Not long ago, Alex Ovechkin played in his 500th NHL game. Ovechkin recorded an assist in the 3-2 overtime win against the Ottawa Senators. His having reached the 500-game mark in the NHL serves as a convenient milestone to look at his production in the context of the “remarkable consistency” he displayed over much of his early career. Perhaps it is in returning to the notion of consistency that we can get an idea if it is possible to pinpoint an instance, an event, or an occurrence that is the “pivot point” after which his production went into decline. That is, if one can consider a player who managed 85 points in 79 games last season an example of “decline.” We are going to look at this in three parts, the first looking at the anecdotal evidence.
There are those who believe that Ovechkin’s drop in production is the product of the establishment of a “book” on him, that he has become entirely too predictable over the course of his career, and teams have figured out what his “go-to” moves are and how to stop them. Others point to a particular point in time – the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 in which Ovechkin’s Team Russia was eliminated earlier than predicted. As the team’s star, the failure to advance to a medal was laid largely at his feet. The narrative in this scenario is that he has not recovered from that disappointment.
The Vancouver episode got us to wonder if there was a “pivot point,” after which his performance slumped. Those pivot points could come in a variety of categories – injury, suspension, personal reasons, performance. There are several obvious pivot points among these categories marking Ovechkin’s career to date that merit examination. They could include:
-- November 2008; Ovechkin missed two games for personal reasons.
-- November 2009; injury (six games; shoulder injury).
-- December 2009; suspension (two games).
-- January 2010; he was named captain of the Capitals.
-- February 2010; Ovechkin finished a disappointing performance in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
-- March 2010; suspension (two games).
-- December 2010; Ovechkin and the Caps had to endure an eight-game losing streak under the watchful eye of HBO as part of its “Winter Classic 24/7” series.
The first instance, that in which Ovechkin missed two games in November 2008 for personal reasons (a death in his family) can be reasonably dismissed for purposes of this examination. After returning from his two-game hiatus, Ovechkin scored 54 goals in the last 71 games of the regular season, a 62-goal pace over 82 games not far off his 65 goals in the previous season. He also recorded 11 goals in 14 playoff games (11-10-21, plus-10 in those 14 games). If one is looking for a point in time after which his performance started to decline, look elsewhere.
On November 1, 2009, Ovechkin sustained a shoulder injury against the Columbus Blue Jackets that would cause him to miss six games. It would be hard to think of him having any lasting effect of this, given that he would record 28 goals over the next 40 games after his return – a 57-goal pace over 82 games.
And it is in those 40 games after his injury that Ovechkin endured his first suspension in the NHL. On November 20, 2009, Ovechkin was involved in a knee-on-knee collision with defenseman Tim Gleason of the Carolina Hurricanes. Although Ovechkin was injured on the play, missed the remainder of that contest, and likely would have missed time as a result of the injury, the league suspended him for two games, thus establishing Ovechkin as a “repeat offender” if he should run afoul of the law again. But despite missing those two games, Ovechkin recorded 24 goals over his next 33 games, a 60-goal pace. If fans were concerned that the suspension would change the style of his play enough to result in a drop in production, their concerns were misplaced.
On January 5, 2010, Ovechkin was named the 14th captain in team history. He did not record a point in his first game wearing the “C,” but he did celebrate with a three-point game the next time out, the first of a nine-game points streak over which he was 7-13-20. From January 5th through February 13th he would go 16-23-39, plus-25 in 21 games, an amazing 152-point pace. Being captain did not seem to have placed an undue burden on his game, at least in terms of his ability to produce at the offensive end.
Next up was the 2010 Winter Olympic break. The disappointment suffered by Ovechkin at the Vancouver Games is well-chronicled. We are interested if in the aftermath of those games there was a drop-off in performance that might point to the 2010 Winter Olympics as a turning point in his production in the NHL. In the last 18 games of the regular season following the Olympics, Ovechkin was 8-12-20. Not quite a slump, but not up to his pre-Olympics production, either (a 36-goal, 91-point pace). Perhaps it was the natural let-down from the excitement of the Olympics (and the unfortunate end to them), perhaps it was something else.
In his seventh game after returning from the Olympic break, Ovechkin and the Caps visited the Chicago Blackhawks for a nationally-televised game. He lasted 7:44, disqualified for boarding Blackhawk defenseman Brian Campbell, a penalty that not only earned him a major and a game misconduct penalty, but would result in his second suspension of the season. After returning from that suspension Ovechkin was 6-7-13, plus-4 over the last 11 games of the season. That is a small set of games from which to draw any conclusion, especially since he had a solid post-season (well, for five games) in the seven-game first round loss to Montreal – 5-4-9, plus-5 in the seven games.
Then there was the “streak.” Enduring an eight-game losing streak can be hard on a player, a team, and its coaches. Doing so when cameras are filming it in living color, when you are the captain of that team, might be an especially hard thing to deal with. Such was the case in December 2010 when the Caps went on an 0-6-2 run with HBO filming it as part of its 24/7 series previewing the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh. But consider that over his first 26 games of the season, up until the streak started, Ovechkin was 10-23-33. That is a 104-point pace, but only a 32-goal pace, far below his production up to that point in his career. And after that 26th game – from the start of the streak to the end of the regular season – he was 22-30-52 in 53 games. That worked out to a 34-goal pace over 82 games (he finished with 32 in 79 games).
It appeared that if there was an elusive “something” that could explain Ovechkin’s drop-off in production, it was not a product of anything that occurred in the 2010-2011 season. It had taken place already. But it is not entirely clear what that “something” might have been, if the explanation could be found in a single incident. Do his production data shed any light on this? That is where we will go in the second part of this look at the evolution of Alex Ovechkin’s on-ice production.