Sunday, September 21, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

“All our sweetest hours fly fastest.”
-- Virgil

It has now been more than ten years since Alex Ovechkin walked to the stage and pulled on a Washington Capitals jersey for the first time as the number one overall pick of the 2004 entry draft.  Nine NHL seasons (six reaching the post-season), eight world championship tournaments, two Olympic tournaments, and the better part of a season in the KHL during the 2012-2013 NHL lockout.  From charismatic pitch man who sold everything from cars, to TV networks, to candy bars, to banks, to hockey equipment; to perhaps the most casually dismissed elite goal scorer, certainly of this era and perhaps in the history of the NHL.  It certainly has not been a boring ten years watching the career of Alex Ovechkin unfold.

But here we are, ten years into what almost certainly will be the most accomplished career in the history of the Washington Capitals, Ovechkin having won just about every regular season individual honor the NHL awards, and both he and his fans are still waiting for that elusive team accomplishment, a Stanley Cup.

Coming off his fifth 50-goal season in 2013-2014, tied for sixth all time in number of such seasons, Ovechkin received far more press for posting a minus-35 (and yes, he is the only player in league history to record at least 50 goals and a minus-35 or worse).  Still, he won his fourth Maurice Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer.  He was named to the second team NHL all-star team, the eighth time in nine seasons he was named to the first or second team (not including being named to both first and second teams in 2012-2013 at right and left wings).  For the fourth time in his career he recorded at least ten game-winning goals (10, second in the league last season). 

Then there was the power play.  His 24 power play goals led the league, was the third time he recorded at least 20 man advantage goals, and were the most in the NHL since Teemu Selanne had 25 in the 2006-2007 season.  In the modern era (post-1967 expansion), only five players have more 20-power play goal seasons than the three turned in by Ovechkin to date: Brett Hull (5), Mike Bossy (4), Phil Esposito (4), Tim Kerr (4), and Luc Robitaille (4).

Fearless’ Take…

One of the hallmarks of Alex Ovechkin’s career to date has been his consistency.  With respect to Ovechkin’s goal scoring, here is one way to look at that. Only three times last season did Ovechkin go more than two consecutive games without a goal.  His 51 goals were scored over 40 games, those 40 games with at least one goal being more than half the games in which he played (78).  He had points in 48 of the 78 games in which he played.

He remains the straw that stirs the drink.  In 36 wins in which he played, Ovechkin had 35 goals (35-19-54).  He had 16 of his 24 power play goals in those 36 wins, scoring power play goals in 13 of those wins.  He had 23 percent of the total goals scored by the Caps last season (51 of 225) but more than a third of the game-winning goals for the team (10 of 28).

Ovechkin was recently described as “one of the least feared 50 goal scorers in the history of the game.”  The breathless hyperbole aside, since he entered the league in 2005-2006 he has more than 100 more goals (422) than the next highest goal scorer over that period (Jarome Iginla: 310). He has five of the 18 50-goal seasons since the 2004-2005 lockout.  Only Sidney Crosby (5) has more 100-point seasons since the 2004-2005 lockout (4), and while the last of those was in 2009-2010, consider that since then he has been a bit hamstrung by coaches who were rookies behind an NHL bench when they took over (Dale Hunter, Adam Oates) and a season (2012-2013) half lost to another lockout. 

Cheerless’ Take…

Yeah, cuz, about all those goals and points scored in wins.  Thirty-five goals, 54 points, and a plus-3?  He was a minus player in ten of those 36 wins in which he played.  In 42 regulation and extra time losses he was minus-38 and was a minus player in 26 of those games.

While plus-minus is a statistic of limited use to explain individual performance, it is also true that only 12 of 435 forwards playing in at least 20 games last season were on ice for more goals per 60 minutes at5-on-5 than Ovechkin.  And, he had the 20th worst plus/minus per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in that group of forwards.  Only five forwards were on ice for more goals against at 5-on-5 than Ovechkin.  While his linemates bear a certain amount of responsibility for that kind of performance, no Capital forward ranked lower than Ovechkin in any of those categories.

That whole plus-minus thing was a particular problem against Eastern Conference teams that reached the playoffs.  In 28 games against those eight teams Ovechkin had 18 goals, an impressive number.  He was also a minus-18, a less impressive one.

The Big Question… Is that all there is?

The consensus question that the hockey media thinks most important with respect to Ovechkin is whether he and new head coach Barry Trotz can read from the same page.  The implication is that he and Trotz’ predecessors either did not read from that same page or that there was some sort of antagonistic relationship between Ovechkin and those coaches.

That seems to be a simple, and simplistic, conclusion.  Except for one in-game comment about a coaching decision, it is hard to find much in the way of commentary from Ovechkin that undermined his coaches’ authority or that signaled an antagonism toward those coaches’ approach to the game.  One can argue about results – the Caps have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs in the Ovechkin era – but the term ”coach killer” (a term that generates no lack of hits in a web search) is reflexive, not the product of analysis.

It is fair to ask what Ovechkin has done to improve and round out his game over nine seasons in the NHL.  He came into the league as a prolific goal scorer, and he remains one of the most productive goals scorers in the game. And, if you are going to have one skill, it would be hard to think of another one you would rather a player have.  However, if you look at the rest of his game you wonder what it is that has improved over the course of his career.

This is where Barry Trotz can make a difference, if any coach can.  Ovechkin has played for four coaches, all of them in their first NHL coaching positions.  None had the ability (and in a couple of cases, showed little inclination) to develop those other skills that would make Ovechkin a more dangerous all-around player.  Trotz has 15 seasons on coaching experience at the NHL level.  He has coached a wide variety of players at that level in terms of style, temperament, and talent.  This is a type of coach Ovechkin has not had in his career.

It is not all on the coach, though.  Ovechkin just turned 29 and is in the chronological prime of his career.  That, and his nine years of experience, implies a certain responsibility on his part to take the initiative to improve and bring out other aspects of his game.  It has not yet been enough in terms of team success that he be primarily (or exclusively, in the opinion of some) a goal scorer.  Even if he remains the most productive goal scorer of his generation, if that is all there is it would seem unlikely that the Capitals will be any more successful going forward in Ovechkin’s career than they have been over its first nine seasons.

In the end…

The whole plus-minus thing with respect to Ovechkin’s game is a red herring.  This is a player who was a plus-82 over his first eight seasons.  The minus-35, while historic, was a convenient hook on which a lot of hockey media could hang their general disdain for Ovechkin’s style on and off the ice.  On the other hand, he is the captain, he is the straw that stirs the drink, and the Caps are not likely to be successful on any level unless he is happy and productive. 

In 2014-2015 he is in a situation in which he has not found himself in his career, playing for a coach with a long NHL resume.  The team around him is more balanced than it has been in recent memory, with a deeper defense than the club has known in at least a decade.  It is not all on him to score goals.  That makes it an opportunity for Ovechkin to develop more of his game.  Better late than never, because as Virgil said, “All our sweetest hours fly fastest.”

Projection: 80 games, 51-37-88, plus-4

Photo: James Guillory-USA Today