Monday, October 19, 2009

Sharing the Burden and the Wealth

“More weight.”

Those are, as legend has it, the dying words of Giles Corey, a farmer accused of witchcraft during the period of the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Corey, who refused to submit himself to trial, was pressed to death under heavy stones, the only person ever executed in American history in such a fashion under court order.

Why the history lesson? Because right now, there is something of a weight being applied to the broad shoulders of Alex Ovechkin. Through eight games this season, the Capitals have scored 28 goals. Ovechkin has nine of that number and has assisted on seven others. Having a hand in 16 of the Capitals’ 28 goals (57.1 percent) is a rather prodigious accomplishment, even at this early stage of the season.

But it’s more than that. It’s as much Ovechkin’s feet as his hands in the goals, as in, having his feet on the ice. Of the other 12 goals scored by the Caps so far, Ovechkin has been on the ice for five of them (three of them power play goals), meaning he’s been on the ice for 21 of the Caps 28 goals. That effect ripples through the roster:

- Nicklas Backstrom had two goals and eight assists in his first six games, during which he centered Ovechkin. He has one assist in two games with those two having been split up (he was scoreless in his last two games on Ovechkin’s line).

- Alexander Semin was 5-4-9 in his first four games of the season, skating primarily on the right side opposite Ovechkin. He is 1-0-1 since those two have been split up. It’s worth noting that of the five goals scored when Ovechkin was on the ice, but did not figure in the scoring for, Semin has three of those goals.

- Brooks Laich has seven points so far (3-4-7). Two of those goals are power play goals, both of which (not surprisingly, given the power play ice time he logs) were with Ovechkin on the ice.

- Mike Knuble has five assists in eight games. That is a 51-assist pace that would obliterate his career best (31, with the Flyers in 2005-2006). All five have come in his last three games, and all three have come with Ovechkin – now his new linemate – on the ice. Four of them have come on Ovechkin goals.

- Let’s leave power play scoring out of this. Given that Ovechkin logs so much power play time (his 6:24 average power play ice time leads the team and is third in the league), he’s going to be on the ice for just about any scoring the Caps record – he has five points (1-4-5) and has been on the ice for all eight power play goals scored by the Caps. What about even strength? The Caps have 20 even strength goals this year, of which Ovechkin has eight. He also has three even strength assists, and he’s been on the ice for two other even strength goals. That’s 13 of 20 he’s been on his skates for.

There are a few things that one might draw from this. First, Ovechkin is good. This isn’t exactly news. The related theme is that it hardly seems to matter who skates on his line. Here is how the other forwards have done skating with Ovechkin (and otherwise):

Backstrom: 2-8-10 (0-1-1)
Morrison: 1-3-4 (2-1-3)
Semin: 5-4-9 (1-0-1)
Laich: 1-2-3 (2-2-4)
Knuble: 2-5-7 (0-0-0)

Knuble clearly has some early chemistry with Ovechkin, if only by association (he has assists on each of Ovechkin’s last four goals). Backstrom certainly does. At first blush, this might suggest an Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble top line. But this would raise the question of how productive a line of Laich-Morrison-Semin might be over time. It is perhaps one of those questions a coach doesn’t mind having to ponder, his having such an abundance of offensive riches to pick from.

But it does have that dark side. Ovechkin has been the constant in the offense so far. It seems that no matter which forward is put on his line, he and they produce, often in tandem. But that is a lot of weight for one line (that on which Ovechkin skates) to bear over 82 games. The second line has to produce (even if it means chipping away at the margins of first line numbers), and someone – anyone – other than Matt Bradley (two goals) has to pot the occasional puck from among the third and fourth lines. And while we’re at it, Mike Green is the only defenseman with a goal, too.

The Caps have the talent to achieve the necessary balance on offense -- to share the burden and the wealth. Two other forwards averaging better than a point a game and three others a point short of that threshold point to that talent. That is a fact that has been overshadowed by the fast start by Ovechkin, who by virtue of his performance and those of the line mates he happens to be skating with, has to be the early leader in the Hart Trophy race. But while he might be, himself, accused of occasional witchcraft on the ice, “more weight” on Ovechkin and, by extension, the rest of the first line – whatever its makeup – is not a long term prescription for success.