Theme: “…if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you...Listen, you hear it? ‘Carpe’…hear it? ‘Carpe…carpe diem.’ Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
-- John Keating (“Dead Poets Society")
It is hard to think that a player who registered his fourth 50-goal season, his fourth 100-point season, finished a plus-45 (2nd in the league), finished with seven game-winning goals (tied for 4th), had 13 power play goals (tied for sixth), had 14 multi-goal games, and was 30-4-7 as captain of the club could be said to have an unsatisfying year, but there it is. His ten-game segments look rather impressive
And those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Among wingers playing in at least 40 games, Ovechkin finished at 5-on-5:
- First in goals/60 minutes of ice time (1.90)
- Third in primary assists/60 minutes: (1.32)
- Second in points/60 minutes (3.75)
- First in plus/minus (on ice) per 60 minutes (+2.80)
- Second in plus/minus differential per 60 minutes, on ice/off ice (+2.69)
Stiffer competition appeared to bring out the best of Ovechkin’s game. In 25 games against the seven teams that would make the playoffs in the East in addition to the Caps, he was 20-22-42, plus-36. He scored 12 goals against the Pennsylvania teams alone, seven of them against Pittsburgh. His durability was never in question, either – he had 10 goals in 11 games he played that were the second half of back-to-back games.
But Ovechkin, in addition to all those gaudy numbers, missed ten regular season games (four of which came as a result of two suspensions), played in only four games at the Vancouver Olympics because Team Russia was plastered across the Canada Hockey Place ice by Team Canada in the playoff-round of that tournament, and did not manage to drag his Washington Capitals teammates out of the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament.
It’s numbers versus hardware, and Ovechkin’s season will include much more of the former than the latter. No Olympic medal, no Stanley Cup, no Ross (won by Henrik Sedin), no Richard (won by Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby), and the possibility of not taking home either of the two individual NHL trophies (Hart, Lindsay) for which he is a finalist.
What happened? Well, the obvious fault line on which Ovechkin’s season appears to have fractured is the Olympics. Before the Games, he was 42-47-89, plus-43 in 54 games. Had he played the last 20 games after the break at that pace he would have finished 58-64-122, plus-59. And if anything, that is a conservative estimate. Over a 32-game stretch that began with his first game back after serving his first suspension and ending with his penultimate game before the Olympic break, Ovechkin was 24-35-59, plus-30 (a 62-90-152, plus-77 82-game pace).
However, he played in 18 of the last 20 games – he served the second of his two suspensions after a hit on Chicago’s Brian Campbell that broke his collarbone – and went 8-12-20, plus-2. That would be a fine pace for 95 percent of the players in the league, but it wasn’t “Ovechkinesque,” and it would be a signal of the frustration that would be the end-game of his season.
OK, if the Olympics was the obvious bright line separating the two parts of his season, was there a less obvious reason for his results? The two suspensions might have affected him in a way that is hard to quantify outside of this obvious statistical measure. His hits-to-games played ratio this season of 2.57:1 is his lowest such number since his second season (2.24:1). Hits are, to a significant extent, an arbitrary measure dependent on what the scorer sees. But the suspensions seem to have discombobulated Ovechkin in terms of how far he could push his game, and they brought upon him some negative press that seems to have flummoxed him just that much more. His game ended up lacking a certain rhythm to it that was there when he was on top of his game.
Ovechkin did a lot of things right this season. There are the obvious things – the goals, the points, the plus-minus. He took over the captaincy, and the club responded with a remarkable 30-4-7 record. But there was a less obvious signal of a maturity in Ovechkin’s game, and that was his safekeeping of the puck. His 76 giveaways in 72 games represented a 21 percent reduction in giveaways, measured in giveaways per game. It was the best year of his career in that respect. And, he was clutch in terms of when his goals game. 34 of his 50 goals came with the Caps tied, behind by one, or ahead by one.
But having collected all those numbers, it is still the team prize that eludes him. It was all on display in the first round of the playoffs. Games 1-4… four goals (on ten shots), eight points, plus-eight, and the Caps had a 3-1 lead in games. Games 5-7… one goal (on 24 shots), two points, minus-2, and the Caps were sent packing after losing three straight.
Ovechkin’s fault? No, but he is the Captain, too. And if you want to give him the lion’s share of the credit for that 33-5-7 run as captain that took the Caps to the brink of advancing to the second round of the playoffs, then that is the share of responsibility he must bear for the last three games. He had numbers (he is still tied for 21st in scoring and tied for ninth in goals scored, even though he has played at least two fewer playoff games than any player in front of him), but he is playing in the World Championships this week – a rather cruel naming convention, given the fact that most of the elite talent in the world of hockey is still playing in North America.
Last year we said of Ovechkin…
“Next year will be a telling year in the career of Alex Ovechkin. He will be 24 years old when the season ends. That’s barely getting started in most walks of life, but looking at the greats – Gretzky won his first Cup at age 23, Mario Lemieux at 25, Maurice Richard at 22, Bobby Orr at 21, Gordie Howe at 21. The window is open for Ovechkin to join those greats, and to be mentioned in the same breath as them, he will have to have his name engraved on the same piece of hardware.”
Well, the clock is ticking – loudly – on Ovechkin’s chances to lead a team to a Stanley Cup. He has been compared with those all-time greats of the game – Gretzky, Lemieux, Richard, Howe. Ovechkin will be 25 years old on Opening Night of the 2010-2011 season. By that age, Gretzky had two Cups, as had Richard and Howe. Lemieux would finish that season winning his first. There is also the matter of his nemesis – Sidney Crosby – having already won a Cup at age 21 and in the running for another at age 22. Not every great player who wins their first Stanley Cup does it at the age of 31, as did Steve Yzerman in 1997. Ovechkin has but one number left to collect of meaning…
One, as in “one” Stanley Cup.