It's not a stretch to say the developing relationship between Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz and captain Alex Ovechkin will be one of the most intriguing NHL storylines this season. It's also not a stretch to say Trotz needs to be careful with how much he tinkers with Ovechkin, because no coach wants to put the psyche and confidence of a 50-goal scorer at risk.
The latter is tied directly to the former, and each will dictate the story arc in Washington and the success or failure of the Capitals as they try to bounce back from a disappointing 2013-14 season, their first without a trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2006-07.
"You can see how the organization is changing over the last couple of years," Ovechkin said. "We want to win and we want to try to find the right way. We'll see how it goes this way."
Trotz is the fifth coach the Capitals have had since Ovechkin arrived in Washington as a rookie nine years ago. They've all taken different approaches with Ovechkin.
Glen Hanlon gave him freedom to use the skills he was drafted for without repercussions for any perceived deficiencies in his game, but the Capitals didn't win enough so he was fired.
Bruce Boudreau continued to open up the ice for Ovechkin until he tried to adopt a more defensive approach, which essentially ruined their working relationship and cost Boudreau his job in D.C.
Dale Hunter tried to take a hard line approach with Ovechkin, but the result was awful for their player-coach relationship. Hunter wound up using Ovechkin in fewer situations, cutting his minutes and creating a predictable rift. The Capitals reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2012, but Hunter didn't return to Washington after the season.
Adam Oates moved Ovechkin to the right wing to utilize his skills and make him less predictable. Ovechkin returned to being a 50-goal scorer last season after three straight seasons in the 30s, but the rest of the team failed around him and he was blamed for not doing enough away from the puck. Oates was fired after last season.
So now it's on Trotz to figure out the best way to get the most out of Ovechkin and the Capitals. Nobody has figured out how to do both yet.
The good news for Capitals fans is it appears Trotz knows trying to change Ovechkin isn't an option because it can do more harm than good. The only change he's making is moving Ovechkin to left wing, but that's where he's most comfortable anyway.
Ovechkin is a rare breed, sort of like Brett Hull and Pavel Bure. His mindset is on scoring goals, and he goes into every game thinking that's what he has to do or he'll put his team at risk of failure.
The notion Trotz needs to change him, or fix him, is misleading because it suggests what he has been doing isn't good or that he's broken. Ovechkin scored 51 goals last season. He's not broken. And his minus-35 rating gets overblown because it's also telling of the players he was playing with.
Ovechkin's possession numbers were good relative to his teammates (his 49.5 percent Corsi-for percentage was second among Washington's forwards last season, according to ProgressiveHockey.com), but he didn't receive any goal support, for or against.
His teammates barely scored when they were on the ice with him in 5-on-5 situations, producing a .037 shooting percentage; Ovechkin had a .090 shooting percentage. Ovechkin scored 23 goals in 5-on-5 situations; his primary linemates, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, combined for 13.
Washington's goalies didn't help either. They had a .906 save percentage when Ovechkin was on the ice. It was an .894 save percentage when it was Ovechkin with Backstrom and Johansson. The goalies had a .918 save percentage overall.
Had the players around Ovechkin done more, his plus-minus would have been better, and perhaps the Capitals would have made the playoffs.
So instead of changing him or fixing him, what Trotz will instead try to do is give Ovechkin more responsibility. It's the right move.
Convincing Ovechkin he'll benefit most by forechecking with greater speed, checking harder through the neutral zone and getting rid of the glide in his game is the best thing Trotz can do for Ovechkin.
If Trotz can convince Ovechkin to work harder and do more away from the puck, then Ovechkin will have the puck more. If Trotz can do that, he should be able to get the maximum out of Ovechkin without stunting the areas of his game that make him great.
"The things that Alex does as a player, I can't teach," Trotz said. "There's no one really who can teach him that. That's the special part. The stuff he can get better, so he can get the puck more, so he can do the things that he does, I can teach him that."
Trotz knows trying to turn Ovechkin into a 200-foot player is unrealistic. He's not a 200-foot player, nor should he be. Ovechkin is a goal scorer, so he should have the puck as much as possible.
The idea of Ovechkin working his tail off in the defensive zone should be troubling to Trotz, the Capitals and their fans because it means he's playing in the defensive zone. Ovechkin is not a valuable player when he's 200 feet away from the net, no matter how hard he plays.
He's valuable when he has the puck, and the idea is to get him the puck more. Ovechkin has to do his part too. He went 16 consecutive games last season without an even-strength goal. That can't happen. That shouldn't happen.
"All he has to do is understand there's some detail that will get him the puck more or his teammates to get him the puck more," Trotz said. "I want him to have the puck. I want us to hang onto the puck. When we don't have it, I want to have a really good plan and a really good work ethic to get it back quickly so we can have it again and do what I think is a strength for our players."
Getting Ovechkin to buy into all of that shouldn't be difficult because he wants to win and shake the embarrassment he felt not making the playoffs last season.
"We have a new life," Ovechkin said. "You have to move forward all the time. I hope we're going to do it."
They have a chance if Trotz and Ovechkin are on the same page, buying into each other, listening and learning from each other. That's not a stretch to say either.