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Why for Alex Ovechkin, it's all about 'your weapon'

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Why for Alex Ovechkin, it's all about 'your weapon'

After scoring his 500th NHL goal Sunday night against Andrew Hammond and the Ottawa Senators, Alex Ovechkin hugged his teammates, applauded his fans and blew kisses. But where was the love for his hockey stick, which he affectionately calls his “weapon?”

Throughout his 11-year NHL career, Ovechkin has had a mercurial relationship with his stick and by extension its manufacturers.

Ovechkin began his Capitals career with a stick manufactured specifically for him by CCM. Six years later, he switched to Bauer in the summer of 2011.

“Obviously, sticks are changing all the time,” Ovechkin said. “The companies try to do new sticks all the time and they give us new models and new curves and you have to get used to it.  When I scored 65 (in 2007-08) that was the best stick I ever had.

“When you’re a professional hockey player, when you take a stick, you feel it and you know if it’s a good stick. Whether it’s a brand new stick or an old stick, you know. I have lots of sticks in my basement -- like my 50th goal or 60th goal -- and when you pick it up, you know it’s a perfect shaft and a perfect lie and everything’s good.”

Ovechkin said he was happy with CCM until it began changing his stick following that 65-goal season.

“The next year the manufacturer changed it,” he said. “And then the second year and third year. One year they stop making them and you get pissed because this is your stick. It’s your weapon.”

Frustrated, Ovechkin struck a new equipment deal with Bauer in 2011 and has been with them ever since.

“My skates and helmet and everything was good,” Ovechkin said of his CCM equipment, “but I had a problem with the stick. Money is money, but I have to produce with what I have. I’m pretty happy with Bauer and how they treat me with the skates and the helmet.”

Ovechkin treats his stick the way obsessive baseball players treat their bats. Before every game he can be seen in the hallways shaving, bending and blow-drying his sticks with a hot gun, trying to get just the right bend and torque.

“I actually tried using it and I can’t,” said Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie, who is also a right-handed shooter. “I shouldn’t have even touched it. Everything went way over the net. Like over-the-glass high.”

MORE CAPITALS: LOOKING AT CRITICISM OF OVI OVER THE YEARS

Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who was in net for Ovechkin’s historic 500th goal as well as the 484th goal that made him the NHL’s all-time leading Russian-born goal scorer, said it’s not just the stick that makes Ovechkin’s shot so hard to stop, but his release.

“His release is not really awkward, but he pulls it back and makes the goalie move,” Grubauer said. “His shot is so accurate and hard that from in close it’s hard to read. Goalies read off the stick and his is especially hard because he pulls it in and snaps it pretty good. And if it’s high it’s going to go in.”

Grubauer used Ovechkin’s overtime winner against the Rangers as an example.

“When he comes down with speed, you don’t know where it’s going,” Grubauer said. “I think (Henrik) Lundqvist thought it was going to go high and all of a sudden he rips it on the ice. The different shots he has are like no other.”

Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, who spent the first nine years of his NHL career trying to defend against Ovechkin, said no one in the NHL possesses the size, speed, strength and accuracy of Ovechkin.

“I know Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara have those great shots, but I’ve never seen anyone shoot the puck like Ovi does,” Orpik said. “You watch him on the power play. Every team knows exactly what’s coming and you can take him away 99 percent of the time and you leave him open that one time and it’s in the net.

“He’s patient, he waits for his opportunities. But the way the puck comes off his stick, I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t think there’s another guy in the game that has that combination of skill and physicality he does. The way he’s able to move at 240 pounds is pretty impressive.

“You’re kind of waiting for him to slow down and hit a wall and he just kind of ramps it up as the season goes on. It’s pretty impressive to watch.”

Orpik says what amazes him most about Ovechkin is that his strength is equally distributed.

“It’s not like he’s a huge weight room guy, but when we do our testing his strength is just off the charts,” Orpik said. “He’s obviously just a massive guy.”

Ovechkin says that after three straight seasons of using Bauer’s TotalOne, he’s now adapting to a slightly altered version.

“This year they try to do a different logo and I’m still bothering them about it,” Ovechkin said. “Every time they send me new sticks it’s better and better. The most important thing I tell them is that for the playoffs I have to have the perfect stick because to be honest with you if we’re winning (now) I don’t care if I score or not. But in the playoffs it matters.”

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

Will Todd Reirden replace Barry Trotz as head coach of the Washington Capitals?

Based on what GM Brian MacLellan said Monday, it certainly sounds like it’s Reirden’s job to lose.

“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or someone else.”

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and we’ll make a decision based on that,” MacLellan added. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. And if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MacLellan said he isn’t sure exactly when the interview with Reirden will take place. The front office needs a few days to regroup. It’s also a busy stretch in hockey’s offseason. In the coming two weeks, MacLellan will direct the NHL draft in Dallas, monitor development camp in Arlington and then call the shots when free agency begins on July 1.  

“We need to take a breather here but I think Todd is a good candidate for it,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to sit down with Todd and have a normal interview, head coaching interview. I think most of our discussions are just casual. It’s about hockey in general. But I’d like to do a formal interview with him and just see if there’s differences or how we’re seeing things the same and if he’s a possibility for the head coach.”

Reirden, 46, spent the past four seasons on Trotz’s bench. He was elevated to associate coach prior to the 2016-17 season after coming up just short in his pursuit of the head coaching position in Calgary.

Reirden’s primary responsibility on Trotz’s staff was overseeing the defense and Washington’s perennially potent power play.

Prior to joining the Capitals in 2014, he was an assistant coach for four seasons with the Penguins. And before that, he spent a couple of seasons as the head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ top minor league affiliate.

A native of Deerfield, Ill., Reirden also had a lengthy professional career that included 183 NHL games with the Oilers, Blues, Thrashers and Coyotes.

Asked what he’s looking for in the Caps’ next head coach, MacLellan said he’s looking for a forward-thinker, a strong communicator and a players’ coach.

Reirden is all of those things.

“Someone that's up to date on the modern game,” MacLellan said. “Someone that's progressive, looking to try different things. Someone that has a good relationship with players. They communicate, can teach, make players better. It's becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in not fully developed products and we need a guy that can bring young players along because more and more we're going to use young players as the higher end guys make more money.”

One of the side benefits of elevating Reirden is the fact he already has a strong relationship with many of the current players, meaning there won’t be much upheaval as the Caps look to defend their championship.

“It could be a natural transition,” MacLellan said. “But once we sit down and talk face to face about all the little small details in the team, I'll have a better feel for it.”

MacLellan said a decision on the other assistant coaches—Lane Lambert, Blaine Forsythe, Scott Murray, Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi—will be made after the next head coach is named.

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Brian MacLellan explains the reasoning behind not extending Trotz before the 2017-18 season

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Brian MacLellan explains the reasoning behind not extending Trotz before the 2017-18 season

As shocking as the news of Barry Trotz’s resignation on Monday felt, it probably shouldn’t have given that whether or not he would return to Washington after the 2017-18 season was a storyline all year long.

Trotz entered the 2017-18 season on the last year of his initial four-year deal leading to speculation over whether the team was dissatisfied with his results and ready to move on from the head coach when his contract expired. Teams typically do not allow a head coach to enter the final year of a contract so that they do not appear to the players to be a lame duck coach.

Ultimately, that turned out to not be a problem as Trotz led the organization to its first Stanley Cup in his contract year. While there was interest from both sides in an extension in the wake of winning the Cup, ultimately a new deal could not be agreed upon and now the defending champs are without a head coach.

This begs the question, could things have been different had the team worked out a new contract with Trotz before the 2017-18 season? The answer is almost certainly yes, so how did things get to the point where Trotz was allowed to go into 2017-18 without an extension?

During a press conference with the media on Monday, general manager Brian MacLellan explained the team’s reasoning in not extending Trotz in the summer of 2017.

“We were struggling at the time to get over the hump,” MacLellan said. “We couldn't get over the second round and Barry hadn't been able to coach out of the second round yet either.”

In 15 seasons with the Nashville Predators, Trotz was not able to coach his team past the second round in the playoffs. In his three seasons with Washington leading up to the 2017-18 campaign, he had led the Caps to two division titles and two Presidents’ Trophies, but again could not get past the second-round hump that had plagued both him and the team.

Based on MacLellan’s comments, another early playoff exit would have likely led to the team choosing to allow Trotz's contract to expire.

“I think from the organization's perspective, some changes would've had to be made if we lost in the second round again,” MacLellan said.

But what if instead the unthinkable happened? What if the Caps forced Trotz into a “prove it” contract year and he was able to lead the team to the Stanley Cup? Didn’t they risk losing him all along?

Yes and no.

MacLellan confirmed reports on Monday that Trotz’s contract included an automatic two-year extension “at an increased rate” if he won the Cup. So while both sides were negotiating an extension, technically Trotz was already under contract through the 2019-20 season.

In the summer of 2017, MacLellan had a choice to make. At the end of the two-year championship window, he could choose to extend a head coach who had not brought the team the type of postseason success he was hoping for, he could fire a coach who had just won two consecutive division titles, two Presidents’ Trophies and whose team was eliminated in the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, or he could ride out the final year of Trotz’s deal and, in the off chance the team won the Stanley Cup, still rest easy in the notion that Trotz would automatically remain under contract.

MacLellan went with option C. It almost worked.

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