Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On the Matter of Alex Ovechkin's Consistency -- Part II

In the first part of our look at the production of Alex Ovechkin we focused on what we called “pivot points” – those incidences or occurrences that might have been, by virtue of their importance, turning points after which Ovechkin’s production slumped from that of a 50-goals, 100-point player to more of a 35-goal (or less – he is on a pace for 26), 80-point (or less – he is on a pace for 62) player.

A general look at seven points did not yield a clear point at which Ovechkin’s production began to turn. So now we will look at the numbers themselves. Over there on the right margin you will find a link to a piece we scribbled back in Ovechkin’ second season, “The Remarkable Consistency of Alexander Ovechkin.” We updated it periodically, the last time being at the beginning of November 2009. The table in it showed that remarkable consistency of Ovechkin in that he consistently and reliably scored ten or more points in ten games. In the 33 full ten-game blocks we looked at, 28 times he reached the ten-point mark. Twenty-one times he recorded 13 or more points, 13 points-per-ten game block being that necessary to reach the 100-point mark for an 82-game season.

Ovechkin recently reached the 500-games played mark, giving him 50 ten-game blocks of production. In those 50 blocks of ten games…

-- Ovechkin recorded ten or more points in 42 of them.
-- He recorded 13 or more points (the 100-point pace) in 27 of them.
-- He record 15 or more points (roughly a 120-point pace) in 17 of them.
-- He recorded six or more goals (roughly a 50-goal pace) in 31 of them.
-- He recorded ten or more goals in five of them.

Displaying the data graphically hints at some things. First, let’s look at a graph of his goal scoring by ten-game block (click on any picture for a larger image):

Over that span of 50 ten-game segments Ovechkin averaged 6.18 goals/segment. But note the considerable drop-off late in the series. He only reached six goals in one of his last ten segments and averaged only 3.6 goals/segment. Of the five occasions in which he recorded three or fewer goals in a ten-game segment, four of them came in these last ten segments (the other came in games 21-30 of his career).

Then there is the matter of assists. Over the 50-segment series Ovechkin shows an upward trend overall in producing helpers:

Even though there is considerable amplitude among individual ten-game segments (a low of one assist, a high of 13), this should not be surprising for a winger primarily known for – and responsible for – scoring goals on his own. But as his game became more refined, or just as a product of experience and deeper talent around him accumulated by the Caps over time, he was trending up in producing assists.

That brings us to “points.” The combination of a marked drop off in goal scoring with an upward trend in assists gives us this over the entire series of ten-game segments:

Overall, the drift is downward, although still trending over ten points per segment. But there is that spike of 20 points. The points fall off the proverbial cliff after that.

The drop-off in points is influenced most by Ovechkin’s goal production, hardly surprising for a goal scorer. But did Ovechkin merely forget how to score goals? Was he “figured out” by defenses? Was there an injury that might have influenced production among the last segments in the series?

To explore those factors, we might look first at shots on goal. Ovechkin has been a high-volume shooter in his career thus far. He led the league in shot and shots per game in each of his first six seasons, including last season. But consider that in his first five seasons he averaged at least 5.11 shots per game in four of them. Only in one of them – 2006-2007 – did he average fewer than five shots per game. That also happened to be the only season of the five in which he finished with fewer than 50 goals. Here is how the shots look graphically in his 50 ten-game segments to date:

It is worth noting that the sixth of six seasons in which he led the league in shots on goal – last season – he averaged “only” 4.65 shots per game for the season. But if you look at the graph, you can see that the drop-off came not in the 2010-2011 season (covered in segments 40-47), but started before that. And it was the drop-off starting late in the previous season that contributed to a drop in Ovechkin’s shots on goal from 5.11 per game in 2009-2010 to 4.65 shots per game in 2010-2011.

That brings us to shooting percentage. As a high-volume, high output shooter (shots/goals), Ovechkin has never been an especially efficient shooter. His career high in shooting percentage came in the 2007-2008 season (14.6 percent), which also happened to be the year in which he recorded 65 goals. Only twice in his first five full seasons has he ranked in the top-100 in shooting percentage among all qualifying skaters, and his average rank has been 102nd. Here is how Ovechkin’s shooting percentage looks across his 50 ten-game segments:

While the graph shows a downward trend to his shooting percentage, Ovechkin was reliably in the 10-15 percent band for much of the series. Only 15 times in the 50 segments has he been below ten percent over a ten-game segment. However, eight of them have come in his last 12 segments.

Alex Ovechkin is a goal scorer. It is has not been and is not the entirety of his game, but it has defined his presence to a large extent in his six-plus seasons in the NHL. It also animates the rest of his game. Few players of recent memory seemed to get as much of a thrill in scoring a goal, and when he scored, the other parts of his game – hitting, skating, passing – seemed to follow in step.

But something has happened to cause the wheels to wobble on his goal-scoring production. Is it defenses figuring him out? Is it the natural effect of age? Is it something else? The anecdotal and graphic evidence points to something of recent vintage – something that has happened in the past 150 games or so. Trying to figure that out means delving a little deeper into the data and the calendar themselves. And that will be the task of the third and last part of this examination.

Something Grand, or Something Bland

The Washington Capitals are careening into the holidays like a jalopy on an icy road. They have been unable to generate much traction since their 7-0-0 start to the season. Since that start, the Caps have not won more than two games in succession and have accomplished that meager feat only three times covering their last 22 games.

The sliding around on the road that is the regular season leaves the Caps 15-13-1, in 12th place in the Eastern Conference as of this morning, and with eight games left in the 2011 portion of the 2011-2012 season in danger of finishing that portion of the season below .500.

So, if the ambition here is to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, we have to ask the question… when was the last time a team with a record below .500 at midnight, January 1st, gone on to win the Stanley Cup?

Answer: 1980

Thirty-two years ago, the New York Islanders – a team fresh from the disappointment of five consecutive post-season exits (four of them in the league semi-finals) – were about to find themselves stuck at 13-15-6 as the ball dropped in Times Square to herald the beginning of 1980. It did not look good for the Isles. And it wasn’t as if they were scalding hot as they completed the 1980 portion of that 1979-1980 season, either. They finished up 26-13-7 to end the season in second place in the Patrick Division, 25 points behind the Philadelphia Flyers. Oddly enough, it would be the Flyers that the Islanders would vanquish in the Stanley Cup finals that season to win the first of what would be four consecutive Stanley Cups.

Since then, however, mediocrity on New Year’s Eve has not been a hallmark of eventual champions. In the 29 seasons since the Islanders pulled off the unlikely feat of winning it all after being a below-.500 team on New Year’s Eve, 25 teams had at least 20 wins by January 1st. Nineteen teams were at least ten games over .500. Even since the lockout (and the dreaded “three-point” games), only one team – the 2008-2009 Pittsburgh Penguins – won the Stanley Cup with fewer than 20 wins at midnight, January 1st (and they had 19).

So, you can look at this in one of two ways. You can think to yourself that the Caps are like the 1980 Islanders – a team knowing several years of playoff disappointment, on their way to a mediocre season, but one that found something in themselves to soldier on, make the playoffs, and start a run of Stanley Cups not seen since (we'd settle for just the one at the moment).

Or, you can look at the last 29 years, the positions in which teams put themselves as the calendar changed over, and conclude that the Caps simply don’t have the magic stuff this time to finally skate with the Cup.

In one way or another, whether things will end with something grand or something bland, history will repeat itself.

A NO-point night -- Game 29: Flyers 5 - Capitals 1

Well, did THAT suck.

The Washington Capitals dropped a 5-1 decision to the Philadelphia Flyers last night that probably was not as close as the score indicated. Oh, sure…the Flyers did not light the lamp until there were less than four minutes remaining in the first period. But by that time the Caps had managed five shots on goal against goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, a goalie who had to leave early due to injury in his previous game and might have been solved more often with more shots on goal.

But that was not to be. The Flyers did get that goal in the game’s 17th minute – Scott Hartnell extending his goal-scoring streak to six games. And it was still just a 2-0 game late into the second period. But the Caps were making life easy on Bryzgalov, the Flyers scored a pair in the late stages of the second period, and the competitive portion of the evening was over. Not even Jeff Halpern’s third goal of the season with 6:01 left in the game could provide enough window dressing to make this look like anything but a stinker.

Other stuff…

-- If you are going to do something, do it as a team. And last night the Caps sucked as a team. Fifteen different skaters and both goaltenders were on the ice for the five Flyer goals. Halpern, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera were the only Caps not to find themselves on the ice for Flyer scores.

-- The Alexes merit special mention. Ovechkin did not have a shot on goal until the game was decided (for the record, at the 4:19 mark of the third period and the score 4-0, Flyers). He finished with three shots, five attempts, two hits…and no points. Semin had three shots on goal and had five hits, which must be a career high. But he was also on the ice for three Flyer goals, and for those keeping track of such things, he is 0-1-1, minus-8 in his last seven games.

-- Want to see what a team does with adversity? The Flyers lost league leading scorer Claude Giroux to a concussion for the forseeable future, and they are missing top defenseman Chris Pronger. So, 13 different skaters finished the night with points. Guys one does not expect to frequent the score sheet – Braydon Coburn, Max Talbot, Zac Rinaldo, Marc-Andre Bourdon (his first NHL goal), Jody Shelley…Jody Freakin’ Shelley?! – had points. Matt Carle had a pair. If only any of the Caps had a pair last night.

-- By historical standards, this was a tame game. There were only four minor penalties (three by the Flyers), no fighting majors, 43 hits recorded. The Flyers beat the Caps with skill and will.

-- The loss broke a ten game streak by the Caps not falling to the Flyers in regulation time. They were 7-0-3 against Philadelphia over those ten games.

-- That first period was the kind that haunts a team. The Caps get two power plays and manage only two shots on them without converting either of them. Then, less than two minutes after the second power play is killed off, the Flyers get a goal that Tomas Vokoun should have stopped. Hartnell’s shot might have ticked off Dennis Wideman’s stick, but from that distance and angle, that shot needs to be stopped.

-- What was Mathieu Perreault doing on the Bourdon goal? Waving his stick at the puck on its way through served nothing and accomplished less. It might have been Perreault’s stick off which the puck deflected for the goal.

-- The Caps did nothing with possession. Halpern, Brooks Laich, and Nicklas Backstrom were a combined 9-for-11 on offensive zone faceoffs. It’s like getting field position at mid-field four or five times in football and not converting any of them for touchdowns.

-- Conversely, that trio was 4-for-12 in the defensive zone. Not a habit that should be nurtured.

-- The top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin had a combined seven shots on goal, 13 shot attempts, eight hits, no points, and was minus-6.

-- Will one of these goaltenders take this job by the throat and do something with it? Vokoun was, to be charitable, off his game. Four goals on 21 shots in 40 minutes. It looked a little too much like the Buffalo game on November 26th, and that was just five appearances ago. Fuel for the fire in the Flyers commenting that they made the right choice of Bryzgalov over Vokoun. Fortunately, there are still more than 50 games and a post season to make them eat their words.

In the end, to quote the narrator in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” this game “stink, stank, stunk.” And that’s all that needs to be said.