Sunday, June 14, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
-- Aristotle

Back in early autumn, when the media were engaged in predicting Hart Trophy winners as the NHL’s most valuable player, there was the usual subject, and there were the outside-the-box picks.

There is a name conspicuous by its absence among those linked predictions. A name that was called to accept the trophy three times over a six season span – in 2008, 2009, and 2013. One that was also named a finalist in 2010.  Washington Capitals left-winger Alex Ovechkin was named as a finalist for the Trophy in 2015, the fifth time in the last eight seasons he was among the three finalists for the award.

The 2014-2015 season for Ovechkin was noteworthy if only for its contrast to his 2013-2014 season that was dominated by commentary about his plus-minus number, a minus-35.  Let us briefly recap.  In the entire history of the NHL, only four players – Rick Martin, Mario Lemieux, Rick Nash, and Ovechkin – recorded a season in which they finished with both 40 or more goals and a minus-35 or worse.  Ovechkin alone has a season – last season – with 50 or more goals and a minus-35.

You would have thought he was on ice for just about every goal scored against the Caps and that his utter lack of interest or attention to defense was the prima facie cause of each score.  The fact is, he did not lead (or trail, depending on your point of view) the league’s forwards in goals scored against while on ice at 5-on-5 (he finished tied with James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel for the third worst total (61) behind Jason Spezza (66) and Milan Michalek (68)).  The trouble was that he was on ice for only 34 goals scored by the Caps at 5-on-5, tied for 168th among 583 forwards (numbers from  You could say he didn’t make teammates better, or teammates couldn’t finish.  Chicken, meet egg.

Forward to this season.  One thing that certainly seems lost in the conversation among the hockey pundit class this season is the plus-45 improvement in Ovechkin’s plus-minus number over last season (he finished this season with a plus-10).  It is not that he shaved most of that off his goals scored against number.  On ice for 50 goals against at 5-on-5 this season, he realized an 11-goal improvement over last season.  Clearly, he is not now, nor is he ever likely to be a Selke Trophy finalist for best defensive forward (even if he did receive votes for the award in 2008, 2009, and 2010).  However, he was on ice for 54 goals scored by the Caps at 5-on-5, tied for 24th best in the league among forwards and a 20-goal improvement over last season.

Hockey, you see, is a team game.

But, this being a review of the 2014-2015 season for Ovechkin, let us stick to that.  There is, of course, his signature talent – scoring goals. For the third consecutive season he will have the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer to himself, the first time that a player has won the award three times in succession and the first time a player led the league in goals three consecutive years since Brett Hull did it with the St. Louis Blues in 1989-1990 through 1991-1992.  It is his fifth time winning the Richard in the last eight seasons.  Only two players have led the NHL in goals scored more times than the five that Ovechkin led the league: Bobby Hull (seven times) and Phil Esposito (six).  He is currently tied with Wayne Gretzky, Charlie Conacher, Gordie Howe, and Maurice Richard with five seasons leading the league.

It was not as if he played favorites in scoring goals this season, either.  He scored at least one goal against 26 of the 29 other clubs in the league in 2014-2015, only Detroit, Calgary, and Vancouver spared his lighting the red light.  He was most productive, as one might expect, against divisional opponents.  He had five goals in four games against the New York Rangers, four in four games against the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins, and four in five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets, all of them Metropolitan Division rivals.

Ovechkin did not pile up goal totals against stiffs, either.  In 39 games against the other 15 teams to qualify for the postseason he finished with 28 goals, a 59-goal pace over 82 games.  That breaks down to 18 goals in 24 games against Eastern Conference playoff qualifiers (a 62-goal pace per 82 games) and 10 goals in 15 games against Western Conference playoff qualifiers (a 55-goal pace per 82 games).

Finishing the season with 53 goals to second-place Steven Stamkos’ 43 marked the third time in his career that Ovechkin finished with ten or more goals more than the runner-up in goals scored.  He did it in 2007-2008, when his 65 goals were 13 more than runner-up Ilya Kovalchuk; and his 56 goals in 2008-2009 were ten more than runner-up Jeff Carter.  Stamkos is the only other player in the post 2004-2005 lockout era to finish a season with ten more goals than the league runner-up, 2011-2012 when his 60 goals were ten more than Evgeni Malkin’s 50.

The 2014-2015 season was Ovechkin’s fifth in ten career seasons in which he had a new head coach. His ability to adjust to the changes continues to be impressive.  He finished his first season under new coach Barry Trotz with 53 goals.  Compare that to his previous experiences under new management:
  • 2005-2006: Glen Hanlon (52 goals in 81 games of his rookie season)
  • 2007-2008: Bruce Boudreau (51 goals in 61 games after Boudreau took over in November, a 69-goal pace for a full season)
  • 2011-2012: Dale Hunter (34 goals in 60 games after Hunter took over in November, a 46-goal pace for a full season)
  • 2012-2013: Adam Oates (32 goals in 48 games of the abbreviated season, a 55-goal pace for a full season)
Ovechkin’s underlying numbers merit notice as well.  His Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (53.7) was better than the team as a whole (51.4), and it was a substantial improvement over last season (49.3) despite the fact that his fraction of offensive versus defensive zone starts, relative, dropped substantially this season (from 12.3 to 7.9; numbers from

He continues to produce at a high output offensively while maintaining a physical edge to his play.  His hits differential per game (hits less hits taken) of 1.86 this season was the highest in the eight years for which data are available from It was the fifth time in those eight years that his hits differential exceeded 1.00 per game.

That physical dimension to his play (he finished tenth in the league in hits among forwards) did not affect his durability.  He played in 81 games this season, missing only the Caps’ 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on March 5th.  In ten seasons, Ovechkin has appeared in 832 of a possible 858 regular season and playoff games played by the Capitals (97.0 percent).  Of the 26 games he missed in that span, 14 were due to injury, five were due to suspensions, three were due to undisclosed reasons (thought to be a knee injury requiring minor surgery), two were for personal reasons, and two were for other reasons not identified (source:

Fearless’ Take:  Since Alex Ovechkin came into the league in 2005-2006 he has 475 goals.  Over that same span, the runner-up in total goals is Jarome Iginla, with 339 (in six more games, for what it’s worth).  Let’s put that into another perspective.  Ovechkin has more total goals scored than any player since the 2001-2002 season.  Iginla is second with 467 (in 344 more games).  He has six 50-goal seasons since coming into the league in 2005-2006, including this season.  No other player has more than two (Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Steven Stamkos).  In fact, since the 1982-1983 season, no player has more 50-goal seasons overall than Ovechkin (Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have six as well).  As for the 2014-2015 season, Ovechkin finished the season with 53 goals, 81 points, and a plus-10.  Only Phil Esposito (66 goals, 133 points, plus-55), Mike Bossy (61/123/plus-30), and Marcel Dionne (58/135/plus-55), all of whom played in a much more offense-oriented era, had better seasons in those numbers at age 29 than Ovechkin did this season.

Cheerless’ Take: What’s with the tooth?  Is he ever going to get that fixed?  Anyway, there’s still that whole “Henrik Lundqvist” thing.  Third straight time Ovechkin and the Caps lost to him in a seven-game playoff series.  In his postseason career, Ovechkin is just 13-for-153 shooting against Lundqvist (8.5 percent shooting), 23-for-183 against everyone else he’s faced (12.6 percent).

Odd Ovechkin Fact: Alex Ovechkin is the only winner (apparently) in the history of the Hart Trophy to have won it at different positions – left wing in 2008 and 2009, right wing in 2013.

Game to Remember: February 15th versus Anaheim.  A player with a league-leading 11 game winning goals might have a number of games from which to pick.  Or, it might be the Caps’ last pre-season game, one in which he scored a goal but might be remembered more for the beginning of one of the more heartwarming bonds between player and fan this season.  We will go with a mid-winter game to wrap up the Caps’ west-coast road trip.  Having split the first two games of the trip, an overtime win in San Jose and a loss in Los Angeles, the Caps headed to Anaheim to face the Ducks and former head coach Bruce Boudreau.

The Caps spotted the Ducks a 1-0 lead barely a minute into the context, but it took Ovechkin and the Capitals just 16 seconds to tie the game.  Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly from Ryan Getzlaf, drawing it back to Ovechkin at the edge of the faceoff circle to the left of goalie John Gibson.  Ovechkin settled the puck with his left skate and snapped a shot through three Anaheim defenders and past Gibson to tie the contest.  The Ducks scored four minutes later, but Ovechkin tied the game once more on a power play, one-timing a feed from Mike Green from the top of the left wing circle past Gibson at the 10:26 mark.

Washington took a two-goal lead in the second period, Marcus Johansson putting the Caps ahead, then Andre Burakovsky benefiting from two Anaheim defenders closing on Ovechkin to take a pass and rip a shot off Gibson’s glove and in to make it 4-2.  With the Caps hanging on to a 4-3 lead in the third period, Ovechkin started, then set up the clincher.  Anaheim’s Clayton Stoner had trouble finding a loose puck in his skates, and Ovechkin jumped in to poke it free.  It started a two-on-one rush with Burakovsky. As Ovechkin carried the puck across the Ducks’ blue line, he curled a pass around defenseman Ben Lovejoy to Burakovsky, who deked Gibson to the ice and tucked the puck around him to seal the Caps’ 5-3 win.  It was Burakovsky’s first two-goal game of his career.  For Ovechkin, it was his second four-point game of the season and the 19th of his career.

Game to Forget:  March 21st versus Winnipeg.  When the Caps touched down in Winnipeg in late March it was to face a team scrambling for a playoff spot. The Jets were on a three-game winning streak and were looking to extend it against their former division rivals.  If the Caps came out flat, they would pay.  They did, and they did.  The Captain didn’t provide much in the way of inspiration.  Take this goal by Mark Stuart to open the scoring, and look who is lollygagging into the frame as the goal is being scored…

…and who gets caught trying to fly out of the zone just before Mark Scheifele scores…

Ovechkin was on the ice for an empty netter by Adam Lowry for good measure in the Jets’ 3-0 win.  It was his only minus-3 of the season.  It was one of only 11 games this season in which he recorded two or fewer shots on goal.

Postseason: 5-4-9, minus-3, 61 shots on goal (still ranked tied for seventh among playoff skaters as of Sunday)

He was not the difference-maker he was in the regular season (or perhaps quite what the Caps needed in the playoffs).  The club was 3-2 in games in which he scored a goal, losing the last two of those games (Games 2 and 7 against the Rangers).  He went the last five games of the postseason just 1-for-23 in shooting (4.3 percent).  His Corsi numbers were generally good against the Rangers in the second round series (54.4 percent and plus-23 at 5-on-5; numbers from, but if you’re a goal scorer, it’s the goals that matter, too.  Oh, and there was this matter, too, that did not turn into his own "Messier Moment."

In the end…

If you look at this season in isolation, it was a remarkable one for Alex Ovechkin – tops in goals, tied for fourth in points, lapped the field in shots on goal (almost 100 more than next in line Rick Nash), a team record in power play goals (25; only one player – Ilya Kovalchuk – had more in a season since 1995-1996), led his team back to the playoffs and into the second round for just the 11th time in 40 seasons in franchise history after missing the postseason altogether last year.

But this was not a season “in isolation.”  It was entirely consistent with his body of work established over a decade, and it compares well in the context of NHL history.  He is among the elite in NHL history in goal scoring (third all-time in goals per game behind Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux).  He has, as demonstrated above, put up scoring totals it took other players many more years and games to amass.

That Ovechkin continued to produce in 2014-2015 at the level he has over previous nine seasons, especially considering the life cycle of goal scorers in the NHL is, if not utterly unique in NHL history, uncommonly rare. When Wayne Gretzky was 29 years old (as Ovechkin is now), his last 50 goal season was in his rear-view mirror.  At 29, Mike Bossy had his last 50-goal season.  Mario Lemieux would have two more 50-goal seasons after his 29th birthday, but he was already breaking down from illness and injury.  Among contemporaries who had 50-goal seasons (since the 2004-2005 lockout):

  • Dany Heatley has not had one since he was 26 years old, nine seasons ago.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk’s last one was at age 24, and at 29 he played his last NHL season (11 goals in 37 games with New Jersey).
  • Jonathan Cheechoo had his only 50-goal season in the first year after the lockout, at age 25.
  • Corey Perry has one 50-goal season, that coming at the age of 25, five seasons ago.
  • Sidney Crosby seems still capable of doing it in the abstract, but his last 50-goal season was at age 22, six seasons ago.
Only Steven Stamkos appears capable of dethroning Ovechkin as the preeminent goal scorer in the league at the moment, but his last 50-goal season came four years ago at age 21.

Alex Ovechkin stands at the pinnacle of his sport as an offensive weapon.  And no player since perhaps Gordie Howe combines his offensive production with as physical an edge to his game. In the modern era of the sport, since the expansion in the mid-1960’s, he is unique.  For some, that seems not to be good enough, that there are flaws in his game (defense).  Well, sure, and the Mona Lisa has flaws, too.  He faced a lot of criticism last year for his defensive performance, and this season started with persistent questions about his ability to "buy in" to a new coach's philosophy that might not play to his strengths.  He did tighten up his play in his own end, he did buy in to what would be his fifth coach's philosophy, and he managed to record an historic season.  Alex Ovechkin has made it a decade-long habit of excellence.

Grade: A

Rob Carr/Getty Images North America