Alexander Ovechkin is at a crossroads in his career. He is still the same happy-go-lucky Russian sniper who took the NHL by storm after the lockout, and therein lies the problem. When he was a 20-year old rookie, Ovie could fly down the left wing, turn a defenseman inside out, cut across the middle on his off-wing and bury a shot. Frankly, for his first couple of seasons, he had to because he was usually the best puck-handler on the ice. With the amount on talent on the Capitals now and Ovechkin getting older, Ovechkin no longer needs to be the lone gunman, nor is he capable of keeping it up into his 30s. Looking at Ovechkin's goals this season, one was a deflection, one was a rebound, and 5 were shots that came when he was in space without the puck, received a pass, and fired it quickly. This type of shooting should become Ovechkin's primary scoring method, as his cutting across the middle these days only results in him losing the puck.
Ovechkin needs to adapt his game to meet the changing reality of the NHL: teams have learned how to defend his rushes up the ice when he has the puck. He needs to use his linemates to carry the puck more and set himself up for quick shots, much like Brett Hull did. Hull scored 741 goals in his career and is a good player to emulate, since Hull was a major scoring threat into his late 30s, scoring 37 goals as a 38-year old in 2002-03, well past his physical prime. Ovechkin would likely also benefit from having another Viktor Kozlov-style playmaker on his wing for a season or two as opposed to a Mike Knuble-type crease-crasher.
Alexander Ovechkin is at his most dangerous when he is in space without the puck, especially when Nicklas Backstrom is controlling the play. Ovechkin should make a habit of not keeping the puck on his stick for more than 2 seconds at a time, as his presence in the offensive zone and neutral zone also draws defenders to him and away from his puck-carrying teammates.
Looking back on Ovechkin's career, as well as C Dainius Zubrus and RW Chris Clark played with Ovechkin in 2005-06 and 2006-07, they are not elite playmakers, and his ex-goaltender head coach was not progressive with his offensive scheme. Though Ovechkin had good scoring totals and lots of ice time, he was not able to meet his scoring potential. Even in 2006-07 when RW Alexander Semin returned from Russia as a secondary scoring threat, much of Syoma's damage was done on the powerplay (17 of 38 goals on PP) as the Capitals barely had a #1 center in Zubrus, a converted winger, much less a #2 center, auditioning C Kris Beech, C Jakub Klepis, and others in that role, meaning teams could and did key on Ovechkin, limiting his production to under 50 goals.
After Thanksgiving 2007, Ovie finally got two playmakers on his line to lug the puck in C Nicklas Backstrom and RW Viktor Kozlov, not to mention an offensive-minded coach in Bruce Boudreau. As a result, his production took off and he potted a record-breaking 65 goals and a league-leading 112 points that season as a double-threat scorer. He was no longer just a breakaway artist and stickhandler, Ovie was getting the passes, too. Another major factor in his huge scoring surge at the end of the season was the emergence of a legitimate second scoring line. The Capitals picked up a second playmaking center, Sergei Fedorov, at the trade deadline and finally got a healthy Alexander Semin back after he missed a chunk of the season with an ankle injury. In raw numbers, once Fedorov and the other deadline acquisitions got in the lineup on February 29, 2008, Ovechkin posted 17 goals and 30 points in the final 18 games of the regular season.
It was in the playoffs that season that everything changed. This is why they say "defense wins championships," defenders get to play the same opponents several games in a row and get good at defending them. Flyers' defenseman Kimmo Timonen wrote the book on defending Alex Ovechkin in that 7-game, first round series, limiting the 65-goal scorer to 4 goals and 9 points. Timonen is not big, standing only 5'10, 195, and isn't considered very physical (only 64 hits in 80 regular season games in 2007-08), but the mobile, puck-moving defenseman is an expert at positioning and ignoring the puck on defense. Timonen neutralized Ovie's stickhandling ability by closing the gap between them to almost nothing the moment Ovechkin entered the Flyers' zone, an uncommon and somewhat risky tactic, but extremely effective in this case. It took a little while for the rest of the NHL to catch on to this, and the additional trend which has seen the rise of team shot-blocking after then-Lightning Coach John Tortorella made it fashionable during his 2004 Stanley Cup run with Tampa Bay, the rest of the league began to limit Ovie's chances. Ovechkin still scored 56 goal and 110 points the next season, primarily with Backstrom at center and Kozlov at wing, still as primarily pass-first players, but sometimes with Fedorov and/or Semin on his line to change things up.
In 2009-10, Ovechkin was once again a major factor, producing a staggering 50 goals and 109 points in just 72 games with a new weapon on his wing and a more dynamic center, giving defenses more problems to deal with. The emergence of Nicklas Backstrom as a goal scorer that season made a huge difference in the space Ovechkin got in the offensive zone, as Backis put up 33 goals after scoring 36 the previous two seasons combined. His new right winger, Mike Knuble (29 goals, 53 points in 69 games), is the same body type as Kozlov and just as adept at digging pucks out of the corner, but Knuble is much more in the Chris Clark vein, a crease crasher with good overall hockey sense and ability, but nothing that makes him an all-star. Ovechkin scored 50 goals, but his linemates got 62 combined, meaning Ovie had more space. With a scary second line of Semin (40 goals, 84 points) and a revolving door of competent if not flashy centers (Brendan Morrison, Tomas Fleischmann), the Caps were able to keep the pressure on teams' defenses all game long, freeing up Ovechkin to be a dynamic threat with and without the puck.
Once again, things changed in the playoffs that season. Alex Ovechkin still posted 5 goals and 10 points in a 7-game series, but the Montreal Canadiens were able to do two things well that stalled the Caps' offense: kill penalties and block shots. The Capitals were able to adjust at times, but were unable to overcome the overall trend and break through the Canadiens' wall of willing shot-blockers and oversized goalie pads. The Capitals only scored one powerplay goal in the entire series, and it was Ovechkin scoring off the rush breaking in from the right wing, not his usual left side. Ovechkin was stymied throughout the series, he had with 34 shots on goal, but had 31 shot attempts blocked and 9 missed shots, a situation that got worse in the final three games as Nicklas Backstrom was rendered ineffective with a separated shoulder. The Capitals' lack of secondary scoring haunted them, too. Coach Bruce Boudreau elected not to use the veteran Brendan Morrison as his second-line center for most of the series, rendering the second line ineffective (Semin 44 shots on goal, no goals, 2 assists) and depriving the team of its most experienced playoff player for two games. The Caps also lost both games Morrison was scratched. The Canadiens' strategy has proven useful in keeping games and series close, but they are beatable: in 2011, they took the Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins to 7 games and lost the series despite not allowing a powerplay goal. The difference in the Caps/Habs series was a Game 7 goal that was washed out because Mike Knuble interfered with the goalie, which, ironically, was the difference in the playoff series in 2008 when Mike Knuble's Flyer teammate interfered with the Caps goalie in Game 7 but the goal was allowed to stand. Once again an opponent found a tactic that worked against Alex Ovechkin and stuck to it.
By last season, the Timonen tactic had been copied by top defenders throughout the league and teams have been blocking more shots than ever. Ovechkin has yet to adapt, still holding onto the puck too long and cutting across the middle, which was a major factor in his career-low 32 goals last season. Another major factor that delayed Ovechkin's production drop-off to last season, the emergence of Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble as shooting threats, also disappeared, as Backstrom had hand issues all season limiting him to 18 goals and 65 points, and Knuble was mired in a scoring slump for a large chunk of the season and was eventually taken off the line altogether. So, combining factors of Ovechkin being the only threat on the line, having no credible second line beyond Alexander Semin (who was injured and ineffective for 6 weeks, sitting out 3 of them), and the team switching to a more defensive style, was a recipe for a career low for Ovechkin in terms of goal-scoring, even if he was near his career-high in assists.
Brett Hull was much like Ovechkin in his early career, a happy-go-lucky player who potted 30-40 goals and called it a good season. He was driven to greatness by two factors, a coach in Brian Sutter who pushed him to really excel, and a great playmaker in Adam Oates to center his line. Once those two factors were in place in the fall of 1989, Hull had had an incredible 3-year run in which he scored 72, 86, and 70 goals, before Oates was traded at the deadline in 1992, plus 13 and 11 playoff goals in 12 and 13 games. He played to the strengths of his linemates, letting them do the work and he just got open. In 2001-02, at age 37, Hull played with another slick playmaker in Pavel Datsyuk, a very talented rookie, and a digger in Boyd Devereaux. He scored 30 goals in the regular season and 10 in the playoffs on the way to the Stanley Cup. Look at how he scored his goals, popping out of coverage and getting open for a quick shot off a pass while the goalie was still moving. The next season, Hull scored 37 goals and then he potted 25 more at age 39. He was relevant late into his career as a scoring threat because he was smarter than defenders, constantly adapting to new defensive schemes and playing to the weaknesses of opponents.
Ovechkin's "mid-life crisis" is a problem he will have to work through, but the solution is staring him in the face. He is more than capable of getting open for brief moments when a pass could get through, he has the size and hands to play effectively in traffic, in front of the goal, and down low, but also the shot power and accuracy to score goals from near the blueline. If he can diversify his attack, he can use his skills to his advantage once again. Who knows? If defenders start keying on his linemates more and see the need to play farther from Ovechkin, maybe those shots from cutting across the middle and driving the net will be there more often.Follow Andy Green on Twitter.