Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Alex Ovechkin’s MVP encore; Adam Oates’ effect in a full 82-game season; Shea Weber’s high praise for two young teammates; and how Patrick Kane can improve on a Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup.
FIRST PERIOD: Ovechkin appears poised for encore to MVP season
He is the reigning NHL MVP. He is engaged to tennis star Maria Kirilenko. He was the first Russian to carry the Olympic flame in Greece last weekend, and he came back with a goal and an assist for the Washington Capitals in their season opener Tuesday night, albeit in a 6-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
“It’s good to be Alex Ovechkin,” said Capitals GM George McPhee before the game, smiling. “Life’s pretty good.”
It could get even better, too.
Why did Ovechkin win the Hart Trophy last season? Because he put up 23 goals and 36 points in his final 23 games and propelled the Capitals into the playoffs (while Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby missed the last quarter of the season with a broken jaw).
And why did Ovechkin heat up so much? Because coach Adam Oates moved him from left wing to right wing, attacked more often at even strength and fixed the power play.
Ovechkin led the league in goals (32) and ranked third in points (56) even though he had to adjust to his third coach in two seasons, had only a week of training camp and no preseason because of the lockout, switched positions and started slowly.
Now he has a bond with Oates, after flaming out with Bruce Boudreau and not fitting with Dale Hunter. Oates even visited him in Russia this summer. He doesn’t have to adjust to a new system or a new position anymore.
“We know how we have to play,” Ovechkin said.
By all accounts, he is in a good place off the ice because of his engagement, staying at home instead of staying out late, and he’s motivated to be at his best with the Sochi Games in his home country.
“I expect that we’ll get a big year from Alex,” McPhee said. “He’s very confident now. He’s in great shape. He understands how we play now, and we can only hope it’s a big one for him.”
[Watch: Can Alex Ovechkin repeat as NHL's Hart Trophy winner?]
Yes, there is pressure and scrutiny, more than ever before because of Sochi. If he doesn’t produce like he did last season, critics will pick him apart. If he doesn’t lead Russia to glory in the Olympics, if he doesn’t lead the Capitals to success in the playoffs, he will hear he’s not a winner.
“But, you know, he’s always had that,” McPhee said. “He absorbs it. He takes it all on for our team. He’s the guy, and he’s accustomed to it. It doesn’t seem to bother him. That’s who he is.”
SECOND PERIOD: Oates can bring more sophistication in first full NHL season
It’s the same dynamic for the Capitals as a team.
Boudreau changed from offense to defense, then Hunter emphasized defense further. He wanted north-south hockey. He wanted to win through will. He was simple.
Then came Oates, a cerebral rookie head coach who wanted to defend when it was time to defend, but attack when it was time to attack. He wanted two guys around the puck at all times, and he wanted guys to get the puck with speed. He wanted to examine every detail down to the specifications of each stick. He was sophisticated.
Sophistication takes time. Sophistication takes practice. Oates had little of either thanks to the lockout – a week of camp, no preseason, few practices in a compressed schedule. The Capitals started slowly. But when they clicked, they finished on fire.
Now Oates has had 48 games to study his team. He has had a full camp and a full preseason. Though the schedule is still compressed because of the Olympics, he will have more practices to introduce more wrinkles – more faceoff plays, more regroups, more adjustments for more situations. He can refine everything. He can find more ways to get players the puck in places where they really like it, such as Ovechkin cutting across from the right so he can shoot from his off side, putting them in more positions to succeed.
“It took a while for the players to adjust to the system,” McPhee said. “But now that you don’t have to dedicate as many hours to that, you have hours to dedicate to other things.”
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The Capitals constantly talk about “two feet here, two feet there.” Oates wants players in certain spots to make certain plays with precision, so they know each other and trust each other, so they can predict what each other will do.
“When we execute it properly, we look really fast,” said center Brooks Laich. “We break out really clean, and we’re always making their team turn and face their net. We tilt the ice, is a way to describe it. And when we don’t do it, when we aren’t in the proper positions, it’s a bumbled puck in the neutral zone that gets swatted back into our zone, and it makes us look slow. It makes us look sloppy. Execution, execution, execution – the name of the game.”
Beyond execution, Laich said, is understanding – understanding how the system can benefit not just you individually, but the team as a whole. If you’re where you’re supposed to be, you have an angle to shoot or pass, not just shoot. If you push the other team’s defensemen back, your defenseman has a chance to join the rush, and you have four attackers instead of three.
“There are so many little areas like that,” Laich said. “I think as we go throughout the season and into the playoffs, those little details are going to be things that win us games.”
THIRD PERIOD: Weber is high on his young partner, and it’s Josi, not Jones
When defense prospect Seth Jones fell to the Nashville Predators at No. 4 in the NHL draft, coach Barry Trotz, in his excitement, said he might pair him with Shea Weber. Soon afterward, Weber received a text message from Roman Josi: “It was fun playing with you, but …” They talked and had a laugh.
Jones is going to be good. He is going to play in the NHL as a 19-year-old. He is going to learn from Weber every day and might even play with him at some point. But Josi is going to remain Weber’s partner for now – and perhaps for a long, long time.
“We’re excited to be playing together for hopefully … 13 years for me, who knows?” laughed Weber, who is signed through 2025-26, while Josi is signed through 2019-20. “Obviously it took a while, but I think we’re very comfortable with each other now.”
Weber played with Ryan Suter for almost his entire NHL career until Suter left for the Minnesota Wild as a free agent in 2012. They became the best pair in the league. They were so familiar with each other, they were like a married couple.
“Things still go wrong, and you still fight,” Weber said. “You still argue over things. But I think we got to a point where it was just almost automatic. You knew what to expect and kind of read off each other that way.”
Both had to adjust last season. Suter found success with rookie phenom Jonas Brodin and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. But Weber found success with Josi, too. It just took longer and got less attention because, unlike the Wild, the Predators missed the playoffs.
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Josi lived with Weber for a couple of weeks last year. They skated together to prepare for the season. Then came the lockout, and Josi went to play in Switzerland. When the season started in January, they just didn’t click. Weber paired with Scott Hannan for awhile. He didn’t blame Josi.
“Maybe it was more me than it was even him,” Weber said. “I wasn’t maybe used to playing with a new partner, and maybe it was more my fault than his.”
But Josi and Weber reunited and had a strong second half, and now Weber, not one for bold statements, offers high praise. Josi is 23. He has played only 100 NHL games. Yet Weber raves about how well he skates, how well he gets himself out of trouble, how well he moves the puck, how well he shoots.
“Obviously Ryan was up for the Norris,” Weber said. “He’s one of the best defensemen in the league, and I think Jos is going to get there. He’s going to keep getting better. Hopefully we can be a pair that people don’t want to play against and know that it’s going to be a tough night every night.”
OVERTIME: How can Kane improve and have shot at NHL scoring title?
Patrick Kane came into last season looking to prove something. He finished fifth in league scoring with 55 points, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP for his clutch goals and won the Stanley Cup for the second time in four years with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Now he’s looking to improve some things. After an off-season out of the spotlight, he came to camp in shape. Listed at 181 pounds, he doesn’t look like he has any weight to lose, but he weighed in at 178 pounds Tuesday morning and feels more fit, which should help with one of his goals: winning more 1-on-1 puck battles along the boards.
[Nick Cotsonika: Chicago rocks as Blackhawks begin new Cup quest]
“I still feel I’m at a young age where I can improve and make some strides in my game overall,” said Kane, who turns 25 on Nov. 19. “We’re all trying to get better, especially after a year like last year and with the team we have. It feels like there’s some special things happening. You owe it to yourself and the organization to come back, knowing you worked hard over the summer.”
One thing could help him compete for the scoring title: a better power play. The Blackhawks have been bafflingly average for all their talent. They ranked 19th last season.
“The power play hasn’t been as good as it could be or it should be or it’s gonna be,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. “So let’s hope that it’s great this year.”
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— More high praise from Weber, this time for Filip Forsberg. The Capitals drafted Forsberg 11th overall in 2012, and the Predators acquired him last season in the Martin Erat deal. The 19-year-old has size, hands and vision. “He’s going to be special,” Weber said. “You don’t know exactly when that time will come, but I don’t think it’s too far away. People are going to know who he is.”
— Who does Kane like to watch? Crosby, Evegni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk. Why? Not only are they skilled like him, they’re left-handed like him. “They’re similar players to myself and guys I can always look up to and take tips from,” Kane said.
— Michal Handzus came to Chicago in a trade last season and won a Cup with Quenneville, who once coached him in St. Louis. He did it even though he gutted through a broken wrist and torn knee ligament. He’s healthy now, but he’s 36 and knows his spot at second-line center is not secure – not on this team, not with Quenneville, not from game to game or even period to period. “Nothing is safe,” Handzus said. “There is no spot for me if I don’t play well. I play for Joel. If you don’t start well in the first period, somebody else playing. They gonna play. I think it’s a great for the team. You’ve got to earn it every game.”
— When respected voices like Steve Yzerman, Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford speak out on fighting, we listen. The climate is changing. But the majority of executives, coaches and players still seem to favor the status quo, and if the NHL and NHL Players’ Association didn’t act after the deaths of Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien in 2011, are they going to act now that George Parros fell on his face? Doubtful. Here’s Edmonton Oilers exec Kevin Lowe after a board of governors meeting that year: “Over the years, there has been a great deal of discussion about it, whether it’s necessary, and I think enough hockey people believe that it’s still necessary.”
— New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault normally keeps conversations with players private, but he wanted to share one he had Wednesday with center Dominic Moore, who didn’t play last season after his wife, Katie, died of cancer. Vigneault told Moore how pleased he was with his conditioning and timing in training camp and the preseason. “As he played, the better he got,” Vigneault said. “I still don’t think his game is where it can be – and he felt the same way – but where it is now after not having played a year is very impressive."
— Welcome back to the NHL, Patrick Roy. We missed you.
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