Originally posted on The Rangers Tribune  |  Last updated 5/17/12

This Week in Hockey is a weekly column in which assistant blogger Michael Spinner (@MichaelSpinner) shares and discusses the major storylines in the National Hockey League from the past week.

An ‘Ovious’ decision in D.C.

Just as quickly as the Dale Hunter ‘era’ began as Head Coach of the Washington Capitals, it has come to a stunning conclusion. Hunter is on his way back to Canada, the Capitals are in the midst of their second coaching change of the season, and the unknowns surrounding one of the most successful National Hockey League franchises of the last decade are deep and strong enough to snarl D.C. traffic.

A year after earning top-seed in the East for the Stanley Cup playoffs, there is no franchise in the National Hockey League at a crossroads the way the Washington Capitals are. However, fortunately for the D.C. faithful, the path to a return is clear … and should the Caps entertain another potential Stanley Cup run during the next season, Dale Hunter may be the man to thank. During his brief tenure leading the Caps, Hunter established a new identity for the Capitals, gave them a direction that brought the Caps within a goal of reaching hockey’s final four, and in his departure, Hunter showed the Capitals and their brass the first, biggest, and most important key to success …

It is time for the Washington Capitals to part ways with Alex Ovechkin.

This notion may seem preposterous to many of you, particularly those who follow the Capitals closely. After all, ‘The Great 8’ has been the face of this franchise since 2005 as he emerged as one of the most talented and dynamic offensive players in the sport. With Ovechkin skating with the likes of Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and others, the Capitals quickly became the greatest show on ice. Under the guidance of Bruce Boudreau, Washington simply overwhelmed teams with their scoring punch, regularly breaking 100 points while playing the wide-open, run-and-gun hockey that looked like a video game at times. Whether you liked the Boudreau-led Caps or not, they were fun to watch.

But as great as those Boudreau teams were during the regular season, they were not built for playoff success. The Caps’ formula remained the same for years – regular season wins followed by playoff disappointment … a Stanley Cup Cinderella during the winter that hit midnight once winter turned to spring. While the Caps were scoring goals in bunches, the rest of the league became more rugged, defense-oriented, and opportunistic on offense. As the grind of the playoffs wore on, the Capitals’ potent offense seemed to wear out, and the only time the Stanley Cup found its way to D.C. was to visit the White House.

During Boudreau’s final 1+ season in Washington, he tried in vain to install a more defensive-minded system, and failed. However, Dale Hunter soon entered, and despite some down times during the 2011-12 regular season, things began to change late in the season, and certainly during the playoffs.

The 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs saw a version of the Capitals that was finally built for a deep post-season run. With upstart Braden Holtby in net, and a greater commitment to rugged, defensive hockey that emphasized shot-blocking in a way that even John Tortorella had to be proud, the Capitals dispatched second-seeded Boston in the opening round of the playoffs, and was a goal away from eliminating the top-seeded New York Rangers one round later. This did not happen by accident. The Capitals were a tough out during the playoffs, tougher than they were at any point during Boudreau’s tenure in D.C. While the Caps still had the Ovechkin-led firepower to create offensive opportunities in bunches, they did not do so with a cost to their defensive efforts. The Capitals’ offense during the post-season was, for lack of a better term, opportunistic, meaning that the Caps saw defense as their top priority, and when goals were needed, Ovechkin and company were unleashed. The formula nearly worked as had the Capitals held on for six more seconds during game five of their series with the Rangers, they likely would have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

However, a big part of the ‘formula’ devised by Hunter was to limit Ovechkin’s minutes, to the point where he saw the ice only slightly more than a fourth-line forward until game seven rolled around. Ovechkin was almost behind safety glass for much of the playoffs, with a giant sign that read, “Break open only when a goal is needed” on his chest. Otherwise, Ovechkin was an occasional player on the ice … albeit still arguably the most dangerous offensive player in either series.

So, when the dust settled, the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs proved to be a rebirth for the Washington Capitals as a Stanley Cup contender, but this time, the Caps were a completely different team. In terms of style and philosophy, the Caps were no different than the Bruins or Rangers, and if anything they played better hockey overall than the Rangers during their second round series. Being that this new ‘Capitals way’ only began recently, logic will dictate that with a full season to hone their craft if, and when, a coach is hired to stay the course charted by Hunter, this team will only get better.

But the only way for the Caps to complete this particular journey will be without Ovechkin, as difficult as that sounds. Defense-first hockey clearly is not in the cards for ‘Ovi.’ Under Boudreau and then Hunter’s leadership where defense and discipline were emphasized above all, Ovechkin suffered career-lows in goals and points, and for long stretches during the regular season and playoffs, seemed completely lost on the ice.

Remember game seven of the Capitals-Rangers series? It’s hard to remember Ovechkin ever playing a game as poorly as what we saw on the ice at Madison Square Garden. Ovechkin was careless with the puck, useless without it, and almost counterproductive. Much of the reason for his ineffectiveness was a great defensive game by the Rangers, and a hot goaltender, but Ovechkin was terrible even in the open ice. By the end of the series, it was clear that a disconnect existed between Ovechkin and the Capitals’ system.

Of course, Hunter is gone now, so perhaps a new coaching staff will get through to Ovechkin, but Hunter marked the second Head Coach who could not do so, simply because during a Hall of Fame caliber career thus far in Washington, Ovechkin made a name for himself by playing creative hockey, and scoring goals for a team that did not play defense-first hockey. Now, Ovi is merely a square peg on a team devoted to the round hole … and with massive expectations created by Ovi’s reputation and a contract that accounts for a $9.5 million cap hit annually until 2021, it is hard to imagine that we will ever see the Ovechkin of old in Washington D.C.

All of which is why the Capitals should use this retooling opportunity to trade Ovechkin, allowing both sides to begin anew. It is a fact that without Ovechkin, the Capitals are a very good and very deep hockey team. It is equally factual that Alex Ovechkin is still one of the most talented hockey players in the world, and still very much capable of carrying a team on his shoulders, while leading the league in scoring. However, for almost every professional athlete nowadays, there comes a time when a change of scenery becomes the best thing for both sides … and it would appear that Ovechkin has reached that point in Washington D.C.

Why now? Because with a largely ineffective Ovechkin, the Capitals were a goal away from the NHL Final Four this season. Ovechkin had every opportunity to be the hero and lead the Caps to the Conference Finals for the first time during his career, but failed to do so. He did not deliver during two overtime games against the Rangers, and failed to score during a game seven when he seemed to play every other shift. Yet still, the Caps were right there to the very end of the series. This means that trading Ovechkin will sting, but certainly not derail the Capitals.

The time is right now because Ovechkin will bring a ton of trade value to a franchise seeking the final pieces of the puzzle for a Stanley Cup run. A team like Tampa Bay has a bunch of draft picks coming up, massive salary cap space, and one of the best minor league systems in hockey … meaning a ton of prospects. In sports terms, this is known as trade bait. While Tampa Bay desperately needs depth at the blue-line and a top-notch goaltender, they may have enough cap space and trade commodities to reel in Ovechkin, and still become a better defensive team. If not Tampa Bay, how about St. Louis or Los Angeles … two teams in the Stanley Cup hunt with built-in powerhouse defenses, but lacking a scoring touch? There are also franchises such as Montreal and Toronto who desperately need an infusion of energy, where Ovechkin could carry the franchise through a rebuilding phase the same way he did in Washington D.C.

Ultimately, it is hard to imagine that Alexander Ovechkin can take the Washington Capitals any further than he already has … and equally hard to imagine that the Washington Capitals can rely on Alex Ovechkin as their top player and Team Capitan any longer. Rarely in sports do we see a player of the caliber of Alex Ovechkin traded during what should be the prime of his career, but in this case it might be the right move for both parties involved … as well as whomever would be the recipient of Ovechkin. The question is: Do the Capitals have the organizational guts to make the boldest of moves?

 Other post-season musings:
  • Remember in 2009 when the NHL conducted a Stanley Cup playoff marketing campaign centering solely around whether or not Sidney Crosby would win a Stanley Cup … and then Crosby in fact led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup? There were more conspiracy theorists proclaiming a fix than during an Oliver Stone movie, particularly when considering that in 2009, the Penguins were still in financial distress, and the Stanley Cup seemed to cure their ills. Well, we now have 2012 when two of the NHL’s most financially troubled franchises – the New Jersey Devils and Phoenix Coyotes – have made surprising runs to their respective Conference Finals. How many ‘conspiracy theories’ will exist if the Stanley Cup Finals is a New Jersey-Phoenix affair?
  • What an enigma the Philadelphia Flyers proved to be through two rounds of playoff competition. After two rounds of play, Flyer forward Claude Giroux proved to be perhaps the best player in hockey … and teammate Ilya Bryzgalov proved to be perhaps the worst. At the age of 24, Giroux could be the best young player in hockey, and will keep the Flyers in the Stanley Cup hunt for a long long time – if they can locate a goaltender capable of making a save from time-to-time. Bryzgalov was supposed to be ‘the answer’ in Philadelphia, but ultimately spent the 2011-2012 season providing more questions. His abysmal playoff numbers: An .887 save percentage and 3.46 goals against average only told half of the story. Bryzgalov was downright terrible, and saved his worst play for the biggest moments. Had the Pittsburgh Penguins and goaltender Marc Andre-Fleury not been that much worse during the opening round, the Flyers would never have made it to round two. When it comes to Ilya Bryzgalov, it’s a simple dilemma: Bryzgalov is not good enough for players like Claude Giroux to be players like Claude Giroux. Giroux and a slew of talented players on the Flyers roster succeed when they take chances and push the envelope, but with Bryzgalov between the pipes, they will not be able to do that. And with the better part of a decade remaining on Bryzgalov’s contract, the Flyers may be forced to become a trap team, which will only stunt the development of the remainder of the Flyers’ roster that is as young as it is talented. In other words, Bryzgalov may not only hold Philly back by giving up goals, but he also may hold the Flyers back by not allowing a terrific young team to develop properly.
  • It was VERY refreshing to watch an entire second round of play where the focus was on some of the best hockey in the world … instead of some of the worst officiating. Whomever made the “enough is enough” phone call league-wide did the right thing because the first round was hockey freak show at best. Hopefully, the remainder of the playoffs will be remembered for terrific hockey instead of horrific officiating. As an aside, the Rangers-Capitals game seven was as well-officiated of a playoff game as we have ever seen.
  • If the Los Angeles Kings merely make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, Jonathan Quick has to be a candidate for Conn Smythe Trophy honors. While the Stanley Cup Playoff MVP generally goes to the best player from the winning team, Quick has been just fabulous this post-season, and very worthy of MVP consideration if in fact the Kings make it to the Finals. A Los Angeles Stanley Cup means an all-but-guaranteed Conn Smythe Trophy for Quick … and rightfully so. 
  • The hockey media needs to stop this whole ‘revenge for 1994’ angle as the New Jersey Devils face the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Since the classic ’94 series, the Devils captured three Stanley Cups, while the Rangers captured zero after 1994. Isn’t that payback enough? 
  • Of course, the NHL is benefitting in a major way by having all of its playoff games after the opening round broadcast nationally on the NBC Sports family of networks, but the league is also lacking something here. The Rangers-Capitals seventh game needed Sam Rosen at the microphone. The game absolutely lacked something without him. While it is a pipe-dream to think this way, in a perfect world, the NHL would allow local networks to carry their teams playoff games, while the rest of the country watches the NBC Sports networks.
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