“I’m the straw that stirs the drink.”
-- Reggie Jackson
The 2015-2016 season was the first season of the rest of Alex Ovechkin’s career, his first as a 30-year old. In ten seasons with the Washington Capitals coming into this season, he established himself as the pre-eminent goal scorer of his generation, and on a very short list of top all time goal scorers in NHL history. On a personal level, he had little left to accomplish, and in that sense he entered a phase of his career in which he is no longer competing with the rest of the NHL. He is now competing against history and the potential narrative that accompanies it.
“Alex Ovechkin, the greatest hockey player never to win a Stanley Cup.”
It really is the only thing left in his NHL career worth accomplishing; he’s done the rest. And the 2015-2016 season provided what might have been the best opportunity for him to sponge away any suggestion that the quote above would follow him into retirement. He had a year of experience under head coach Barry Trotz, a coach of sufficient stature and accomplishment to bring out other aspects of Ovechkin’s game without suppressing others, of getting him to “buy in” to a philosophy that required more appreciation for the 200-foot game.
Ovechkin also had the benefit of the work of General Manager Brian MacLellan, who addressed specific needs in two offseasons of work, bringing in defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in 2014 to shore up the defense, and then bringing in T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams in 2015 to bolster the right wing. The 2015-2016 team was arguably the deepest, most balanced, and best on which Ovechkin would play in his 11 seasons to date. The captain had a squad that could compete with the best in the league. And then…
…he slept in.
Ovechkin set his alarm clock incorrectly and missed a morning skate before Game 2 of the season against the San Jose Sharks. He was not spared the sanction that team rules required and was a healthy scratch for the game, one that the Caps lost, 5-0.
But in addition to gray hair, turning 30 means something else – the maturity to take your punishment and move on without sulking over it. The suspension was not so much as a speed bump to Ovechkin at the start of the season. He scored goals in each of the first five games in which he played and in eight of his first 12. He was held without a point in just one of those first dozen games (8-8-16 overall), that game coming against (who else) the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It is worth noting that in those first dozen games, Ovechkin was 7-7-14 at even strength. In his next 21 games he was 3-3-6 at evens. It would not be an isolated instance of low scoring at even strength for Ovechkin. From February 24th through April 2nd, a span of 20 games, he was 2-4-6 at even strength. He had just 16 even strength assists for the season, and only nine of them came in his last 67 games.
These things are relative, though. Ovechkin did lead the league in even strength goals. In fact, his 31 even strength goals would have ranked 17th in total goals in the league. As it was, his total of 50 goals led the league, again. This season was the fourth straight time Ovechkin led the league in goals and sixth time in the last nine seasons. It was the fourth straight time that Ovechkin led the league in power play goals (19), fifth time in the last nine years. Since he came into the league, his 525 goals is 164 more than the second highest goal scorer, Jarome Iginla was 361. Put another way, Ovechkin could have sat out the last three seasons (over which he scored 154 goals), and he would still be the leading goal scorer of the post-2004-2005 lockout era.
Fearless’ Take… Ovechkin scoring matters. The Caps won 39 of 49 games in which he recorded a point (39-7-3), they split 26 games in which he played and did not record a point (13-8-5). Then there is the matter of his “playing the right way.” A persistent narrative about Ovechkin is that he doesn’t care about defense. This season might not have earned him a Selke nomination as the league’s best defensive forward, but his being on ice for 0.62 goals against per game tied his lowest such number in his career (set in 2010-2011). Then there is the matter of “playing the right way” in terms of possession. Since he came into the league in 2005-2006, he ranks 95th among 756 forwards with at least 1,000 even strength minutes in score-adjusted Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (53.29 percent; numbers from war-on-ice.com). He out-performed that number this season, posting a 54.3 percent score-adjusted value, the fourth-highest of his career and best since 2009-2010 (58.5).
Cheerless’ Take… I was looking at that table of tens up above. It looks kind of strange. The first and last segments look really nice as far as the shot attempts and scoring chances go. But the six in the middle don't have the same shine to them. The weird part is that it doesn't seem to bear much of a relation to his putting up goals and points, but there has at least a look of coasting there in the middle of the season. With this team, maybe he and the Caps could afford it, or maybe it was something of a blessing, not having to bury the needle on the effort needle in January or February. But it still looks sort of weird.
Odd Ovechkin Fact… Alex Ovechkin takes a lot of shots. He led the league in shots on goal in ten of his 11 seasons, including the one just completed (Evgeni Malkin was the only interruption, that in 2011-2012). He is the only player over the last 11 seasons with a total of more than 4,000 shots on goal (4,228). No other player has as many as 3,000 (Eric Staal has 2,909). Some would argue that is a bit greedy, evidence of being a puck hog. However, the Caps were 21-3-3 in games in which Ovechkin recorded more than five shots, 4-1-0 in games in which he had more than ten shots on goal.
Game to Remember… January 10th versus Ottawa
The suspense about whether the Capitals would make the playoffs had pretty much worn off by the time the new year started. They finished the 2015 portion of the season with a 28-7-2 record and had won three of four games in the new year as the Ottawa Senators came to town on January 10th. What suspense there was stemmed from what happened in the Caps previous game, a 4-3 overtime win over the New York Rangers in which the game-winning goal was scored by Alex Ovechkin on an end-to-end rush after goalie Philipp Grubauer made a great save on Derek Stepan to keep play going…
The goal was Ovechkin’s 499th, putting him on the brink of becoming the 43rd player in NHL history to record 500 goals. The Caps ended the competitive portion of the contest with the Senators early in the second period when Dmitry Orlov scored to put the Caps ahead, 4-1. Late in the period, though, Ottawa’s Mark Stone was sent to the penalty box on a tripping call. It was time to go to work and for Ovechkin to head to his office in the left wing circle…
Ovechkin added another goal in the Caps’ 7-1 win and finished the season with 525 career goals, 33rd in league history. He and Mike Bossy are the only players in the 43-member 500-goal club who have more than 500 goals in fewer than 900 career games.
Game to Forget… November 19th versus Dallas
It was not so much a game to forget as it might have been one that could have ended in a happier memory. A hot start by Alex Ovechkin had him 8-8-16 after 12 games, the eight goals lifting him into a tie with Sergei Federov as the top Russina-born goal scorer in NHL history at 483 goals. He stalled at that point, going four games without a point, the Caps splitting the four decisions. That brought the Caps and Ovechkin to Game 17 on the schedule, a home contest against the Dallas Stars, a team with the best record in the league at the time (15-4-0). The team exchanged goals in the first period, but Cody Eakin put the Stars ahead early in the third. With the period almost seven minutes old, Ovechkin secured the puck just inside the Stars’ blue line and tried to find T.J. Oshie for a deflection try. Oshie could not tip the puck past goalie Kari Lehtonen, but he was able to recover it in the corner to Lehtonen’s right. Oshie threw the puck in front where it was redirected to Nicklas Backstrom closing on the far post. Backstrom slid a backhand pass to Ovechkin skating hard to the post on the other side, and Ovechkin had a tap-in to break the record and tie the game. After having two goals disallowed in earlier games that would have enabled him to set the record sooner, there was no doubt about this one…
The Caps could not get that next goal to break on top, though. With less than nine minutes left, Jason Spezza pilfered a pass from in front of the Caps’ net and converted the gift into the game-winning goal in a 3-2 Stars win. Alex Ovechkin had the goal scoring record, but the Caps lost the only game they would lose at home in regulation in the regular season when Ovechkin recorded a goal.
Postseason… 12 games, 5-7-12, plus-3, 57.5 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, plus-8.4 CF%/Relative
Alex Ovechkin has not made a career saving his best for last in terms of individual seasons. Since going 11-10-21, plus-10 in the 2009-2010 postseason, he never exceeded ten points in any single postseason, going 21-19-40, minus-3, in 51 games. He was a “minus” player in his last four trips to the playoffs. Not that he was the problem, but his performance was not enough to drag the rest of an underperforming roster out of the second round in the three instances in which the Caps reached that round in the last five years. This year, he, T.J. Oshie, and John Carlson were arguably the best players on the ice on a consistent basis through the postseason.
Ovechkin had points in seven of his last 11 games of the 2016 playoffs, but it was a reflection of just how little support he was getting below the first line and from among defensemen not named “John Carlson” that the Caps went 1-4 in the games in which he did not record a point in the playoffs. He was certainly consistent enough in the two series as well, going 3-2-5, plus-1 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, then going 2-5-7, plus-2 in the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. But in the last four games against the Penguins, three of which the Caps lost, two of them in overtime, Ovechkin went 2-4-6. There just were not enough contributions from elsewhere on the roster.
In the end…
When Ovechkin shot, the Caps won. When he scored, the Caps won. And the odd part of that was that such production bore no relation to ice time. The Caps were 27-12-5 in games in which he had more than 20 minutes, 29-3-3 in games in which he skated less than 20 minutes. You might explain that as the team not needing heavy ice time loads in wins.
But once again, it was all for naught. For the eighth time in his career, Ovechkin did not play a game in the conference finals in the postseason. On one level, he is still performing at a level that is historic in its production, a gift to Caps fans that might not be appreciated as much as it should. But on a deeper level, Alex Ovechkin really has little else to accomplish. Sure, in good health he will continue to post goal totals no one in this era is likely to approach, and he will climb the all-time rankings. But having passed the age of 30 he is playing against history, racing against it in fact. There remains only one thing left to accomplish to cement his place among the very best ever to play in the National Hockey League. He has been and remains the straw the stirs the drink in Washington. Now, if only that drink could quench his – and Caps fans – thirst for the elusive Stanley Cup.
Photo: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images North America