Friday, September 23, 2016

Washington Capitals 2016-2017 Previews -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

“It is not by the gray of the hair that one knows the age of the heart.”
-- Edward Bulwer-Lytton

For those acquainted with the works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, one might think a more appropriate quote would be a line penned by Bulwer-Lytton that is perhaps the most famous bad opening line in literature…”It was a dark and stormy night.”  A “dark and stormy night” seems, on some levels, to be an apt description of Alex Ovechkin’s career in the NHL, one with a lot of lightning and thunder, but ultimately dark and disappointing.  That would be one narrative.

Another would be that Ovechkin comes into the 2016-2017 NHL season as the most dominant goal scorer of his era.  Need convincing?
  • Since he came into the league in 2005-2006, Ovechkin could have sat out the last three seasons and still led the NHL in total goals (371), ten more than Jarome Iginla posted (361) in that time.
  • He has seven 50-goal seasons on his resume.  There are six active players in the league with a combined total of seven 50-goal seasons (Steven Stamkos has two).
  • He is one of three players since 2005-2006 to play in at least 250 games and average at least half a goal per game.  But his scoring rate (0.63 goals per game) is almost 15 percent higher than that of Stamkos (0.55 goals per game).
  • Ovechkin has 195 power play goals since he came into the league.  In second place is Thomas Vanek with 124.
  • If you deleted all the even-strength goals he has scored, the 199 special teams goals (195 power play goals and four shorthanded goals) would place him just outside the top-50 active goal scorers overall.
  • He has five seasons with at least 10 game winning goals.  No other active player has more than two (Max Pacioretty).

With Ovechkin’s goal scoring comes a certain expectation – a Caps win.  He certainly accommodated that expectation in 2015-2016, the Caps going 33-5-2 in the 40 games in which he scored a goal.  But it might be helpful to think of that as a baseline.  It is the getting others to score that is as much a signal of whether the Caps win, and the club going 15-2-1 when Ovechkin recorded an assist attests to that. Nine times last season he recorded a goal and an assist, and nine times the Caps won.

This being the era of possession, it merits mention that Ovechkin has been a much improved possession player under Barry Trotz over the last two seasons.  His Corsi-for at 5-on-5 was 53.2 percent last season, marginally under his 53.7 percent in 2014-2015.  Compare that to the previous three seasons in which he was under 50 percent each year (numbers from Corsica.Hockey).

But it is the playoffs where reputations for greatness are made, and Ovechkin at least made progress last spring restoring some of his as a big game player.  His five goals in 12 games was his best goals-per-game mark since he had five in nine games of the 2011 postseason.  His 12 points was the first time he had more than 10 points in a postseason since he posted 21 points in 14 games in the 2009 playoffs.  What is more, he had points in four of the six games of the second round series that the Caps lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins and was 2-4-6 in the last four games of that series.  It is hard to think that there was more he could have or should have done on the score sheet for the Caps to advance.  Perhaps it was just that little bit, though, that the Caps needed and did not get.

Fearless’ Take…

Alex Ovechkin takes a lot of shots.  No, like a LOT of shots.  Since he came into the league, he has been credited with 4,228 shots on goal (5.0 shots per game).  Next on that list is Eric Staal with 2,909 shots.  Rick Nash is second among active players in shots per game (3.6).  With those shot volumes have come the assertions that it reflects a certain selfishness on Ovechkin’s part.  If he can duplicate last year’s results, the Caps might want to keep feeding him the puck.  In games in which Ovechkin recorded more than five shots on goal, the Caps went 21-3-3 (he scored 29 goals in those 27 games).  He was less “selfish,” though, recording more than five shots on goal in fewer games (27) than he did in 2014-2015 (32).  That outsized win-loss record in games with more than five SOG is something of a departure, though (16-10-6 in 2014-2015 and 12-10-7 in 2013-2014).

Cheerless’ Take…

Ovechkin has this reputation for being a big hitter.  And only three forwards have more total credited hits that Ovechkin since he came into the league (it is worth noting here that the three – Dustin Brown, Chris Neil, and Cal Clutterbuck – have combined for 400 goals in that time, 125 fewer than Ovechkin).  But does it matter?  The Caps were 5-5-3 in games in which Ovechkin was credited with five or more hits last season and did not win a road game when he did (0-4-1).

The Big Question… Are 50 goals and a Stanley Cup compatible?

No team has won a Stanley Cup with a 50-goal scorer since Joe Sakic potted 54 goals in 2000-2001 for the Colorado Avalanche.  Yes, part of the problem is that there have been only 22 50-goal seasons in the last 14 campaigns since Sakic did it, and yes, Alex Ovechkin (for the famously underachieving Capitals) has seven of those 22 seasons, including the last three.  Still, it just does not happen these days.  No one is going to argue for Ovechkin to take his foot off the gas as far as trying to score goals, but his reaching that 50-goal mark just looks more and more like the hockey gods mocking him and the team.  Sure, you can have your 50-goal scorer, but Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby and Anze Kopitar will skate the Cup around the rink.  There is also the unpleasant fact that time takes its toll on every player, and it will do so on Ovechkin at some point.  Whether that toll starts to manifest itself this season, one cannot know.  Maybe there is another 50-goal season in him, maybe there is not.  But the bigger question might be, “does it matter?”

In the end…

Alex Ovechkin, now 31 years of age, has cemented his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  But he is arguably now playing on the back nine of his career (well, maybe the tenth hole), and the ultimate prize – a Stanley Cup – still eludes him.  As a practical matter, the days of his leading the Caps to a Cup are dwindling, although that time does still seem to be some time off.  At some point, if he is to be on a Cup winner for this franchise, it might be that he will be carried more than lead, by the likes of an Evgeny Kuznetsov, an Andre Burakovsky, a Jakub Vrana, or some combination of the youngsters coming through the system.  But for now, and until results judge otherwise, this is and remains his team.  He remains a player whose flecks of gray in his hair do nothing to diminish the heart he brings to the rink.

Projection: 80 games, 48-31-79, plus-20

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America