“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”
-- C. S. Lewis
It is odd to associate the word “failure” with the career of Alex Ovechkin, but this has been a subtext to his professional career in hockey, the gaudy goal scorer who comes up empty-handed in the games that matter. Hockey is a team sport, but its superstars are called to account for their achievements and their disappointments, more credit bestowed on them than is warranted for the former, and bearing more blame for the latter than they deserve.
What is not in question is that Ovechkin is the premier goal-scorer of his generation, and it is not close. Since he came into the league in 2005-2006 he has 475 goals, 136 more than the runner-up over that period, Jarome Iginla. In fact, Ovechkin’s dominance in goal scoring has been so complete over his ten years in the league that he could have sat out the last three complete seasons – 207 games in all that he played – and still had precisely as many goals as does Iginla over the last ten seasons (339).
Last season Ovechkin topped the league in goals once more with 53, the fifth time he did so in ten seasons and the third season in a row he captured the Maurice Richard Trophy as top goal scorer. While he has those five Richard Trophies in ten years, no other NHL player has won it on his own more than once in that span of years (Steven Stamkos, who won the trophy in 2012, shared it with Sidney Crosby in 2010). His third goal-scoring title in succession was the first time that feat has been accomplished since Brett Hull did it from 1989-1992, and it was just the seventh time in NHL history a player led the league three or more consecutive years in goals scored.
Ovechkin hardly padded his goal total in 2014-2015 with goals in blowouts or with empty net goals. Of his 53 goals scored, 44 of them came with the Caps down a goal, tied, or up a goal. He had only two empty net goals for the season, tied for 32nd in the league (by contrast, Joe Thornton, who had 16 goals for the season, finished tied for first with five empty-netters).
What was noteworthy about his sixth season of 50 or more goals was as much the "when" as the "how many." He started a bit slowly, by his standards, recording 14 goals in his first 31 games (a 37-goal pace over 82 games). However, starting with a five-game goal scoring streak to end the 2014 portion of the season and begin the 2015 portion, Ovechkin finished the season with 39 goals in 50 games (a 64-goal pace).
Ovechkin did not shirk from stiff competition. In 38 games against teams that reached the postseason, he was 26-13-39 (a 56-goal scoring pace). That included going 16-6-22 in 23 games against Eastern Conference playoff eligible and 10-7-17 in 15 games against Western Conference playoff eligible. The only team among the 15 clubs against which he did not record a point was Vancouver (no points in two games).
Further, while he does score often on the power play, he has not been delinquent in his possession game. His Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 was 53.7, his best such finish since 2010-2011 (53.9), and his Corsi-for/relative of plus-3.4 was also his best since that 2010-2011 season (plus-4.0; numbers from war-on-ice.com). Looking at linemates, Ovechkin skated more than 200 minutes at 5-on-5 with four other forwards: Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Marcus Johansson, and Andre Burakovsky. For each of them, except Burakovsky, their Corsi-for percentage apart from Ovechkin was lower than when they skated with him (numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com).
Alex Ovechkin had five goals in 14 playoff games, an improvement over his last postseason appearance (one goal in a seven-game loss to the New York Rangers in 2013), but he still has just 11 goals in his last 36 playoff games dating back to Game 4 of the 2011 series against Tampa Bay (a 25-goal pace over 82 games). This season he had four goals in his first nine games of the post season, but he was held to one goal (his only point) over his last five games against the Rangers in the second round. And here is a troubling fact. The Caps’ last five postseason series have gone seven games. In Games 5-7 of those series, 15 games in all, Ovechkin has only three goals, and the Caps are 6-9 in those games, losing three of the five series. He has only one goal in his last ten of those Games 5-7.
The Big Question… Can Ovechkin find that last push to get to the top?
It is frustrating for the fan to see a player like Alex Ovechkin sprint to within sight of the summit of Everest and not be able to negotiate the last few hundred feet. In ten seasons he has been the most lethal offensive force in the league…until the spring. Then, either because of an ill-timed slump, lack of secondary support when he is on his game, or just bad luck (usually in the form of Ranger goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose teams have come out on top the last three times they met, all in seven-game series).
The burden has weighed most heavily on Ovechkin to propel the Caps deeper into the playoffs, and whether one thinks this is fair or not, this is the price one pays for being on a very short list of best players in the league. What he has not had in this quest for the past three or four seasons, if ever, is a team around him as deep as the 2015-2016 version on paper, on both sides of the puck and in goal. The 2009-2010 Presidents Trophy team was an offensive juggernaut, but it had issues on defense and in goal that were exposed in the post season. The last few editions of the club were not especially deep, nor did they have stability behind the bench.
And this gets to something that gets less attention than it deserves. Last season, Barry Trotz became the fifth coach Ovechkin played for over the span of eight seasons, his fourth coach in less than four seasons. He did remarkably well in performing under first year coaches – 52 goals in his rookie season under Glen Hanlon, 65 goals in 2007-2008 (51 of them in 61 games under in-season replacement Bruce Boudreau), 38 goals in 2011-2012 (30 of them in 55 games under in-season replacement Dale Hunter), 32 goals in just 48 games under Adam Oates, and 53 goals last season under Trotz. It speaks to an ability to adapt to different approaches, a willingness to pay a price (even to changing positions, as he did for Oates) for success. In other words, incentive and effort do not seem to be issues with respect to Ovechkin. The difference is that now, the team around him is deeper and more rounded.
In the end…
Alex Ovechkin turned 30 years of age on Thursday. The truth of the matter is, there are probably more elite years behind him than in front of him. That kind of truth focuses one’s attention as one realizes that the opportunities to realize a championship are dwindling. However, until Ovechkin’s production drops, there is little basis for predicting it. He has been called all but washed up as an elite player in the not too distant past and plowed right through it with three goal-scoring titles in a row and counting. While there will be that year when age creeps into his game, and his production starts its inevitable decline, there is little reason to suspect that this is that year.
Quite the contrary, he is entering a season in which he is still in possession of his elite skills, and the club around him can provide the support even a superstar needs in a team sport where “20 men pulling together” every night is not just a cliché. Ten years of success, disappointment, and (at least in the eyes of some) failure, are perhaps prelude to his moving forward – finally – to that success hoped for and expected of him ten years ago.
Projection: 80 games, 51-37-88, plus-12
Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America