Alexander Ovechkin, the “Great Eight”, former Calder Trophy winner and possessor of the best individual single season since the lockout, in which he earned the Art Ross, Rocket Richard and Hart trio, along with the Lester B. Pearson Award. And 65 goals to boot.
But, the questions that have fans thinking are as follows: ‘How does a 65-goal scorer at 21 score just 32 at 24? How is he one of the biggest scoring busts so far on the current season, with just 8 goals through 22 games, as one of the most naturally gifted people on the planet entering what should be his prime?’
When Ovechkin first came to the Washington Capitals, he lit it up. His on-ice personality and awkward off-ice charm quickly endeared him to many fans. Cocksure and arrogant, the man was a cherry-picker and a dirty dangler who frequently found himself on the highlight reel. More importantly, he scored goals. Lots of them.
But as Ovechkin has struggled, so have the Washington Capitals. “So, what do you do?” His coach Bruce Boudreau has told the Washington Times. “You can see the frustration on his face. He wants to score so badly.”
It’s pretty easy to theorize this as just a run of bad luck. Ovechkin shot a career-low 8.7% last season and, if his 10.3% holds up from this season, it would be his second-lowest total ever. But I think that there are a few more issues at hand here, and, certainly, if you look through all the data that’s become available to us, you can find a few reasons as to why Mr. Alexander the G8 hasn’t been scoring.
Craig Custance of the Sporting News has theorized that the reason Ovechkin can’t find his legs (or Alex Semin for that matter) is that Bruce Boudreau had been balancing team ice-time. The belief from Boudreau, I assume, is that Ovechkin will have to earn points out of his slump himself.
But number eight was never a guy who produced with minimal help from his team. It’s not that Ovechkin had a great shot, it’s that he shot from everywhere. In 2008, he saw 5:40 minutes of powerplay ice-time per game and 17:16 minutes at even strength. In 2010, he saw 4:28 and 16:50. This year so far, he’s seen 4:12 powerplay minutes and 14:30 at even strength. Neil Greenberg has already lobbied at the Washington Post for more PP minutes for Ovechkin.
It gets worse. Your top offensive players you want to put in good situations to score, but giving them offensive zone start opportunities. Ovechkin’s offensive zone start rate was down to 51.6% last season after being 58.1% in 2008, his biggest year. The number isn’t so close to 50 this year (54.8%) but that’s only the sixth most starts among forwards on the team. Joel Ward, picked up to be the defensive man who would eat up a lot of the defensive zone draws, has a start rate of 51.7%.
That’s a far cry from some of the offensive stars who bank on the zone start to give them opportunities. Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the last two scoring champions, are the ultimate personification of what analysts call “The Sedin Treatment” when referring to stars who see more offensive zone start time from their coach. It’s a list that includes Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews.
So Ovechkin has seen fewer minutes and fewer offensive minutes, which is the decision of his coach, which has led to fewer goals. Is there anything that the man can take on his own shoulders as to why he’s struggling?
Yes—the number of shots he takes.
If you search through Hockey Reference’s Player Season Finder tool, you can find which players have taken the most shots on goal since the lockout. Ovechkin, playing six seasons since the lockout, has taken up six of the top eight positions on the list. Here’s the kicker, though: after taking 528 shots in the 2009 season, he was down to 368 in 2010 and just 367 last season.
I’ve heard TV and radio speculation, mostly from the usual crowd, that defenses have learned how to play against him after he was shut down by Hal Gill in the first round series against Montreal a couple of seasons ago. He scored 10 points in that seven-game series with 5 goals.
Ovechkin’s shots are not being kept more to the outside or are even being blocked more, and if he is being kept to the outside, that isn’t really the issue. Ovechkin scored 50 goals the year that he had the furthest estimated shot distance from the net according to Behind The Net. This season, he’s taken shots from an estimated 32.9 feet, which is the lowest average distance we have available. Are shot blocks a problem? In 2008, Ovechkin had 28.7% of all his shots blocked at even strength, while last season it was only slightly higher at 32.1%.
Attempts per game is the issue. Counting even strength shots, blocked shots and powerplay shots (BTN doesn’t publish blocks or misses on the powerplay) Ovechkin is down to firing just 6.33 shots at the net per game he plays, down from 10.27 in 2009 and 8.79 in 2008. That is a pretty significant difference, with two and a half fewer attempts per game. Over a 75 game season, that’s a difference of about 10 goals. Is Ovechkin getting fewer shot attempts because of his minutes played? No. In 2008, he recorded 4 shot attempts per 10 minutes on ice, which is down to 3.5 this season.
|Years||EV TOI||PP TOI||O-Zone Start %||Attempts/GP||Attempts/10Min||Shooting %|
If you peruse through much of the data, you’ll find that Ovechkin’s 2012 start and his 2011 campaign are pretty similar, as are 2008, 2009 and 2010. In those seasons, he was playing a maximum amount of powerplay time and getting a lot of offensive zone starts. The ice-time minutes have dropped since then and the zone start ratio is closer to 50.
Just by giving Ovechkin the minutes he used to get and not accounting for zone starts, shooting at an identical rate, Ovechkin would have 2 more goals through 19 games, which equals just under eight over a 75-game season. The rate that he shoots at now (as mentioned above) has cost him 10 goals over 75 games, and that’s probably attributable to the fewer offensive zone starts he’s been getting. That is an 18-goal difference over 75 games from how Ovechkin should be used and how Ovechkin is being used, which takes him from a 28-goal pace to a 46-goal pace.
So there are a lot of factors that are going into Ovechkin’s year-long plus struggles. Bad usage, bad luck, and he simply hasn’t been the explosive player that wants to grab the puck like he once was. Either way, this is an interesting case study for the NHL, and, as long as Sidney Crosby is back and scoring goals at a ridiculous pace, it’s beneficial for the league to have another dynamic offensive force contributing every night.