Before the Capitals took the ice on Wednesday morning for their first practice session of calendar 2019, Caps captain Alex Ovechkin addressed his teammates, telling them he has chosen to miss the 2019 NHL All-Star Game in San Jose later this month.
Last month, the NHL announced that fans had voted Ovechkin as the Metropolitan Division's captain, but Ovechkin has decided that he is better off using that late January down time to recuperate and recharge for the second half of the season, rather than skate in the league's mostly annual pond hockey exhibition.
"First of all, thanks to all of the fans who voted for me," Ovechkin said after Wednesday's practice session. "It's a tough decision, obviously. I like to be part of all of the events, but I think that at that time of the year and at my age, I decided to take - we decided to take - a one-week break. It's hard, but it's better for me I think at this point."
Video: Alex Ovechkin on Missing All-Star Game
Rather than wait until just before the break to announce his impending absence, Ovechkin got out in front of the league's announcement of the All-Star rosters on Wednesday night, giving the league more than ample time to name a replacement.
"It's his decision, and organizationally we support him on that," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "I think the benefits from it are that he has played a lot of minutes, he has had a lot of wear and tear in the last year and a half, for the most part. I think that allows him to get the type of rest that he needs in terms of pushing us forward in the second half of the season. At this point he knows his body and what's best for him. I expect him to come back stronger than ever."
Since the lockout that killed the front half of the 2012-13 NHL season, Ovechkin has played in 488 of Washington's 496 games, and he has not missed any games whatsoever since sitting out the meaningless finale of the 2015-16 regular season. Coming into Thursday's game against the Blues in St. Louis, Ovechkin has played in 202 consecutive games.
One of the eight games Ovechkin has missed over the last six-plus seasons was a one-game league suspension for sitting out the 2016 All-Star Game.
The 33-year-old winger has skated a total of 11,248 minutes of regular season and playoff hockey during that span, more than any other winger in the NHL. Among all forwards in the league, only Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby (11,520) and Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar (11,348) have played more minutes of hockey than Ovechkin. Both Crosby and Kopitar are 31, a couple of years younger than Ovechkin.
Ovechkin is not currently ailing to any great degree, and he is not trying to play through any injury. Missing the All-Star Game is merely a matter of maximizing the rest opportunity available to him, and an assent to his age and the number of minutes he has racked up both recently and over the last several seasons.
"No, there's not an injury there," says Reirden. "He will be playing [Thursday] night. At this point, can you say he is 100 percent? Most players aren't 100 percent at this point; you can't really say he is 100 percent. But he will be playing [Thursday]."
The Caps kick off a three-game road trip in St. Louis on Thursday night. That game also starts a grueling pre-break schedule for Washington. The Caps will play a dozen games in just 21 days, a stretch that includes five separate road trips - four of them one game in duration - and three sets of back-to-back games.
"We've got some big games ahead of us here before the All-Star game even starts that are important points," notes Reirden, "and the Metro Division has gotten a lot tighter. That's what we want to focus on, and then have him get his rest. That sets him and our team up for more success after the All-Star break."
Since the beginning of the 2017-18 season and including the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, Ovechkin has logged 2,952 minutes, more than any other forward in the league. Since entering the NHL in 2005-06, Ovechkin has appeared at seven NHL All-Star Games, tied with Chicago's Patrick Kane for the most among all active NHL players.
"I like to be involved," says Ovechkin. "I like to be in those kind of games with all of the best players out there, but I think my body needs a little rest and I'm going to take a full week off and get ready and looking forward.
"Right now, my body needs the rest. I'm not saying it's sore or something, but for us I think it is the right decision."
Some years back, the NHL decided to mandate an automatic one-game suspension for any player who opted to miss the All-Star Game, so Ovechkin will have to sit out either Washington's Jan. 23 game against the Maple Leafs in Toronto or its Feb. 1 home game against Calgary, the team's first game back after the break. Ovechkin and the Caps have decided that it's worth accepting that mandatory one-game absence so Ovechkin can enjoy the benefits of an eight-day break at the end of January to help prepare him for the final 32 games of the regular season and what the Caps hope will be another lengthy playoff run in the spring of 2016.
"That's the situation that the league has in place," says Reirden, "so he knew that in making his decision. He addressed all of the players today, so it was done very professionally. He has been wrestling with this for a while, and it's a tough one. He knows the honor of being voted in by the fans and all that.
"It's not like it's an easy decision for him. He is thinking about our team and what gives our team the best chance to have success after what we did last year. Yeah, it's a tough one, but we'll decide what game he misses as we get closer to that."