What Does The NHL Have Against Its Greatest Players?

When Alex Ovechkin and his Capitals left the playoffs early, again, the NHL's narrative machine started pumping out some familiar and very tired takes. The stories are what they are, but why keep telling them?
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The Washington Capitals did what they always seem to do, which is find a way to lose in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. These losses often come against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a historical thorn so deep in the team’s side that it must feel more like a spear at this point. The important thing is that the losses come.

This means Alex Ovechkin failed to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, again. Failure is a hard and un-nuanced word, but sports at its core is hard and un-nuanced in precisely that zero-sum way—at some point, losing is failure and winning is success, and Ovechkin simply failed to accomplish his goal yet again. He couldn’t lead his team past Sidney Crosby, and he couldn’t lead his team into the Eastern Conference Finals. This doesn’t detract from Ovechkin’s brilliance, really, but it did put him on the wrong side of a uniquely grating tic in the way the NHL talks about itself. No league takes so much perverse delight in hating its stars.

And hoo boy did the takes come, just like they always do. They always do, in sports, whenever a great player loses. Chris Paul deals with it to an extent in the NBA, and it has come to define the back stretch of Dwight Howard’s career. Barry Bonds got a little bit of it, too, although the hate Bonds got was comprised of innumerable salty strands. The list of great players to never win a championship spans all sports, and those ringless superstars generally make for easy targets. But in a league so deeply focused on the team as the NHL, the venom towards those players is particularly puzzling.

Alex Ovechkin gets it particularly bad because he’s particularly good and particularly Russian, or perhaps because he’s so obviously non-Canadian. Phil Kessel, an American, got it bad, too, although now that he’s won he is more or less safe from this (and only this) criticism. Joe Thornton will be branded a loser unless he manages to win a cup, and Jarome Iginla is a certified non-winner. So is Shane Doan and a myriad of other all-time greats without a ring.

All of the aforementioned are no longer in the prime of their careers, and not currently labeled the faces of their teams. Ovechkin, on the other hand, is supposed to be that guy, which explains why he is still subject to the cries that he’s not doing enough to lift the Capitals to the promised land. It’s a boring platitude, flat and uninteresting and unfair, but damned if it isn’t sturdy, and reliably there when a team doesn’t win the Stanley Cup. How much does a star player need to do? Enough to win.

It’s true Ovechkin scored below his career average during this postseason run, tallying eight points in 13 games; he averages 1.12 points per game over his career. It’s also true that he attempted four fewer shots per game than last postseason. All that came against a not-so-good Toronto Maple Leafs team and a Pittsburgh Penguins squad with a defense corps held together with duct tape. We now know Ovechkin is hurting, perhaps as a result of a hit taken from Nazem Kadri in the first round.

Don’t expect Ovechkin to get much sympathy for that, or for anything else. He rarely does. Only five active players have more points than “The Great Eight” and the rumors have already started: can the Capitals win with this guy? The talk isn’t so much about what he does on the ice, because when is it ever? NHL commentary rarely stays between the boards long because those most eager to kick Ovechkin around are generally the least qualified to hold a conversation about the modern game of ice hockey, or at least one that doesn’t involve a diatribe about faceoffs or bone-crushing hits. To some, that’s what the league is supposed to be about; to others, who actually watch the games, those hits are just what hobbled Ovechkin and nearly sent Crosby out of the postseason. This reverence for the old ultraviolence seems odd, because not even Bobby Orr was running around trucking guys while piling up triple-digit points in a single season, but then that reverence has less to do with hockey than the ways in which hockey can be used to steer things back to what these guys always want to talk about.

The conversation, as it always does, circles back to what Ovechkin isn’t instead of what he is. For starters, he is substantially unlucky. An NHL roster is comprised of 21 players when the puck drops, something broadcasters and other stodgy hockey media types want to make us acutely aware of anytime P.K. Subban dances or Connor McDavid carries the Edmonton Oilers to the postseason. But once the Capitals drop out of the playoffs? The roster cuts come quickly.

The dichotomy isn’t so much interesting as it is painfully boring, which is fitting given the way the NHL seems to want its game to be played. With every new wrinkle the league introduces, the old guard of the NHL stiffens up like your dad’s ironed Oxford shirt. The only answer is to tone things down and tighten things up; the questions fade and fade until only the answer is left.

When things go well the dialogue circles back to role players and third liners. You’ll never hear more about Patrick Maroon than when his team is up 3-0, while Connor McDavid hardly gets a moment of air time. But when the tables are turned and the Oilers are looking to get on the board, suddenly it’s time for the Edmonton captain to show up and start earning his keep. “A good captain goes down with the ship” isn’t much of an answer, honestly; it’s just a cliche where some thought or analysis might otherwise be. But this is the NHL, for better and worse. The old answers are always and already there, before we even know what questions the game is going to bring us.

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