Friday, October 05, 2012

Washington Capitals 2012-2013 Previews -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

Theme: "Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going."
-- Tennessee Williams

Alex Ovechkin has three 50-goal seasons and another season in which he topped 60 goals. He has a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.  He has three Ted Lindsay Awards as the league’s outstanding player.  He has two Hart Memorial Trophies as the league’s most valuable player and two Maurice Richard Trophies as the league’s top goal-scorer.  He has an Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top point producer.  He has a gold medal as a champion in the IIHF World Championship.  He has been awarded a key to the city by the Mayor of Washington, D.C., and he has been named an ambassador for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  He is a five-time winner of the Kharlamov Trophy sponsored by Sovietsky Sport and awarded to the most valuable Russian NHL player.  He is a five-time first team NHL All-Star Team selection.

He also has accomplished none of that since 2010.

In 2010-2011 Ovechkin totaled 32 goals, behind the likes of Brenden Morrow, Michael Grabner, and Patrick Sharp.  In 2011-2012 he was 38-27-65, a line that looked a lot like Max Pacioretty (33-32-65) or Radim Vrbata (35-27-62).

Alex Ovechkin had become an “also-ran.”

That might be a bit unfair, considering that only four players have scored more goals combined over the past two seasons than Ovechkin (Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry, Jarome Iginla, and Daniel Sedin).  But then again, this is a player who lapped the field over his first five seasons, scoring 269 total goals to 230 for his closest competitor, Ilya Kovalchuk.

His performance over the last two seasons is an indicator of how high Ovechkin once soared, though.  Any conversation in his first five years in the league about the best players in the game included his name.  In fact, it was largely a conversation limited to his name and that of Sidney Crosby.  He averaged 53.8 goals per season.  Only two players had single seasons of at least that many (Jonathan Cheechoo, with 56 in 2005-2006; and Jaromir Jagr, with 54 in the same year).  There were 14 instances of 50 goal scorers in that five year span; Ovechkin did it four times.  Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk were the only ones who managed to do it twice.  There were 355 hat tricks over that period of time. Ovechkin had nine of them; only Carolina’s Eric Staal had more (10).  There were 16 instances of players scoring four or more goals in a game; Ovechkin was the only player to do it twice.

However, over the past two seasons covering 157 games, Ovechkin has but 12 multi-goal games and one hat trick (no hat tricks in 2011-2012).  He is not included in any conversation about the game’s top player, and Steven Stamkos has passed him by as the game’s dominant goal scorer.

Even in the playoffs, where he lifted his game, time has taken a toll on Ovechkin.  In his first three playoff appearances through the 2010 post season, Ovechkin was 20-20-40, plus-14 in 28 games (an eye-popping 59-59-118, plus-41 line per 82 games).  In his last two post seasons he is 10-9-19, minus-3 in 23 games, a respectable 36-32-68, minus-11 over an 82-game pace, but not close to his performance level in his first three post seasons.  His five goals last spring in 14 games looked a lot like Antoine Vermette’s five goals in 16 games.

From being a category of player unto himself, Ovechkin was now one of many players you could call “good,” even “very good.”  Just not among the best in the game.

Fearless’ Take…

Scoring goals at a 41-goal pace in the 60 games he played under Dale Hunter last season qualifies as no mean accomplishment.  Only Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos scored goals at a faster pace.  And if he maintained his 12.0 shooting percentage for the year while taking his career season average in shots (421) instead of the 303 he took, he would have finished with 50 goals.  He did all this while playing the fewest average minutes per game in his seven-year career (19:48).

Cheerless’ Take…

Home cookin’ ain’t what it used to be, cuz.  Ove his first five years, Ovechkin was really somethin’ at Verizon Center.  He averaged 28-30-58, plus-11 per 41 games of a home season.  Year before last he was 18-25-43 in 41 games at home, and last year he was 16-16-32, plus-3 in 40 games.  Last season he had more multi-goal games on the road (five) than he had at home (three), and only one of the three multi-goal games he had at home came against a team that made the playoffs (Florida).

The Big Question… What does Alex Ovechkin have left?

That goal scorers enjoy their best years before the age of 27 is not exactly news.  But the difference between Alex Ovechkin of his first five seasons and the player he has been these last two seasons is considerable.  Ovechkin has never been an especially efficient shooter.  Even in the year in which he scored 65 goals he finished only in a tie for 46th in shooting percentage.  He did, as they say, a volume business in shots.  While he finished sixth among forwards in shots on goal last season, his total of 303 was 30 percent fewer than what he averaged over his first five years (432).  The matter of whether Ovechkin has more 40- or even 50-goal seasons left in him might come down to whether his drop in production is due to his being used differently by coaches, depressing his shot opportunities and shot totals, or to the fact that he can no longer get shots off from his preferred shooting areas.

In the end…

As Ovechkin goes, so go the Caps.  Last season he had 27 goals in the Caps’ 41 wins, only 11 in 37 losses.  He had power play goals in 13 games last season; the Caps had ten wins in those 13 games.  He might be at a point in his career where winning will mean more than sheer numbers, and if the Caps are going to be a reliably sound contender, one would think that the goals he loses from those early career years would be picked up, and then some, by teammates.  But Ovechkin remains “the straw that stirs the drink.”

He does not have to be a 50-goal scorer at this point in his career, but he does have to be productive.  As much as that production is important on the scoreboard, it is important for its less tangible effects.  An unhappy Ovie scoring three goals in 12 games (not to mention going minus-7) after being benched by Bruce Boudreau at the end of a one-goal game against Anaheim last November 1st is what leads to a 4-7-1 record and the coach getting fired.  The happier version seems to rub off more positively with his teammates, and goal-scoring still seems to make him happiest of all.

The fear here, especially with this season in jeopardy of being lost in its entirety, is that the “moment” for Ovechkin is passing, if it has not already passed.  Cal Ripken played in a World Series at age 22 and never made it back.  Dan Marino made it to a Super Bowl as a 23 year old and never returned. Being among the greats is no guarantee of a championship, and if you don’t realize that dream early, it does not mean your odds improve with age.

Projection:   80 games, 39-47-86, plus-18   

Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images North America