“I think it’s going to create more opportunity for me,” said Ovechkin, who has scored most of his 224 career even-strength goals at left wing. “[Oates] give me some options and I think about it and I said, ‘Yeah, I want to do it.’”
Last season while Oates was an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils, career left wing Ilya Kovalchuk was moved to the right side to play on the first line with Zach Parise. Kovalchuk scored 23 more points than the previous season and helped lead the Devils to the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s not a direct comparison, but it’s possible Ovechkin enjoys similar success with a new approach.
“We’re going to use him every way we can and try to utilize him,” Oates said. “He’s a force in this league, he’s very important to us and I want to make sure that he knows that I’m going to do my best to let him be successful.”
During the first two days of training camp, Ovechkin lined up at right wing alongside left wing Marcus Johansson and center Nicklas Backstrom.
Backstrom deferred to Ovechkin on how the adjustment will work, or at least preferred to assess things after the Caps start playing games.
“Well, everybody knows Ovi has to be on the left side, come from the left,” Backstrom said. “Maybe it changes the situation a little bit from the other team, how they got to play him and stuff.”
The experiment might not even last until Saturday night’s season opener at the Tampa Bay Lightning. Or it could be a regular thing.
It’s not the first time Ovechkin has lined up at right wing; he spent bits and pieces of time there in recent seasons. But this time there was a concerted effort to try it from the get-go.
“It’s some familiarity with moving back and forth, getting him away from some checking,” general manager George McPhee said. “And it’s also an opportunity for him to be able to pick up pucks in his own end.”
“He’s played his whole career on the other side and the way you circle and come into a zone, just a little bit of a transition getting used to it,” Oates said.
Ovechkin wasn’t playing attention to Kovalchuk last season in New Jersey. But that doesn’t mean he’s unprepared for the switch to right wing.
Newcomer Mike Ribeiro, who has watched wingers switch sides throughout his career, isn’t worried about Ovechkin making the move.
“It will be an adjustment for him. A lot of times if he’s on the right side he won’t be able to come through the middle and take that shot in the middle so he may have to more often go wide and beat his guy wide. It’s just an adjustment. He needs to get used to it and find other ways to [get] open ice,” Ribeiro said. “But if you’re well-positioned defensively then offensively guys with skill will always find ways to create or score. So I think defensively it might help him more along the boards and with chipping it out, but he’s so good that he’ll figure it out and find a way to figure it out.”
With a 48-game regular season, Oates expects Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth to play a lot. Who starts at Tampa Bay seems obvious, even if the Caps coach wouldn’t go so far as to confirm it would be Holtby.
“I would say that I would think that the guys expect Holts to be in the net based on last year, for sure,” Oates said.
Holtby put up a 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in helping the Caps get to within a game of the Eastern Conference finals.
Tom Wilson appears to be a long shot to make the Caps’ opening night roster, given that he’s just 18 years old and his game is pretty raw. But 6-foot-4, 210-pound first-round pick is in camp and is an injury or two away from making the team.
Given that Brooks Laich will very likely miss at least the start of the season, the Caps have 14 healthy forwards and could go with 12 to 14. Wilson was a late addition to camp, but now he has a chance to make an impression.
“You watch and then the players make the decisions for you,” McPhee said. “We have a pretty good idea who’s going to be on this club, but you never know.”
Defenseman Tom Poti scored a power-play goal in the first game of his American Hockey League conditioning assignment Sunday night with the Hershey Bears. It was his first game action since Jan. 12, 2011.
“I watched some highlights, I had a chance to watch a little bit of it and good for him, it’s been a long time, a long time without playing,” Oates said. “I’m sure he was glad to be back and get some competitive time.”