Monday, October 22, 2012


When it comes to labor negotiations, Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman have years, decades in fact, of experience in the ups and downs, the highs and lows, and the twists and turns that characterize them.  If you were to put together a list of people least likely to harbor – or at least show – emotion as talks are going on, Bettman and Fehr would be high on that list.

Not so Alex Ovechkin.  What we expect from middle-aged men in suits who have spent a lifetime in the art of the deal, we would not expect from a 27-year old who makes his living on skates in a sport where passion is at the core of an individual’s and a team’s success.

So, when Alex Ovechkin is asked if he will stay in Russia if the new collective bargaining agreement includes provisions for a significant rollback in the value of existing contracts, and he answers…

"I think yes. If my contract will be cut down greatly, it would be possible to annul it through the court."

…we might consider it as a response borne of the same passion that makes Ovechkin a thrill to watch on the ice.

Having said that, though, there is a non-zero probability that Ovechkin will make good on his threat and that some court, somewhere, will uphold his choice.  And if that was to happen, then the unthinkable would come to pass.  For the first time since the 2003-2004 season the Washington Capitals would ice a team that did not have Alex Ovechkin in its lineup.  Today we will take a look what sort of production we might expect out of that lineup.  You might avert your eyes from here on if you are easily made queasy.

With Ovechkin the Capitals currently have a full 23-man parent roster.  The 21 skaters on that roster include 13 forwards and eight defensemen (for this discussion Tom Poti is not included on the roster).  Last season those 21 players recorded a total of 204 goals.  That would have tied Dallas for 22nd in the league in scoring.  And if you are thinking that the Caps might get contributions from other skaters because no team ever ices just 21 skaters on a roster for a full season, the Caps had a total of only three goals from six additional forwards last season (those last six being the 22nd -  27th skaters in games played).  The amount is insignificant.

The object of this exercise, though, is to take a look at what the basic roster would look like without Ovechkin and what it might produce.  That means two things.  First, we do not have to concern ourselves with those extra skaters.  We are looking at the best 21 skaters the Caps would take with them out of whatever training camp they hold.  Second, for comparative purposes we will convert all player and team statistics to “per-82 game” values to compare apples to apples.  With these two ideas in mind, there are three alternative scenarios to look at: baseline, career averages, and personal best.

The Baseline

The baseline is the 2011-2012 performance of the 21 skaters currently on the Caps’ roster.  Those 21 skaters combined for 204 goals last season.  As we noted, that total would have tied for 22nd in the league.  But we need a baseline to make further comparisons.  What we can do is take each of those 21 skaters and convert their goal totals into per-82 game values.  When we do that, the total is 252 goals.  This is not to say that if completely healthy or for other reasons the Caps as currently constituted would have scored 252 goals last season.  For one thing not all 21 players would have played in all 82 games, even if everyone was healthy for a whole season.  Only 18 skaters dress per game.  We are merely establishing a baseline of goal-scoring efficiency from which other scenarios can be evaluated.

Of those 252 goals, how many are accounted for by Alex Ovechkin?  His total would be 40 (he had 38 in 78 games).  Take those away, and the remaining 20 skaters accounted for 212 goals.  Here we can approximate what this value translates to over the course of a season, acknowledging that only 18 skaters dress per night.  To keep this simple, we would assume that missed games are spread evenly across the remaining 20 players.  When we do that, the total goals that serve as the baseline is 191.

Career-Average Basis

The idea here is not to rely on a single year to try to predict a volume of goals from the Ovechkin-less Capitals.  The other 20 roster players all have histories, whether coming off a rookie season or, if you are a Roman Hamrlik, almost 1,400 games of experience.  Using the same process we used in building the baseline, we find that Alex Ovechkin has an average of 50 goals per 82-games over the course of his career, considerably higher than the 40-per-82 games he had last year in what is the baseline number.  However, other players have had bigger years over the course of their careers than they had last year, too.  Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Wojtek Wolski are among that group and push the total number of goals for the 21 skaters to 278.  Take out Ovechkin’s total (50), and the remainder for the other 20 skaters is 228.  When we further account for the available number of man-games in an 82-game season, this 20-man group might be expected to score a total of 205 goals if they hit their career average marks.

Career-Best Basis

Alex Ovechkin scored 65 goals in the 2007-2008 season.  For Caps fans, that season might seem so far away, but it is still the most goals scored by a left wing in NHL history.  But there are some impressive goal totals among other Capitals when finding their respective career best.  There is Mike Green with 31 goals in 68 games in 2008-2009.  There is Nicklas Backstrom with 33 goals in 2009-2010.  Brooks Laich had 25 in the same season, nine more than he had last season.  Wojtek Wolski and Joel Ward had career bests significantly better than their output last season.

Applying the same rules in this scenario we have a 21-man total of 386 goals.  Taking Ovechkin’s total out (65 goals in 82 games), we are left with 321 goals.  And when we account for the available number of man-games, that total is 289. 

What Does It Mean?

First of all, the comparison of these three scenarios highlight just how disappointing last year’s scoring output was.  Even with Ovechkin not in the mix, the 20 remaining Caps had a lower adjusted goal total (191) than their career average adjusted goal total (205).  And that is after adding Mike Ribeiro’s output and Wojtek Wolski’s for that matter.  That might be the product of the continuing decline in scoring since Lockout I, coaching style, or just some bad years goal-scoring wise (Mike Knuble comes to mind).

But what does this mean in a Caps world without Ovechkin?  Remember that the adjusted goal total for the other 20 players last season was 191 goals.  To get to last year’s goal scoring total (218 goals) the Caps have to find a way to make up 27 goals.  They do not have to make up Ovechkin’s entire production, much of the difference being due to the subtraction of Knuble and the addition of Mike Ribeiro among scoring lines.

If the Capitals 20 remaining roster players play to their career averages per-82 games (adjusted for available man-games), they would have to make up only 13 goals, from 205 to 218. 

We can safely dismiss the “career-best” scenario as an exercise of wishful thinking.  It is unlikely that Green would reach 31 goals again (or 37 in the per-82 game adjusted measure).  The same might be said for Nicklas Backstrom (career best: 33/33), Ribeiro (27/29), or Wolski (22/24).  But there are some Capitals who could improve on their respective career bests.  Players like Marcus Johansson (13/15), Mathieu Perreault (16/21), John Carlson (7/9), or Dmitry Orlov (3/4) could improve on those bests.  But note that the 289 goals in the “career best” scenario are only 16 more goals than the league leader (Pittsburgh) had last season.

And that begs the big question, what do the Caps have to make up without Ovechkin, not just to get to last year’s total – a disappointing one – but to being a top-ten scoring team?  Last year’s tenth-leading scoring team was Toronto.  The Maple Leafs scored a total of 227 goals.  When compared to the 191 goal baseline for the 20 remaining Caps, the club needs to find 36 goals somewhere to fill Ovechkin’s absence and the additional production to be a likely top-ten scoring team.  The difficulty here for the Caps is that only nine players in the league had that many or more last season.  And getting into the top-ten is not a trivial consideration.  Eight of the top-ten scoring teams in the league made the playoffs, including seven of the ten teams to finish the season with more than 100 standings points.

If the Caps were to become a likely top-five scoring team once more, they would have to make up something on the order of 50 goals (Vancouver was fifth with 241 goals last season).  Only Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin hit or exceeded that mark last season.  Each of the teams in the top-five made the playoffs last season, and four of them finished with more than 100 points.

Looking at it from another angle, if the Caps can make up only a fraction of the missing Ovechkin production and finish with, say, 200 goals, their playoff chances would look grim compared to last season.  Seven teams finished the 2011-2012 season with 200 goals or fewer.  Five of them missed the playoffs and another (Florida) finished only five points ahead of the ninth-place finisher.  Of course, the Caps could be the Los Angeles Kings – the seventh of these teams and defending Stanley Cup champions – but that would not necessarily be the way to bet.

It seems very unlikely that Alex Ovechkin will translate a statement made in the heat of labor negotiations into action days or weeks from now.  But if he was to do so, the Caps offensive prospects would be bleak.  They almost certainly would have no 30-goal scorers.  They might have no more than two 20 goal scorers based on career averages (Backstrom and Ribeiro) and no guarantee of any.  The short-term outlook for the Capitals would put in serious jeopardy their being able to add to the five-year playoff streak they take into the 2012-2013 season.  And it would cast severe doubt on the club’s chances to be a Stanley Cup contender for years to come.