Alex Ovechkin vs....Himself

This was originally intended to be an article comparing Ovechkin to another player until I realized that the issues surrounding Ovy were far too great to include anything about anyone else. As such, Ovechkin gets his own Cage Match, against himself.


The most disconcerting aspect of Ovechkin’s fall from grace is that it has had absolutely nothing to do with injuries. Instead he has been plagued by personal struggles, in-fighting, innumerable changes in personal and team philosophy and just a general malaise around the whole Capitals team. Whatever happened to the fun Ovy who just scored lots of pretty goals and totally dominated leagues in both fantasy and reality?

Has he simply lost his mojo like Austin Powers? Has he put so much pressure on himself for team success that he’s fallen into Shane Falco’s quicksand? Have the coaches maligned him for the past two seasons? Or has the league simply figured him out? Maybe it’s none of the above and he just had a couple of bad seasons.

The funny thing is that Ovechkin actually had only one bad season (when he scored just 38 goals and 65 points last season) but it is because that season followed a mediocre one (by his standards) that everyone is concerned. I am certainly willing to consider last season to be merely a blip on the radar for Ovechkin, it is the season previously that concerns me. It is entirely possible that Ovechkin circa 2010-11 is the Ovechkin we will be seeing from now on.

So who is the real Ovechkin and what is his value?

I will start off by saying that I am not convinced that teams have figured Ovechkin out. Sure teams have figured out that he loves to shoot through the defenseman’s legs when coming in on the left side off the rush but that’s only one move. Remember that Ovechkin is one of the most explosive and creative finishers the league has ever seen. He has more in his repertoire. It’s just a matter of if he can or will use it.

I would look instead towards the fact that the league is seeing fewer and fewer penalties called each year down to just 6.9 penalties called per game last season from a high of 11.7 called in 2005-06.

During his first five season’s in the league Ovechkin averaged over 50 goals and over 100 points, while averaging 18.2 power play goals and 41.6 power play points. That means nearly 40% of his production came off the power play. Over the past two season’s Ovechkin has set career lows in power play production scoring an average of 10 power play goals and 23.5 power play points. His power play goals over the past two seasons were worth just 29% of his total goal scoring and his power play points were worth just 31% of his total point production. Clearly the power play has made a huge difference for Ovechkin and will continue to do so in the future.

Despite the league’s current downward trend there is reason for optimism. Prior to his slump the past two seasons Ovechkin had been able to counteract the league’s reduction in penalties because the Capitals improved their power play efficiency. Consider the following chart:
































Each season the Capitals’ power play opportunities have decreased but in 2008-09 and 2009-10 Ovechkin maintained a high level of power play production because the team was so efficient. Now maybe it is Ovechkin himself who made this so but I believe that Mike Green has even more to do with this trend.

During Green’s three-year peak from 2008 to 2010, the Capitals’ power play also peaked and when Green went down with injuries the past two seasons the Capitals’ power play efficiency slipped dramatically. Green is a rare talent – one of the few defensemen in the league actually worthy of the moniker “power play quarterback” but Green’s health will continue to be a huge question mark going forward. It is my opinion that Green is the single most important player to keeping Ovechkin productive but changes in coaching may have an impact as well and wouldn’t you know it the Capitals hired a new coach this summer, Adam Oates

Oates is a former offensive dynamo (16th all-time in points, 6th all-time in assists) who, it is hoped, will put some spring back in Ovechkin’s step. The problem with that sort of optimism is we simply do not know what to expect from Oates as a head coach because his track record is so short. Oates began his NHL coaching career with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2009-10 as an assistant coach helping them to one of the league’s worst offenses (23rd) but best power plays (8th) and is given some credit with helping Steven Stamkos breakout as an offensive star. Then Oates was hired as an assistant by the New Jersey Devils, a team that finished dead last in offense and 28th in power play efficiency during his first season. Last season the results were improved (15th in offense, 14th in power play efficiency) but overall remain underwhelming so it is impossible to know exactly what to expect from Oates in terms of unleashing Ovechkin, particularly on the power play.

One way Oates should be good for Ovechkin is in overall usage. Ovechkin was used far less over the past two season’s than over the previous few seasons. In 2007-08, Ovechkin’s peak for usage, he skated 21.3 shifts per game, averaging 23:06 minutes per game with 5:40 per game on the power play. As the chart below shows, Ovechkin’s usage has been on the way down ever since:
























Ovechkin’s shifts per game remained around the 21 for the most part but slowly the effect of fewer power plays has reduced his power play minutes and coaches have also begun to rein in his long shifts. Given that Oates is coming from a star-heavy Devils team that allowed Ilya Kovalchuk to skate 25 shifts per game for 24:26 minutes per game, including 4:55 on the power play, I wouldn’t worry too much about Ovechkin being given the freedom to extend his shifts as he sees fit.

What’s more, consider Ovechkin’s declining offensive zone starts over the past few seasons. In 2007-08 and 2008-09 Ovechkin saw over 58% of his shifts in the offensive zone. That dipped to 55.6% in 2009-10 and then bottomed out at 51.6% in 2010-11. It jumped back up a bit to 52.7% last season but the point remains that over the past few seasons Ovechkin has not been used to his maximum offensive capacity.

Some of this may be due to team style and again may be a reflection of the injuries to Green. With Green out of the lineup the Capitals are much less able to push the play forward thus resulting in fewer opportunities for offensive zone starts. Ovechkin’s 52.7% offensive zone starts were good for second on the team behind part-time defenseman John Erskine so clearly the effort was being made to get him out there. Perhaps chalk this one up to a split between coaching philosophy and the absence of Green since the defense first approach from both Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter these past two seasons have also been a factor in the Capitals’ inability to push the play forward.

One area where the idea of the league figuring out Ovechkin holds water is with regard to production of shots on goal. At his peak, Ovechkin fired 528 SOG in 2008-09. The following three seasons he fired 368, 367 and 303 respectively. This decline mirrors his decline in minutes and production and thus can be corrected but Ovechkin will surely never fire over 500 SOG in a season again. As Ovechkin gets older it simply becomes inefficient for him to endure the sort of wear and tear it takes to put that much rubber on net.

Wear and tear is one of the biggest factors weighing against Ovechkin being able to return to his previous levels of superstar production. First and foremost you have to consider the wholly physical way in which Ovechkin plays the game. He is built on speed and strength but the way he throws his body around is bound to catch up to him in the form of injury. Moreover, in a study of 500-goal scorers Harvi Mikael found that most goal-scorers peaked at age 23 and had their three highest scoring seasons before the age of 25. As Harvi concludes, Ovechkin will be 26 to begin next season so his biggest goal scoring seasons are likely behind him. He may, of course, be able to buck the trend and post one or two big seasons in the near future but it is more likely that he settles in as a player who scores less than 50 goals each season. If that is the case then he will need teammates who can pick up the slack and get him some assists.

We know Green is immensely important to Ovechkin in this respect but so is Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals’ center who also missed time last season. A going theory is that the team will split up Ovechkin and Backstrom for next season with Backstrom taking on more of a defensive role allowing newly acquired centerman Mike Ribeiro to pair with Ovechkin as the primary offensive unit. The problem with that theory is that for Backstrom’s first four season’s in the league he and Ovechkin skated together on over 90% of their shifts. What’s more, despite only playing 42 games last season, Backstrom was still Ovechkin’s most frequent teammate skating together for over 50% of Ovechkin’s shifts. Essentially these two are a package deal and frankly it makes sense as Backstrom is the perfect complement to Ovechkin.

Backstrom’s game is understated but he plays a very solid two-way game with strong playmaking and puck-possession elements. Essentially he is everything Ovechkin is not and he is absolutely the Capitals’ most important player. Putting Backstrom in a purely defensive role would be a waste of his immense skills. Continuing to pair him with Ovechkin will allow both to perform at their best.

The most important part of Backstrom’s game to continuing Ovechkin’s dominance is his improved ability to shoot the puck as well as his confidence in said shot. In 2009-10 Backstrom fired a career high 222 SOG and scored a career high 33 goals. This is pure conjecture but I think Backstrom is capable of producing a 40-goal season if he shoots enough. Whether you buy that or not Backstrom is still the much better goal-scoring option when compared to Ribeiro.

Ribeiro is a 32-year-old playmaking center but doesn’t boast Backstrom’s defensive game so a line with Ovechkin would be extremely vulnerable to counterattack. What’s more, Ribeiro is not much of a goal scorer. He does have a career high 27-goal season but that was an outlier. He won’t help Ovechkin rack up many booster assists, which Ovechkin needs going forward.

Where Ribeiro will help is on the power play. If Mike Green is unable to return to his earlier form Ribeiro offers the Capitals a forward capable of playing PPQB. Moreover, as a lefty shot he offers a different look to the previously righty-centric Capitals and would be an apt playmaker for setting up Ovechkin for one-timers.

Of course, in adding Ribeiro you can also subtract Alex Semin, Ovechkin’s countryman and former teammate who left for rival Carolina this summer. You could however debate that this might actually be a positive for Ovechkin. While no doubt losing Semin creates a void in the Capitals’ lineup his inconsistencies must have been infuriating for management to deal with (as I know it was as a fantasy owner). Semin is a former 40-goal scorer and a player certainly capable of helping to elevate Ovechkin’s assist totals but much like Ovechkin, Semin may also be suffering from having passed his goal-scoring prime.

Furthermore, Semin’s departure may just resolve some issues in the Capitals’ locker room. Again this is conjecture but I wonder if the fact that both were Russian somewhat kept the two distanced from the rest of the team and perhaps Semin’s departure could bring Ovechkin closer. On top of that, I also wonder if Semin, the elder of the two Russians, didn’t have some influence on Ovechkin despite the fact that Ovechkin was clearly the star. It was no doubt at the bequest of Ovechkin that the Capitals re-signed Semin in back-to-back summers so does their decision to allow him to leave send a message to Ovechkin in anyway? Disregarding the conjecture there is no doubt that the most disappointing aspect of Semin’s time in Washington was his inability to consistently provide the secondary offense necessary for the Capitals to win. If Ribeiro is a more consistent second line performer then that will surely improve the effectiveness of the Ovechkin-Backstrom top line and perhaps the power play as well.

Ultimately though, it all comes back to Ovechkin, a player who appears past his goal-scoring prime. If we conclude that Ovechkin is done posting 50-goal seasons then we have to settle him in for a max of 45. He has a career high of 59 assists and I am not sure he really has the game to top that. That pins his upside at 104 points, which is pretty good but not in range of being the top overall selection he once was. Skimming off the top end it seems logical to treat Ovechkin like a 40-goal, 80-point scorer with plenty of upside. You simply cannot be disappointed if you come to that conclusion.

Of course, if the league moves in a direction to increase power plays and offense in general then Ovechkin could be rejuvenated but that would also go for virtually every other player in the league and it still probably wouldn’t boost Ovechkin past the 104-point upside I have indicated. The key for Ovechkin, as mentioned previously, will be the health of Green. Like it or not he is the Capitals’ offensive engine. When he is at his best the game is constantly pushed into the opponent’s end and the power play is run like a ruthless machine. I have zero faith in Green being fully healthy AND fully effective but a healthy Green at 100% capacity is Ovechkin’s best shot at achieving his upside.

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Comments (5)add comment

coldsquad2002 said:

... Excellent report. Makes me understand another reason for Ovies decline.
I thought he was just being a rich party animal that lost his desire to be the best.
August 08, 2012
Votes: +0

sentium said:

... I have a bunch of stuff like that myself. Example: For some strange reason, 90% of the time when I write the word "fantasy", my fingers add an "s" so it becomes "fantasys". It's happened consistently for several years and it drives me nuts!
August 08, 2012
Votes: +0

metaldude26 said:

season's Sentium, I kept doing that while writing that piece and I have no explanation why. For every mistake in there I must have corrected three others. I am mistified by my subconscious desire to apostrophize every "season". I can only promise to be more diligent in the future but I am glad you enjoyed the piece otherwise.
August 08, 2012
Votes: +0

sentium said:

... Hey Steve, read through your piece again and see how many "season's" you can find. Plural = no apostrophe... smilies/smiley.gif

Other than that little ditty I think this is your best cage match yet, by far. Very insightful!
August 08, 2012
Votes: +0

shingy said:

Great work. Thanks.
August 08, 2012
Votes: +0
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