During the first period of the Washington Capitals' 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens Thursday, Nicklas Backstrom left a drop pass for Alex Ovechkin, who swung across the neutral zone towards the left side of the offensive zone. As he crossed the blueline, Ovechkin, slotted at right wing by head coach Adam Oates, barrelled into Wojtek Wolski, sending the left winger crashing to the ice and turning the puck over in the process.
It was not the first time Ovechkin collided with a teammate while trying to learn how to play right wing, an experiment concocted by Oates to make his superstar captain expand his repertoire, but through three games, that experiment has yielded no results. Though he has a team-leading 11 shots on goal, Ovechkin has not scored this season, missing a team-high six shots and having nine others blocked. For the first time in his career, Ovechkin is goalless through his first three games.
By the third period of Thursday's game, Ovechkin was back on his natural left side in an attempt to spark the offense after the Capitals fell behind 4-0.
“I know [left wing] is what [Ovechkin] is used to," Oates admitted. "I still think he should be a right winger but I also want him to be happy and get something out of his game. It was more to get a spark for him and get him going.”
Oates' thought process behind moving Ovechkin from the left wing, where he spent the first seven years of his NHL career, to the right side is simple: While serving as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils last season, Oates successfully petitioned to move Ilya Kovalchuk to right wing, a move that was met with impressive results. It took some time for him to acclimate himself to his new surroundings, but Kovalchuk ultimately saw his production increase by 23 points -- finishing with 83, fifth-most in the league -- and the Devils rode that success to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.
All Russian left wingers, however, are not created equal. Kovalchuk also had the luxury of playing on a line with left wing Zach Parise, who has proven to be one of the best in the world at his position. Meanwhile, Ovechkin has spent the first three games playing with a rotating cast of wingers, from Marcus Johansson, a center-turned-right-wing who has not adapted well to playing at left wing, to Wolski and Matt Hendricks.
It is obvious that Ovechkin has yet to properly adjust to playing on the right side of the ice. Through three games, Ovechkin has more or less freelanced, drifitng from side to side without rhyme or reason while shifting between looking completely lost and disappearing completely.
There is no question that after seven years of victimizing the NHL with the same moveset -- dashing down the left boards, cutting to the middle of the ice and firing a wrist shot while using a defender as a screen -- opponents have figured Ovechkin out and his declining point totals reflect that, but the Capitals, the worst team in the NHL at 0-3-0, simply do not have time to waste hoping that their superstar will figure things out.
For now, Oates' experiment should be shelved. At this point, it is better for Ovechkin to be predictable and contributable than nonexistent.
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