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Ovechkin honored with Wayne Gretzky International Award by U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

Ovechkin honored with Wayne Gretzky International Award by U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

WASHINGTON — Alex Ovechkin still has a ways to go to catch Wayne Gretzky’s NHL goal-scoring record. 

For now, he did the next best thing. The United States Hockey Hall of Fame presented Ovechkin with its Wayne Gretzky International Award at its annual induction ceremony on Thursday night at the Marriott Marquis in Washington. 

The award goes to an international individual who has made major contributions to the growth and advancement of hockey in the United States. It is hard to argue with the choice of Ovechkin, whose singular popularity fueled the explosive growth of youth hockey in the D.C. area since he arrived in the NHL in 2005 at age 20. 

Ovechkin was not able to attend the ceremony on Thursday. The Capitals left a day early for their game in Tampa Bay on Saturday night. It is their annual dads and mentors road trip. But Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was at the dinner to accept the award on Ovechkin’s behalf.

“From Day 1 Alex fell in love with our fans and this community and has said this is his second home,” Leonsis said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that he really helped to establish this community as a hockey community. It’s been called The Ovechkin Effect – all the young people that are growing up and have lived through this era and they are hockey fans for life right now.”

 ESPN’s Steve Levy hosted the awards dinner. Former NHL stars Tim Thomas and Brian Gionta were inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame along with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, U.S women’s Olympian Krissy Wendell and Neal Henderson, co-founder of Washington’s Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Program, which for 40 years has provided access to hockey for underprivileged kids throughout the area. 

Dr. Jack Blatherwick, a longtime college and pro hockey trainer who helped develop hundreds of hockey players during his career and worked closely with the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team, was given the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. 

Ovechkin joined such hockey luminaries as Gretzky, who won the inaugural award in 1999, legendary coach Scotty Bowman, Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Hull and, posthumously in 2008, Anatoly Tarasov, who is considered the father of Russian hockey for starting the Soviet Union’s ice hockey program from scratch after World War II and building it into an international powerhouse. 

Ovechkin couldn’t be at the dinner in person, but he did thank the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame for the award by video. 

“It’s a huge honor for me to get this award,” Ovechkin said. “Wayne Gretzky is probably the best player in NHL history and hockey history. This award goes not for me. It goes to the whole Washington Capitals organization and how they support hockey and how they grow hockey in this area is tremendous.”

Ovechkin quickly became the face of the Capitals with his brash, exciting style of play and his relentless goal scoring. He’s up to 679 now – still a long way from Gretzky’s 894, but closing in on 11th all-time at age 34. He has a good chance at becoming just the eighth NHL player to reach 700 goals by the end of the current season. 

Ovechkin adds to his on-ice work by representing the Capitals all across the D.C. community whether working with special-needs kids or visiting sick children at local hospitals. The cherry on top, according to Leonsis, was the Capitals finally winning the Stanley Cup in 2018. Ovechkin would eventually take the Cup to Georgetown Cancer Center and to visit Neal Henderson’s kids at Fort Dupont.

“We’ve just established the Capitals through Alex’s leadership and really historical greatness,” Leonsis said. “As a team and a hockey community, it’s really built to last…And since Alex stepped onto the ice from that very first game [in 2005] and drilled that [Columbus Blue Jackets] player into the glass until [Tuesday] night, it’s just been this constant build. We hope he plays for a long, long time and continues to be here. But his place in history is cemented.” 

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How dominant are the Capitals? They're on pace with last year's Lightning

How dominant are the Capitals? They're on pace with last year's Lightning

Around Washington, President's Trophies don't mean much. The Capitals have won the award for best regular-season performance three times, and none resulted in any meaningful playoff success.

The Tampa Bay Lightning know that feeling too. While they posted a staggering 128 point pace last season, they were swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, the 16th ranked playoff team overall who barely squeaked into the playoffs.

But this year, Washington has a chance to match that dominant 2018-19 points performance. Through Monday's game against Columbus, the Caps were on pace to hit 126 standings points according to Ryan Lambert of Yahoo! Sports.

That would best the Caps best regular-season record since 2009-2010, during the Rock the Red era when the squad notched 120 points before getting Halak'd in the playoffs. Combined with the fact that they've hit 50 standings points in 33 games, we could be witnessing something special.

Through Wednesday's grudge match against the Boston Bruins, who are right on the Caps heels, Micah McCurdy puts the Caps point projection at a conservative 108 points, which would be the fewest amount of points total for a President's Trophy win by the Caps. McCurdy's projections are based on a team's performance over the last two weeks, not throughout the course of an entire season.

Should the Caps score the full two points against the Lightning on Saturday, Washington would be on pace for 127.8 standings points.

Saturday's matchup could be the one that makes for a historic Capitals regular season. But it won't mean anything unless the team performs in the playoffs.

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Capitals Prospect Report: Gersich takes the next step in his development

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USA Today Sports Images

Capitals Prospect Report: Gersich takes the next step in his development

In Brendan Leipsic's last year in the WHL, he scored 39 goals and 52 assists in just 60 games. In his last season in the AHL, he scored 51 points in 49 games.

Yet, in the NHL he struggled to find a role that seemed to fit until the Capitals signed him to be a fourth-line player.

He is a good example of why it can be difficult to find depth players in the NHL. Prospects make it to the league by being one of the best players at every level from youth hockey to juniors, to the minors. Then when they reach the NHL, they are suddenly not the best player anymore and their game has to adapt. A player like Leipsic who was a top offensive threat in juniors has to become a different player to earn his keep in the NHL.

So when you read about how prospect Shane Gersich has only eight points in 23 games and is focusing more on his play in his own end, you may take this as a troubling step back, but that would be a mistake.

This reflects a necessary step in his development.

Gersich showed some skill at the University of North Dakota. In his final two seasons there, he produced 37 points and 29 points respectively, both in 40 games.

But he never looked like he was going to be a top producer at the NHL level and was never projected to be. Gersich was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 draft and always looked to be better suited for a bottom-six role in the NHL. Playing in the bottom six means being strong in your own end of the ice, something Gersich is working on this season as detailed in this profile by NOVA Caps.

Travis Boyd is also a player projected for a bottom-six role. In Hershey, however, his role was always an offensive one. He typically played on the top two lines and did not contribute on the penalty kill. He does have a lot of offensive skill for the AHL game, but ultimately he has struggled to find his place in the Caps' lineup because he does not provide the kind of things usually asked of a third and fourth-line player.

Producing points is always important. no matter what line you are on so of course Boyd is still a player with value. Hopefully Gersich will be able to produce at the NHL level as well.

By playing more of a two-way game in the AHL, however, and focusing on things like defensive play and the penalty kill, Gersich will have a much clearer path to the NHL than he would as just a top-six AHL forward.

Other prospect notes

  • We are a long way off from knowing just how good the Caps' 2019 draft was, but the early returns look pretty darn good. Check out a draft class update from The Hockey Writers.
  • With Team Canada gearing up for the World Junior Championship, there is a lot of attention being paid to Connor McMichael. His tremendous season has caught the attention of many analysts including those at The Hockey News where he is declared the prospect who has shown the most unexpected growth in this awkwardly intimate video. Prospect analyst Craig Button also talks about the role McMichael will have on Team Canada and how he has the skillset to fill just about any forward role on the ice.
  • As teams prepare for the World Junior Championship at the end of the month, Aliaksei Protas' tournament has already begun. Belarus is a level below the top tournament and is currently hosting the Division I Group A tournament. Protas has one goal and one assist as Belarus sits fourth in the standings out of six teams.
  • Beck Malenstyn was given a three-game suspension by the AHL for elbowing. The suspension began on Sunday and will keep him out on Saturday and Sunday of this week's action. Here's a video of the play, though it is hard to see exactly what happened.
  • Joe Snively had two points through 16 games. In the past nine, he recorded eight. He scored twice over the weekend and now sits second on the team in goals with seven. Someone asked this week in the Capitals Mailbag if Snively could possibly get a call up this season. As good as he has played, Snively has the maximum cap hit for an entry-level contract at $925,000. Because of that, I doubt we see him in Washington this season.
  • Vitek Vanecek was named Hershey's PSECU Player of the Week after two impressive starts. He got the nod on Friday and turned aside 25 shots in a 2-1 win over Lehigh Valley. Bears head coach Spencer Carbery is very regular in his goalie rotation, but after a strong start on Friday and considering Hershey was playing three games in three nights and Vanecek was going to get two starts anyway, Carbery elected to go with the hot hand on Saturday and started Vanecek again. Vanecek rewarded the coach's faith with a 32-shot shutout performance to once again shut down the Phantoms. The shutout was Vanecek's first of the season. He has now allowed two goals or fewer in five of his past six starts.
  • Bobby Nardella returned to the lineup after missing 12 games with an upper-body injury. He had an assist in Sunday's game giving him four on the season in just five appearances.
  • Check out this profile an Axel Jonsson-Fjallby from Chocolate Hockey.

 

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