What's Up, What's Down: Incentivized Ovechkin moves up the ladder

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WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 08: Washington Capitals Left Wing Alex Ovechkin (8) before an NHL game between the Washington Capitals and the Buffalo Sabres on November 08, 2021, at Capital One Arena, in Washington, D.C.
(Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 08: Washington Capitals Left Wing Alex Ovechkin (8) before an NHL game between the Washington Capitals and the Buffalo Sabres on November 08, 2021, at Capital One Arena, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It's What's Up, What's Down, which is yet another effort in sports journalism to deliver information through a simple and easily understandable medium. Here we look at the players, teams and things building toward something, and the players, teams, and things accomplishing squat.

After matching Brett Hull on the all-time goals list earlier this week, Alexander Ovechkin's first chance to take over sole possession of fourth comes Thursday night versus the Detroit Red Wings. With the way the Washington Capitals sniper is rolling at the moment, perhaps the expectation should be that he'll be able to turn his attention fully to chasing down Jaromir Jagr then.

At age 36, Ovechkin is off to one of the single-best starts of his illustrious career with a league-high 11 goals in 12 games. 

There was no scenario in which Ted Leonsis and Capitals management would decide that investing major dollars and term into an aging superstar wouldn't be worth it. Ovechkin's pursuit of Wayne Gretzky's all-time mark of 894 goals could be the sort of revenue-driving machine that could in some ways trivialize a Stanley Cup championship run. 

If not, it will at the very least help continue to add to the incredible increase in franchise value that has coincided with the Russian's arrival.

It's possible, though, that Ovechkin delivers tremendous value from a team-building standpoint throughout the five-year free-agent deal negotiated solo this summer that will carry the legendary scorer through his age-40 season. 

So often we see players deliver their best seasons when a contract needs to be signed following the conclusion of it. 

Incentive tends to bring out the best in athletes. 

And while this might not be a dangling carrot in the traditional sense, the rest of Ovechkin's career, or at least the remaining stops n the path to 895 goals, is essentially one big incentive window.

What's next for Ovi?

Tied with Hull at 741 career goals, Ovechkin is in position to chase down another all-timer before the season is up, sitting 25 goals behind Jagr. Another legend in longevity will be on notice next season with Ovechkin currently 60 goals behind Gordie Howe. 

The chasm between Gretzky and Ovechkin has been reduced to 153 goals following his torrid start, which means that he will take over the record after 251 games based on his career output. 

If that holds, the Capitals could be celebrating one of the greatest achievements in NHL history three years from now, and before the calendar flips to 2025.

Who isn't cheering for that?

The bird dance

One development that shouldn't be ignored in Washington and beyond is the resurgence of Evgeny Kuznetsov. It was believed that Kuznetsov and his $7.8 million salary were served up as an option to potential suitors in the offseason, but to no avail after a couple of regrettable seasons following the team's championship in 2018.

Riding shotgun with Ovechkin again, Kuznetsov has been not only the beneficiary of his captain's success, but also a major part of it. Only four players — Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Kyle Connor — have more points than Kuznetsov through the first four weeks of the season. 

Usage could be considered a major part of that offensive surge, which has Kuznetsov over halfway to surpassing both his goals and assists totals from last season. Kuznetsov is averaging more than five minutes of extra ice time compared to last season and by far the highest rate of his entire career at over 21.5 minutes per start.

As we know, however, ice time is earned, and Kuznetsov is forcing Peter Laviolette's hand with a strong start to the season. 

Hot and ready?

The Detroit Red Wings have seven wins from their first 14 games this season, but few if any have been more impressive than their victory Tuesday night over the Edmonton Oilers. No team can have their fastball every night, however McDavid, Draisaitl, and the incredible forward group in Edmonton looked merely average in its stop at Little Caesars Arena.

Which is, to put it mildly, an accomplishment.

What we needed to see from the Wings this season was some progress after five years as the single least-successful team in the league. (Yes, behind Buffalo). And between the performance of the top line, the emergence of Moritz Seider, and other key contributions around the lineup, the Red Wings have shown that so far. 

Tyler Bertuzzi has driven some of the best results league-wide, and with Lucas Raymond and Dylan Larkin the Red Wings finally have a No. 1 that can threaten the opposition with regularity. With more goals and points than any other rookie, Raymond could be considered the Calder Trophy front-runner, but his biggest competition could be Seider, his teammate on the back end. 

Seider, who saw nine-plus minutes versus Draisaitl in the Edmonton win, continues to log major minutes against quality competition and sits just three points off the lead held by defenceman and Norris Trophy pace car, Adam Fox. 

We're starting to see, now, what Steve Yzerman has envisioned.

What's with the Avs?

Columbus has the make-up to give teams fits. But Colorado? 

The Avalanche eking out just one point from two games versus the Blue Jackets was a little bit of an eyebrow-raising situation, or at least evidence that the Avalanche aren't fully right. At least not yet.

Injuries have obviously played a major role in the Stanley Cup favourite's 4-5-1 start, with only a handful of players appearing in all 10 games. Each of the team's stars has missed time, with Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Cale Makar, Gabriel Landeskog and Sam Girard briefly shelved, and Devon Toews limited to just a single game.

Colorado is giving up more shots on average than it did last season while helping make Philipp Grubauer a Vezina Trophy nominee.

But the favourable environment hasn't just evaporated. Based on the numbers, the team has flat-out deserved better from new netminder Darcy Kuemper, and minor improvements at the position should lead to far better results.

Should the results continue to sag with MacKinnon about to exit the lineup again, it could be worth tracking the movement in the NHL futures odds with other trendy picks like Edmonton, Florida, Carolina and St. Louis meeting or exceeding expectations.

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