WASHINGTON — George McPhee had to take a call. Alex Ovechkin was on the other line, reaching out to the Washington Capitals general manager shortly after winning his third Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.
Ovechkin’s message to McPhee was that this latest award wasn’t just another trophy for his case.
"This one means more," McPhee said, "after what he’s been through recently."
After a sluggish start to the season saw the Capitals captain draw a lot of criticism, Ovechkin proved coach Adam Oates right for suggesting a move to right wing with a stellar second half.
It was a tumultuous season for Ovechkin, as moving to right wing after playing on the left side his whole life took time and plenty of adjustment.
It was Oates’ way to get the Russian star to change his game for the better, and the McPhee saw this MVP honour as validation of the switch and Ovechkin’s "coachability."
"He did not get enough credit for the willingness to change positions, security, what he knows, for the good of the team," Oates said. "Yeah it was good for him, no question, but he had to have the faith that he was going to do OK and it was going to help the team because that’s how I sold it to him."
Early on, it wasn’t a hard sell because Ovechkin’s offensive production had fallen off the previous two seasons. After being a perennial 50-goal scorer, he had 32 goals in 2010-11 and then 38 in 2011-12 only after a late tear.
"I just tell Adam, ‘I’m going to learn with you’ since his first day," Ovechkin said. "I tell him, ‘I trust you’ and he said, ‘Ok just listen to me and you’re going to be OK.’ I listen to him and almost I’m OK."
Almost, because there were hiccups. Ovechkin collided with initial top-line left-winger Marcus Johansson in a training-camp scrimmage and then, early in the season, requested a move back to the left side where he felt more comfortable. Upon seeing film of how things were better for him on right wing, Ovechkin knew that’s where he had to be.
"It’s kind of position when you understand you have to do for you, to switch positions to change your game, to change your style," Ovechkin said. "Adam showed me everything. It’s all about him. I can tell about everything. But without him I never go to right wing and I never go to probably that kind of position that I have right now."
Oates had no choice but to be patient as Ovechkin showed improvement but had just nine goals in 25 games. But he was convinced the puck would go in the net, and it did. A lot.
Ovechkin finished with 23 goals in his final 23 games for an NHL-best 32 in the 48-game season. Asked if the 27-year-old would’ve been able to do that on left wing, Oates said: "I don’t think so."
"You can’t say he wouldn’t have scored a lot, because he still would’ve scored a lot," he said. "But I think how it helped the organization is where he is as a person and a player that that still came first."
Ovechkin won his first two Hart Trophies in 2007-08 and then 2008-09 at left wing when he was a transcendent force in the NHL. But those came before opposing coaches and defences figured out ways to stop his patented moves.
This MVP might not have happened if not for the change.
"It’s pretty hard to say if I win it or not," Ovechkin said. "It was just the position that was pretty hard for me, you know situation I kind of go back to left wing and we tried to find the best way for me and whole team. It’s all about Oatesy and Oatesy tell me you have to just do it."
Ovechkin knew he was indebted to Oates.
"I talk to Adam and I say ‘Thank you very much,’ " Ovechkin recalled. "I’m just happy because MVP means a lot to me. It’s history."
Oates was on vacation in Florida when the news came across his phone. A major booster of Ovechkin even when Sidney Crosby was clearly the front-runner, he wasn’t surprised but was "so pumped for the guy."
"He took a lot of heat early in the year, and to come this far, I was very, very happy for him," Oates said. "I know he’s won it before but when i talked to him I told him I was obviously very proud of him and thanked him. He was pretty pumped up and he thanked me. As you can imagine he’s feeling good about himself, and he should. For what he’s accomplished, it’s fantastic."
McPhee said it’s "quite remarkable" that a two-time MVP and someone considered one of the game’s best players was so willing to make the change. It didn’t feel like just another piece of hardware for Ovechkin, either, given that it’s his first at a new position.
"Right wing is the right wing," Ovechkin said. "I’m pretty happy we made the switch."