Monday, January 09, 2012

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 3: "Whatever Happened to Alex Ovechkin?"

We are down to the last three of the top ten stories of 2011. No streaks, no personnel moves. Just…a mystery.

The hype was not ill-placed. By the time Alexander Ovechkin was drafted in 2004, he already had a label as “generational talent.” The scouting reports were glowing, generally resembling this summary from Red Line Report:

“Simply the best player on the planet not already playing in the NHL. Just call him [Ilya] Kovalchuk, only with a great work ethic and a much better attitude. Terrific all-around player is as complete a prospect as we’ve seen in last 10 years. Explosive and dynamic every shift, and just has so many ways to beat you. Tremendous talent level is equaled only by his character and maturity. Intimidating speed forces defenders to back in off blue line, allowing him to gain zone easily. Not only has skill level off the charts, but hits hard and has dedication to defence. Dynamic, game breaking natural goal scorer with rocket shot and fabulous moves he makes at top end speed. Puck follows him like a magnet. Able to get hard shots off with checkers draped all over him. A dangerous, disruptive force who must be accounted for at all times. What’s left to say? Not as flashy and charismatic as Kovalchuk, but just as good a player, and is humble with no ego problem. Great teammate.”

Some might quibble with how this turned out – there would be questions about his defense, and he would be in his early years more charismatic than Kovalchuk – but he did not disappoint in confirming the “the best player on the planet not already playing in the NHL” description. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2006 after putting together a 52-goal, 106-point season for a team that would end up with only 29 wins and 70 standings points. In his first five seasons he averaged a scoring line per 82 games of 56-54-110, plus-13. Of the 204 wins the Caps compiled in those five seasons, Ovechkin had the game-winning goal in 41 of them – about once in every five wins. In 2007-2008 he set a league record for goals scored by a left wing with 65.

In 2010-2011, however, Ovechkin slid – hard. He would finish the 2010-2011 season with 32 goals, 14 below his previous career low, and 85 points, setting a new career low. These would be numbers most NHL players would welcome enthusiastically, but when you have spent your entire career on a list of two when it comes to “best player in the game,” these numbers fall very short.

By the time 2011 dawned, Ovechkin was in what for him was a prolonged slump. He went to Pittsburgh to start the new year in the NHL Winter Classic with only 14 goals and 42 points in 39 games. He had not scored a power play goal in 28 games and had only one game-winning goal in the same span of games. He did not get a goal in that Winter Classic game, did not have a point in fact. And it seemed as though Ovechkin could never get enough traction to string together consecutive games with points or games with multiple goals. Over his 40 games in the 2011 portion of the 2010-2011 season he managed to score goals in consecutive games three times (his longest streak was three games in the last week of the regular season), and his longest points streak was seven. That last streak might sound impressive, but this was a player who once had a seven-game streak scoring goals – as a rookie; and an 11-game points streak – again, as a rookie (both club records for rookies).

Two things were happening with Ovechkin as a scorer. First, he was getting fewer shots on goal. In his first five seasons he averaged 5.45 shots on goal per game. In the 2011 portion of the 2010-2011 season was down to 4.83 shots per game, a drop of more than 11 percent. Second, he was less efficient with the shots he was getting. In his first five seasons his shooting percentage was 12.5 percent. But in the 2011 portion of the 2010-2011 season that dropped to 9.3 percent. His 18 goals over 40 games was a 37-goal pace over a full season. When coupled with his 9.3 percent shooting percentage, he looked less like “Alex Ovechkin” and more like “Phil Kessel” (32 goals, a 9.8 percent shooting percentage for the 2010-2011 season); a good goal scorer, but not at the top of his sport.

There was no lack of potential explanations for his drop off. He was out of shape. He was a head case after his disappointing performance in the 2010 Olympics. He had taken too much physical abuse as part of his playing style. Defense had figured him out. He had too many outside interests. He was another casualty of goal-scoring being a young man’s enterprise.

The 2011-2012 season would provide an opportunity to Ovechkin to rehabilitate his game and his reputation as being among the game’s elite players. He came to training camp in better shape. He looked focused. He started the campaign as if his rehabilitation and return to the top of his sport was going to play out.

Ovechkin had five goals in his first nine games of the season, a 46-goal pace. But then came a game on November 1st against the Anaheim Ducks. Anaheim went out to a 3-0 lead, but the Caps came back to make a game of it in the third period, closing to 4-3 on a Troy Brouwer goal with eight minutes and change left in the contest. But that was as far as the Caps would get as the clock wound down toward the one minute mark. At a stoppage in play, head coach Bruce Boudreau and his staff drew up the strategy for the last minute and sent six skaters onto the ice, the goaltender having been pulled. None of the six skaters was Alex Ovechkin. It was surprising, to say the least, and not least of all to Ovechkin, who was captured on video mouthing an epithet in the direction of Boudreau. The Caps scored the tying goal in the last minute and won the game in overtime, but the talk was of Ovechkin’s benching in the game’s climax. Whether the benching caused what happened next is difficult to know, but starting with that game, Ovechkin’s November became one not to be remembered. In 13 games to start the month he was 3-5-8, minus-7, culminating in a grisly no-point, minus-4 effort against an injury-depleted Buffalo Sabres in a 5-1 loss. Ovechkin had not been a minus-4 in any game in more than three years (November 20, 2008 against Los Angeles), and it was only the fourth time in his career he had been that low in a game. Boudreau was relieved of his coaching duties after this game.

Dale Hunter took over for Bruce Boudreau, and there were two changes that took place pertaining to Ovechkin. First, his ice time jumped. In his first 22 games of the season, Ovechkin skated more than 20 minutes only five times, none in the last seven of those games. After the coaching change Ovechkin skated more than 20 minutes six times in 15 games to close 2011. Second, his production increased. After that poor start to November, Ovechkin ended 2001 with eight goals in 15 games, five of them in his last four games of the year.

Whether the way Ovechkin ended 2011 is harbinger of better things to come cannot be known, but it is now in the record that his 2011 was disappointing. He finished the calendar year 34-40-74, plus-9, in 77 games. He had ten power play goals (13 had been his low for a season in his first five years), and he had seven game winning goals (only one of those coming in the 2011 portion of this season).

Even in his playoff performance one could say that his results were disappointing. Even though he did finish the 2011 playoffs with a better than a point-a-game average, his ten points in nine games 5-5-10, minus-1) was a drop off from his output in previous post-seasons in which he was 20-20-40, plus-14 in 28 games.

We ended 2011 with two questions lingering over the production of Alex Ovechkin. First, could his drop in production be traced to an event or a cause? We looked at this last month, but find it hard to say that this or that definitively is the source of the problem. More important, though, is the question of whether or not this is the new normal for Alex Ovechkin or whether he can recover some of that magic from his first five seasons that seems to have been lost in the last two seasons. He was once the best player on the planet. In 2011 he was a very good player, but one of many, not one of a kind. And that is why the curious year of Alex Ovechkin is one of the top ten stories of 2011.


FAUXRUMORS 2 said...

1) 8's decreased production can be attributed to a few of the factors outlined in your well written post: defenses have figured his move(s) AND historicly players goal production seems to slide as the get into their mid/late 20's
Even Gretzky didn't have a 50+ goal season after 28. I think only 11 players have scored 50 after age 30!
2) The biggest problem going forward is the fact that Ovechkin is being paid to score 100+ pts/50+ goals and isn't. 35 gaols/80 points are still 1st line forward numbers, but do NOT equate to the 10 million of cap space Ovechkin will occupy for the next 8 years!

Anonymous said...

Along with a dropoff in 8's offensive production, what happened to the work ethic, attitude, character, maturity, and humility he displayed when he was younger? It seems like instead of improving, he's actually regressed as he got older. Maybe signing a guaranteed $124 million contract and securing lucrative commercial endorsements will do that. What is his motivation now, where has his passion for the game gone?

The Alex Ovechkin mystery is no longer just a short story, it's become a novel. I hope eventually Dale Hunter channels Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery and restore AO to his former greatness. Being ordinary and no longer a one-of-a-kind NHL player just isn't right.