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Weekly Reader: Alex Ovechkin wades into politics, plus why the Maple Leafs shouldn’t panic — yet

November 3, 2017 6:18 pm

“I never made a secret of my attitude toward our president, always openly supporting him,” Alex Ovechkin wrote in an Instagram post voicing his support for Vladimir Putin. 

Hello, and welcome to the Weekly Reader, which will run every Friday and collect news and views from around the hockey world on the week’s biggest stories. Seen something worth highlighting here? Hit me at greg.wyshynski@espn.com, or do the same if you have suggestions for the column going forward. Enjoy!

Ovechkin and Putin

Alex Ovechkin announced something called “Putin Team” this week on Instagram, and for a hot second everyone was excited that he was releasing some brand of Russian poutine. Alas, it was actually the most overt endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Washington Capitals‘ captain has made to date, establishing a “social movement” to “show everyone how strong and united Russia can be.”

With that, Ovechkin graduated from wearing Putin T-shirts and dropping the occasional message about Russia’s meddling in sovereign nations to being the Flavor Flav hype man for a Russian president seeking re-election.

Having covered him for several years on the Capitals beat, I learned that Ovechkin has as fervent a patriotism as I’ve seen from a pro athlete.

With this escalation, Ovechkin has a lot to answer for. He’s playing in Washington, D.C., and it’s not exactly glasnost between the U.S. and Russia these days. He’s supporting a world leader who has been accused of nothing short of crimes against humanity. He’s a professional athlete taking an overt political stance at a time when athletes who do so are skewered on social media at best, ostracized in the real world at worst. (Perhaps the best defense for Ovechkin against that demonization is Americans’ indifference to world news and foreign policy.)

If you’re looking for Ovechkin to answer for this, as Jeff Blair of Sportsnet and others are, keep looking.

Note what he told the Washington Post on Thursday night: “I don’t try to be politics man or someone like that,” Ovechkin said. “I just support my president and just support my country because I’m from there, and you know, if people from U.S. came to Russia, they care about what happening in U.S. So I care about what happening in Russia because that’s my home and that’s where I’m from.”

As he has in the past, Alex Ovechkin is seeking a separation between patriotism and policy. Can one really create a “social movement” for a politician while declaring he’s also not trying “to be politics man”?

The great Leafs panic

The Toronto Maple Leafs lost two of three games during their California road trip, are 5-5 in their last 10 and are now on pace to finish one point out of the predicted playoff cutoff point in the Eastern Conference. Which means it’s time for early-season panic in Toronto, of course.

Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock is getting slammed for his player usage by Editor In Leaf. The team “looks broken,” according to James Mirtle. And obviously Auston Matthews can’t do it alone. The California trip will come to define the Leafs, according to Last Word On Sports.

Look, Toronto is fine. The Leafs are young. They’re learning. They are still a top-10 team in possession despite an ongoing effort to find their defensive identity. If there’s any point of concern for me, it’s how pedestrian many of the players in Toronto’s bottom six have been, which is why depth on paper doesn’t always correlate to depth in reality.

Jersey Foul of the week

In fairness, when I’m writing Anthony Beauvillier’s name I usually nail the first couple of letters and then let God sort it out.

Carey Price is often portrayed as a helpless victim to the Montreal Canadiens‘ overall ineptitude, but let’s be real: He’s been absolutely terrible this season.

Price has an even-strength save percentage of .877 through 11 games and is 3-7-1, which is by far the worst for any goalie with more than seven starts. He’s 13th in low-danger save percentage (.982) for goalies with 300 minutes played. In goals saved above average — essentially, how many goals an average goalie would allow if he faced Price’s shot volume — Price is 30th in the NHL at a minus-9.5. Last season? He was fifth at plus-14.9 (via Corsica).

Eric Engels writes that the “real” Price is nowhere to be found, while Stu Cowan is rightfully calling for the franchise goalie to turn the franchise’s season around. Meanwhile, Omar White is having a meaningful debate about the merits of trading a player whose eight-year, $84 million contract extension doesn’t kick in until next season.

Please join us next week for another episode of “As the Habs Burn.”

Quick question: When your team is down two goals at the San Jose Sharks with about 10 minutes to go in the third period, what’s the best decision your No. 1 center could make?

Is it staying on the ice and creating offense, as his new $64 million contract would indicate is in fact his task? Or is it to fight Joe Pavelski because “he didn’t like the hit” the Sharks center put on him, taking himself out of a potential rally for five minutes?

Asking for some friends in Nashville.

Selena Gomez’s deal with the Devils

It appears Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber might be reconciling, which is delightful news for fans of “his and hers” hockey jerseys. One recent sign: The time-honored tradition of the girlfriend wearing her boyfriend’s hockey sweater, which the New Jersey Devils seized on here:

Yeah, great. Just keep him away from the logo on the floor.

Women’s hockey merger talk

The New York Times wrote about the necessity for and the obstacles to a merger between the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the National Women’s Hockey League, which is one of these annual discussions about something so logical and good for the game that will likely never happen until one of these leagues goes under, sadly.

Puck headlines

Dinamo Minsk had a great idea: Invite fans to dress up in Halloween costumes for a contest. Alas, many of those fans didn’t read the fine print that noted a KHL ban on “clothes and other means of concealing the identity, meaning that masks and make-up that make identifying fans difficult are not allowed.” Hence, why the police were so upset. [BBC]

Semyon Varlamov set a Colorado Avalanche record in facing 60 shots from Carolina, and as per usual is pretty much the lone reason the Avs are thriving. [Mile High Hockey]

The NHL Brand power rankings, which is an interesting look at how teams look. [Hockey by Design]

Perhaps the week’s biggest news: It’s Conor “SHARE-EE” not Conor “SHEAR-EE.” [Pensburgh]

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

Tyler Dellow with a long read on Dallas Stars defenseman Julius Honka that’s really about the broader debate regarding the perception that NHL coaches are “stupid” and the continuing debate over analytics as an exact science.

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Chris Peters released his Top 31 prospects ranking, with some very high praise for American defenseman Quinn Hughes: “Having closely tracked American prospects in particular for the past decade, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a U.S. defenseman like Hughes.”

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