As if he knew the question was coming, Alex Ovechkin smiled when asked what his new coach wants him to work on.
”On back-check?” Ovechkin said.
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Another season, another chance to find out whether one of the league’s most talented goal-scorers can seriously help out some more on defense. The Washington Capitals opened training camp Friday with new coach Barry Trotz, who says he’ll work – as other coaches have before him – to make the three-time league MVP into a more complete player.
If Day 1 is any indication, Ovechkin sounds ready to be a cooperative student.
”If you want to be good,” he said, ”you have to work on everything.”
Step No. 1, as Trotz had indicated previously, is moving Ovechkin back to left wing, reversing a seismic shift under previous coach Adam Oates. Ovechkin led the NHL with 51 goals last season playing mostly on the right, but his plus-minus was minus-35, and the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
”He’s better on the right side a little bit defensively, but his talent is on the left side,” Trotz said. ”And so if I’m going to maximize his talent, I need to get him on the left side. Now if he doesn’t want to adjust defensively playing the left side, then we’ll talk about maybe moving him back to the right.
”The stuff that he does on the left side, there’s no coach on the planet who can teach (it). If he’s willing to learn, I can teach him the other stuff.”
Trotz has more cachet than his predecessors for making such a move. He is Washington’s fifth coach since Ovechkin entered the league in 2005, but he’s the first to have head coaching experience in the NHL. Those 15 seasons with the Nashville Predators give him that extra bit of authority.
”It’s pretty evident he has a lot of experience,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. ”You can just tell the communication is very clear with what they expect out of us.”
Trotz made a statement right away, putting the players through a demanding series of conditioning drills that had everyone gassed.
”That was one of the harder, if not the hardest, Day 1 I’ve had,” said 12-year veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik.
Trotz said the line pairings for the first three preseason games might appear somewhat random because he wants to establish a ”Capitals culture” that has everyone on the same page. He’s also created a leadership group of a half-dozen or so players to keep a close pulse on the locker room. He has said he felt, watching from afar with the Nashville Predators, that Washington was a place where ”the inmates were running the asylum,” and he’s seeking to change that.
Forward Troy Brouwer said he understands what Trotz meant.
”We have to do what we’re told to do,” Brouwer said. ”And whether that’s changing a role on the ice, whether that’s changing a role off the ice, that’s part of what we do. And maybe there hasn’t been as much accountability as far as players to go to try and change.”
Added goaltender Braden Holtby: ”Most successful teams follow their coach. That’s why a head coaching job is such a tough job because you need to get everyone to follow you. … Our team needs to buy in. I think last year was a big eye-opener that we need to get closer as a group, and I think it’s already started.”
Last season’s disappointment cost Oates and general manager George McPhee their jobs. Ovechkin realizes that the onus is now on the players.
”It’s good we didn’t get traded,” he said with a chuckle. ”Right now we’re on (a) target, and everybody understands that.”