Ovechkin 700: Opponents helpless vs. NHL’s best goal-scorer

WASHINGTON — Alex Ovechkin arrived in Washington in the summer of 2005 wearing mismatched flip flops and Daisy Duke shorts. He looked like a lost tourist.

Ovechkin went No. 1 in the draft and was touted as a can’t-miss prospect, but Capitals teammates wondered aloud if this guy really was supposed to be the new face of the franchise, much less an elite player.

A decade and a half later, Ovechkin is the grinning, gap-toothed face of NHL goal-scoring, much to the continued bewilderment of his opponents.

The big Russian left winger is on the verge of becoming just the eighth player to score 700 career goals thanks to a once-in-a-generation combination of physicality, power and a unique shot that has made him nearly impossible to stop.

”He just can score from anywhere,” Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano said. ”You sort of think teams would come up with a game plan to stop him, but you can’t.”

No game plan has worked. Like the cutter flustered batters knew was coming from New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, Ovechkin comes at goaltenders and defensemen with the same relentless, masterful approach – and the numbers keep climbing.

Ovechkin has never scored fewer than 32 goals in a season, and his 11 seasons of 40 or more trails only Wayne Gretzky for the most in league history. He has averaged 0.5 goal every playoff game, 10th-best all time, and contributed to winning the Stanley Cup and postseason MVP honors in 2018.

A dozen goaltenders and defenders who have tried to contain Ovechkin described the task to The Associated Press as his milestone approached.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

”Whatever small inch you give him, he’s going to find a way to throw it through your legs from the blue line top cheese and you’re like, ‘What the heck just happened?”’ said Colorado forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who faced Ovechkin in the 2018 final with Vegas. ”Maybe you’re thinking your goalie should have it and you look at the replay like, ‘OK, that was a heck of a shot.’ … It’s just that at any time in a game he can have an off night and out of nowhere, boom, he can have a hat trick.”

Bellemare made that observation just days before Ovechkin had no shots with six minutes left against Los Angeles. He then scored once to tie it, a second time to give Washington the lead and a third into an empty net to seal another win.

Those were goal Nos. 696, 697 and 698.

PROLIFIC SNIPER

Ovechkin’s job from day one has been to shoot the puck as much as possible. He has an NHL-best 5,483 shots since 2005-06. No other player has 4,000. Ovechkin’s stick – an open blade with a big curve at the toe – and how he releases a shot also puts him in a class of his own.

”His puck flies not straight,” said Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has allowed nine goals to Ovechkin. ”It’s kind of changing direction every time, so it’s pretty hard to stop for a goalie. It’s like knuckleball.”

A knucklepuck with a 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker’s strength behind it. It’s not just Ovechkin’s release but how the puck feels when it gets on net.

”His shot is absolutely a rocket or missile,” said Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, who has given up six of Ovechkin’s goals. ”He shoots from anywhere and he shoots it hard and heavy.”

LETHAL SPEED

Ovechkin has made a living – roughly $113 million so far with another contract expected to start in 2021-22 – by not only making goalies but the league’s best defensive defensemen miss. Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty believes the only way to slow Ovechkin down is to get in his face in the neutral zone before he can pick up steam.

Problem is, even at 34 and past the prime of most scorers, Ovechkin still has the lower-body strength and footspeed to glide around opponents like they’re pylons.

”He still has that ability from when he was younger to beat you one-on-one, so you can’t just play the shot or you can’t just back off,” said Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole, who battled Ovechkin for years as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. ”You’re in a bit of a quagmire when you’re playing against him just because there’s so many ways that he can beat you and he is so good, he’s so good at cutting to the middle, too, on his off side and letting these pucks go through traffic.”

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION

There is no safe area when it comes to defending Ovechkin.

”He can make moves and shoot from anywhere and it can go in,” Kings forward Trevor Lewis said. ”Most guys, if you keep them to the outside and they’re shooting, they’re not going to bury it every time. But it seems like every shot he takes, it’s got a chance to go in.”

Connor Hellebuyck vividly remembers his first encounter with Ovechkin as a rookie. The Winnipeg goaltender felt like the scene played out in slow motion before the puck barely stayed out, but he allowed two goals to Ovechkin in a game a couple of years later.

”He came down and ripped what looked like a little snap shot from the top of the circle,” Hellebuyck recalled. ”It came off so heavy and I got such a good beat on it, but I was able to watch it completely pass me and I missed it.”

OVI’S OFFICE

It’s the elephant in the room. Everyone knows, at some point, Ovechkin will rifle a blazing one-timer from the left faceoff circle on the power play. It is telegraphed almost every time, and yet it has proven to be one of the most potent shots in the history of the sport.

”It’s sometimes hard to get it by a shot-blocker but sometimes it’s easy,” Doughty said. ”And he’s going to be able to get it by one way or the other. You just have to be on the same page as your goalie to be able to make the save or make the block. We all know it’s coming, but that shot’s so good.”

Ovechkin on the power play is such an institution that teammates told Bellemare when he entered the league not to try to chase him on the penalty kill and look like a fool. Bellemare is in awe of how much opponents can focus on him and still end up watching him celebrate another goal.

”We watch video, we study, but still, it keeps happening,” he said. ”This is what it is. Everybody’s trying to play their best game when we meet that guy, and still he finds a way to go through you. This is what is unbelievable.”

Ovechkin last season became the oldest player to lead the NHL in goals since Phil Esposito in 1974-75. He refuses to reflect on his accomplishments until he hangs up his skates.

”I’m still playing,” Ovechkin said. ”After career, yeah, I’m pretty sure me and my family and my friends are gonna talk about it. But now, we, and me personally, I’m gonna try to concentrate about just go out there and do my job.”

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    Stars sign 41-goal scorer Jason Robertson to 4-year, $31M deal

    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
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    FRISCO, Texas — Jason Robertson signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp.

    The Stars announced the deal after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    Robertson turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when the left wing had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. His 13 power-play goals led the team. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    “Jason is an integral part of the present and future of our team and we’re thrilled to have him for the next four years,” general manager Jim Nill said.

    A second-round draft pick (39th overall) by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. The 6-foot-3 California native had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    “Since he was drafted by our organization, he has worked tirelessly to become a better player every day. His knack for scoring goals and seeing plays develop on the ice are just some of the tremendous assets that he brings to our team,” Nill said. “He is one of the best young players in the NHL, and we look forward to seeing him continue to progress.”

    Robertson had the second-highest point total for a Stars rookie in 2020-21, when he had 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in his 51 games.

    Before the start of this season’s camp, new coach Pete DeBoer said he looked forward to coaching Robertson.

    “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here,” DeBoer said then. “So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Robertson will finally be there now.

    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

    The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

    “This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

    LAMBERT ISLAND

    Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

    The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

    Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

    The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

    Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

    “He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.