Thursday, September 01, 2011

Young Guns, One and All -- Part 1: Alex Ovechkin in the Playoff Era

There is no “riding the pine” in hockey. It’s not like baseball, where in any one game 10-12 players dressing for the game will not see action, or like football, where ten or more players will not take the field, or basketball, where “rotation” might be limited to eight or so players out of a 12-man game roster.

No, in hockey, 20 players dress, and you can bet the ranch that 19 will see action on any given night, the only player not expected to take the ice being the back-up goaltender, who will do so only if something bad happens – an injury or his partner getting shelled.

That is not to say that there isn’t a “star” system in the NHL. Players such as Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, or the Sedin twins will get most of the attention, both in the press and on the ice. But contributions are expected from more than just the stars, and there is only so much a star can do to influence an outcome, even if he is among the brightest in the NHL galaxy.

With all that said, we are going to take a look at some individual players – specifically, the “Young Guns” (by now the “Middle Aged Marauders,” in hockey-age?). Do their performances, individually or in concert, correspond to outcomes in terms of standing points earned? Well…let’s find out.

We are doing this by looking at two simple sets of data. The first set is a compilation of total standing points earned over a moving 10-game period by the Caps over the last four years, corresponding to their achieving a playoff spot in each and over which all four “Young Guns” have played, and played a prominent role. The second is a compilation of points scored by the player(s) over a similar moving 10-game period. The graphs are plotted against one another, and we can see whether the trends of the two overlap.

First up is Alex Ovechkin. He’s up first because he is the star, the straw who stirs the drink. And here is the plot of his rolling 10-game point totals against the rolling 10-game standings points totals:

(click for a larger picture)

Over four seasons, the trend of Ovechkin’s scoring has mirrored the teams’ standings points record over a long stretch in the middle of the series. You can see at the beginning that Ovechkin was rather successful on an individual level as the team took some time to catch up to his level of performance. A lingering effect, perhaps, of the Caps needing to put pieces in place around him. Remember, that 2007-2008 season the other Young Guns were, well…young. Nicklas Backstrom was a rookie; and Mike Green had his first 70-game season the previous year, as did Alexander Semin. And there was that awful start to the 2007-2008 season in which the young skill players might have been held on too short a leash.

That changed, of course, with a change behind the bench and some seasoning on the ice. But even with that, once the rest of the cast caught up with Ovechkin it was still a case of the team’s points and Ovechkin’s points very much mirroring one another.

The lines start to diverge in early December 2010. The Caps would go on to experience misfortune in December – the eight-game losing streak – but Ovechkin’s season started to come up limping. After recording seven points in four games to close the month of November and the first game of December, Ovechkin would finish the season with “only” 52 points in 53 games. The team – based on standings points earned – actually outperformed Ovechkin in the last half of the regular season.

This is certainly not a trend one wants to see continue, having the captain and for long stretches of his career the best player on the club reduced to a supporting role, but in a perverse way it does point out two things. First, it does take a village -- or a long bench -- to build a hockey team. Teams don’t win with one player consistently outperforming the team. Second, it suggests that the Caps have been able to build a reliable cast around Ovechkin – the other Young Guns, especially, but not necessarily restricted to them. It made the Caps a team that, at least in the regular season, could weather a prolonged slump from the captain (he had a streak of 17 games in December and January of the 2010-2011 season in which he had only three goals) and still succeed.

How did Ovechkin’s performance over this four year period in relation to the team’s performance compare to his Young Gun cohorts? We will be getting to that in the days to come.