brilliant innovation and shows his natural and superhuman ability to pick his shot. His game is not puck management or rallying cries. He’s not a noted passer or point man. He doesn’t have the patience or vision to set up an elaborate play.

The media’s recent turn on him is leftover from a forced attempt to make the NHL relevant again. For a designated leader in a non-leader role, Ovechkin is taking a lot of blows for the incompetence demonstrated by his franchise and the league. The media’s disassembling of his superstar status will only help him in the long run. As expectations lower, perhaps the Caps can begin to surround him with complementary talent and move forward.

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