Declaring your team's most important player is not a simple thing. It's not always the most valuable guy or the highest points producer. It is the player who makes your team go; the one you can't afford to lose, even if all he contributes can't be measured by fancy stats.
Most Important Player: Alex Ovechkin, Forward
Such an interesting time for the Washington Capitals and their much-celebrated captain. In their first season under new head coach Barry Trotz, the Capitals redefined their identity by playing a more physical, demanding style, and all of the questions about whether Trotz and Ovechkin could thrive together were answered in full.
Ovechkin scored 53 times to win his third straight Rocket Richard trophy as the league’s top goal scorer and fifth of his career. He was the only player to reach the 50-goal plateau. Ovechkin also led the league in power-play goals (25) and game winners (11). It is the fifth time he has scored at least 10 game-winning goals in a season.
But what was so impressive about Ovechkin’s season was that, after rolling up a minus-35 rating in 2013-14 and being criticized for completely abandoning any pretense of a two-way game, he shocked many with consistently diligent two-way play that saw him finish plus-10 on the season.
Now, no one is lining up to trumpet Ovechkin for the Frank J. Selke as the best two-way forward in the game, but his willingness to commit to Trotz’s game plan, which demands defensive responsibility from up and down the lineup, helped debunk the belief in some quarters that Ovechkin was a me-first guy. Trotz and Ovechkin’s teammates were full of praise throughout the season for Ovechkin as his buy-in to the new coaching system was key to the rest of the team following suit.
But, as has been the case throughout Ovechkin’s career in Washington, the ability to replicate regular season successes in the playoffs proved elusive. The Caps edged the New York Islanders in a bitterly contested seven-game series in the first round and then held a 3-1 series lead over the New York Rangers in the second round but could not get that final victory to earn what would have been their first berth in the conference finals since 1998. Ovechkin scored in Game 7 but that was his only point in the Capitals’ final five games against the Rangers, and the Capitals fell in overtime in the series finale.
The offseason saw the acquisition of three-time Stanley Cup winner Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie, who is likely to get a look at playing the right side with Ovechkin and top center Nicklas Backstrom. Braden Holtby has emerged as a bona fide top-flight netminder, and the defense is solid.
In short, this might well be the most Cup-ready team in Washington since Ovechkin joined the team. Now the question is whether the Great Eight is ready to take them home.