Monday, September 11, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

“Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough.”
-- George Bernard Shaw

Another year, another disappointment.  Like the previous eight trips to the postseason in the Alex Ovechkin era, the ninth trip ended with a loss.  For the third time, that loss came against the Caps’ most frustrating rival in this era, the Pittsburgh Penguins.  That loss last spring was the tenth Game 7 in which Ovechkin has played in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Those games have not been kind to him.  He and the Caps have a 3-7 record in those contests, and Ovechkin’s personal scoring line of 3-3-6, minus-2, does not impress.

What is more ominous going forward about his postseason performance last spring (5-3-8, minus-4, in 13 games overall) is that it came on the heels of his second-lowest goal scoring output over a full season (not counting the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season) of his career.  His 33 goals, a fine total by most players’ standards, was one more than Ovechkin recorded in the 2010-2011 season.

The 2016-2017 season was something of an odd one for Ovechkin, goal scoring-wise.  He started like a house afire with four goals in his first six games, seven in his first 11 contests, and 12 goals by the time the season was 19 games old (including a hat trick against the St. Louis Blues in Game 19).  He was on a 52-goal scoring pace.  Rather normal for Ovechkin. 

And then, the wheels started wobbling.  He went seven games without a goal before potting nine in his next 15 contests.  At the 41-game mark he had 21 goals, still on a pace to score 42 goals, but then the goals started drying up.  He had six goals in Games 42-58 before falling into a ten-game streak without one.  That ended whatever chance he had to record his eighth 50-goal season.  Even though he would score six goals in seven games following that drought (wrapped up by a hat trick against the Minnesota Wild), he would end the regular season without a goal in his last seven games.

That strange “hot start/cool finish” carried over into his postseason.  Ovechkin had three goals in the first four games of the first round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but then he fell into a slumber with two goals in his last nine playoff contests.

Odd Ovechkin Fact… In the 12 seasons he has been in the league, no player has more seasons with 30 or more goals and 30 or fewer assists than Alex Ovechkin, who has five such seasons (four players have three).

Bonus Odd Ovechkin Fact… No player in the last half century of the NHL has more seasons with ten or more power play goals in his first 12 NHL seasons than Alex Ovechkin.  It is a feat he accomplished 11 times (only in 2011-2012, when he had seven power play goals, did he fail to reach double-digits).

Extra Bonus Ovechkin Fact… Alex Ovechkin has 558 career goals.  That is 230 more goals than any other player in his 2004 draft class (Evgeni Malkin has 328).  He could have sat out the last five seasons and still had 11 more goals than Malkin.

Extra Extra Bonus Odd Ovechkin Fact… Since he came into the league, 256 players have dressed for 50 or more playoff games.  None of them have averaged more postseason goals per game than Alex Ovechkin (0.47).

Fearless’ Take…

Even with the drop-off in his goal total, Ovechkin became just the third player in NHL history to record 30 or more goals in each of his first 12 NHL seasons, joining Wayne Gretzky and Mike Gartner.  For the fifth consecutive season he led or tied for the league lead in power play goals. 

And there is an unspoken achievement a long time in the making.  Alex Ovechkin has played a dozen years with a certain style bordering on chaos, throwing his body around in a “hit first, lest ye be hit” sort of mind set.  Despite that hyperkinetic style, he has appeared in 921 of 950 scheduled regular season games (96.9 percent) and has appeared in each and every one of the 97 postseason games played by the Caps since he came into the league.  And, of the 29 games he missed over his 12 years in the league, nine of them were for suspensions or personal reasons.

Cheerless’ Take…

Second round.  Second.  Round.  Say it.  Embrace it.  Try to look away, and the gaze always returns.  Ovechkin has scored 65 goals in a season, has a bushel of 50-goal seasons, hat tricks, power play goals, various NHL trophies and awards, all-star game appearances, all-star team honors, seven Kharlamov Trophies as the best Russian hockey player, the Russian Order of Honor, an asteroid named after him, Olympic Games appearances.  He even has three World Championship gold medals.  But the albatross that hangs around the neck of his prodigious career is the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the barrier across which he has yet to cross.  As cruel as it seems, adding to his collection of regular season awards, more 50-goal seasons, hat tricks…whatever.  All of it might, despite the difficulties in their achievement, seem like reruns.  Except for his final rankings among the greats in a variety of statistical categories, there is just one unrealized achievement in the NHL for Ovechkin. 

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018:
  • 1,000 games (currently has 921)
  • 600 goals (currently has 558, would become the 20th player in league history to reach that mark)
  • 1,100 points (currently has 1,035, would become the 60th player in NHL history to reach that mark)
  • 100 game-winning goals (currently has 95, would become the seventh or eighth player to reach that mark, depending on whether Patrick Marleau (98) reaches that mark first)

The Big Question… Is Alex Ovechkin now a part of the ensemble and not the featured soloist for the Caps?

Not that any successful hockey team is one player’s domain, but Alex Ovechkin was the straw that stirs the drink for the Caps for his first 11 seasons.   Although he remained the player teams had to game plan for last season, his statistics were, by his lofty standards, not nearly as impressive.  Last season was the first time in 12 seasons with the Caps that he did not lead the team outright in goals scored (he tied for the team lead with T.J. Oshie).  His 16 even strength goals was the lowest total for a full season in his career (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season), far below his previous low of 25 in both the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons.  It was the first time in his career that over a full season he had more than 15 power play goals but fewer than 20 even strength goals and the first time he had more power play goals (17) than even strength goals (16).

One has the disturbing feeling that Ovechkin is evolving into a specialist, like a third-down running back in football who runs good pass routes.  In his case, he can still intimidate on the power play, but his even strength production has been receding.  Others on the team might be eclipsing him in their ability to affect a game in multiple ways (Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and perhaps in the not too distant future Andre Burakovsky).  Whether the Capitals can add in terms of success what they subtract in terms of Ovechkin’s contribution to it, if that is how his career is evolving, will be a front-and-center issue this season.

In the end…

You are just short of your 32nd birthday, you have more money than most will earn in a lifetime, you just settled down with a new wife, you have more honors in your profession than almost anyone in the history of the sport, you are recognized on several continents, your place among the greats in the sport is secure.  Tough life.  That is not to say that Alex Ovechkin does not burn inside for a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup, but if fate dictates he does not do so, it will do little to diminish his legacy as perhaps the most dominant goal scorer of his generation, if not in the history of the sport.  Sometimes, it seems it is fans and the collected hockey media who spend more time navel gazing at Alex Ovechkin’s shortcomings.  Meanwhile, his remarkable combination of consistency, production, and durability has been almost unique in a sport that can chip away relentlessly at any of these qualities.

But time plays no favorites, and Alex Ovechkin is no exception.  His constitution might push off that reckoning (he appears to be coming to training camp significantly leaner than last season), but it will come, and his production will diminish, if it has not started to already.  It makes George Bernard Shaw’s comment about time especially noteworthy.  Is there enough time for Ovechkin to realize the last of the great achievements available to an NHL player?

Projection: 78 games, 35-38-73, plus-8

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America