When the Capitals reconvened for training camp last fall, general manager Brian MacLellan reeled off the names of players he thought "could take their games to another level." Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson were all mentioned. The list seemed appropriate with all three players in their early-mid 20s and perhaps just entering their prime.
Although few could have predicted it at the time, it turns out that a 33-year-old MVP entering his 14th season also had 'another level'. At an age when most superstars see a natural dip in production, Alex Ovechkin is enjoying one of the best years of his NHL career.
"He came back after winning the Stanley Cup and he was ready to go from Day One," says head coach Todd Reirden. "He hasn't stopped since. I have so much credit and praise for him for what he's done."
Simply put, Ovechkin is enjoying a season for the ages. While Hall-of-Famers Mike Bossy, Pavel Bure, and Bobby Orr were all retired by the time they turned 33 and others like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier began their gradual declines at 33, Ovechkin is seemingly getting better.
After pushing himself to the brink and reaching the pinnacle of his career last spring, Ovechkin could have eased his way into the 2018-19 season. Instead, he has picked up where he left off last June- scoring goals in bunches and impressing at both ends of the ice.
"His overall game is as a good as it's ever been," says MacLellan. "He showed up on the first day of camp with a good attitude and he hasn't shown any hints of 'hangover', or fatigue or contentment. He had a lot of fun last year and he wants to do it again."
Ovechkin came into the season in shape and ready to work. According to his teammates, Ovechkin looked lighter. Then again, that could have just been from the 800-pound gorilla lifted off his back. But with the mounting pressure to win the Stanley Cup released last spring, Ovechkin has been at ease this season.
"I feel looser," Ovechkin says. "With a championship, it's a whole different atmosphere. Even in the locker room. We know what we're capable of - maybe before we also knew what we were capable of, but now we know how to play hockey. We know how to play championship hockey."
As the Capitals dealt with injuries and suspension to start the season, the defending Cup champs climbed atop the Metropolitan Division thanks in large part to Ovechkin, their first half MVP.
Not only did Ovechkin reach the midpoint of the season as the NHL's goal-scoring leader, but along the way, the Capitals' captain continued to hone his all-around game.
"At his age," says Reirden, "to continue to get better, after the way he's played the game with such a physical presence, it's not easy. He's been great in our room, the leadership has really stepped up for me, the best I've seen him lead in our room in the regular season and just his overall play is following right along with it. I know some other years, statistically have been better, but for me it's the best two-way hockey that he's played."
Reirden credits Ovechkin for seizing an opportunity early this year. The offseason departure of defensive stalwart Jay Beagle, combined with early-season absences of Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie, left Reirden searching for options of who to deploy in late-game situations when protecting a lead.
Reirden challenged Ovechkin with the extra workload.
"It's up to you to determine where you go from here," he told Ovechkin. "You can pay the price and get pucks out on the wall and block shots and do some of those things that aren't so fun, but in turn you may have an opportunity to score into an empty net and help us win."
With the added responsibilities, Ovechkin has also seen more ice time. Through Jan.11, Ovechkin was skating just over 21 minutes per game for the first time since 2010-11.
"It's part of his growth," says Reirden. "It's amazing to talk about growth with a guy that's had the career that he's had, that he can still find ways to improve. I've got a lot of time for that type of person and that type of character."
Although Ovechkin has embraced and handled the added defensive responsibilities, it has not come at the expense of his goal scoring. Ovechkin's 32 goals in 43 games are tops in the league through Jan.11.
Among his personal highlights this season were back-to-back hat-tricks in wins last month against Detroit and Carolina. The hat-tricks were part of a career-best 14-game scoring streak.
"It's a natural progression as you get older to score less," notes MacLellan. "Five-on-five production is hard to do in this league. He's going to get power-play production no matter what because we have a good power play, but I think the most impressive thing is the five-on-five points he's put up the last two years."
Ovechkin had a career-low 16 even-strength goals in 2016-17, but rebounded with 32 even-strength tallies last season. It's been more of the same this season with a league-high 24 even-strength goals through 43 games.
"I think that level that he got himself to last year right at the start of the year," says Oshie, "I think he's really just kept building off that. It feels like that's continued and he's come into this year and he's feeling it and it's fun being on this side of that when 'Big O' is going like that."
Adds Ovechkin: "I just try to do my job. Everybody tries to score goals, everybody wants to score goals. In this league it's hard to do that but I'm lucky to play with great players who set me up and I just have to do my job."