Monday, June 21, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

“Change alone is eternal, perpetual, immortal.”
-- Arthur Schopenhauer

He came into the NHL in 2005 as a frisky 20-year-old, the number one overall pick in the 2004 Entry Draft.  His combination of goal scoring, thunderous hits, and goal celebrations (often punctuated by leaping into the glass) made him an instant fan favorite.   Eight 50-goal seasons, nine Maurice Richard Trophies, a Calder Trophy (top rookie), a Ross Trophy (top scorer), three Hart Trophies (most valuable player), three Lindsay Awards (outstanding player), eight NHL first all-star teams, seven all-star games, a Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff most valuable player), and oh yes, a Stanley Cup later, and Ovechkin is a 35-year old legend.  Which is not to say that he is in the twilight of his career.  Not just yet, anyway.  He had 24 goals in 45 games in 2020-2021, a 44-goal pace over 82 games.  And if you think that is evidence of his slowing down, only 23 players not named “Ovechkin” have at least one 44-goal season since Ovechkin came into the league in 2005-2006.

Fearless’ Take… It was a bit of an odd year for Ovechkin.  Consider his 5-on-5 goal scoring.  Over his first 15 seasons, Ovechkin averaged 1.20 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time.  In 2020-2021, a year that many might consider a down year for him, he averaged 1.30 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time.  That he would be as productive as he was in an abbreviated season is not unusual for him.  Ovechkin has played in three abbreviated seasons in his career – 2012-2013 (a 48-game season), 2019-2020 (69 games), and this past season (56 games).  In those seasons he recorded 104 goals in 161 games played, a 53-goal pace per 82 games.

Cheerless’ Take… If there was one thing creeping into Ovechkin’s game that hasn’t been there before, it was absences.  In his first 15 seasons, Ovechkin missed a grand total of 31 games (including games lost to personal matters or suspensions), an uncommon level of reliability for one who plays as physical a game as Ovechkin.  But this season he missed 11 games.  There were four to COVID protocol in January, and then there was an injury sustained in late April that kept him out of seven of the last nine games of the regular season and limited him to one shift and 39 seconds in one of the two games he played.

Odd Ovechkin Fact… Of Ovechkin’s 24 goals in 45 games, 16 of them were recorded in a 20-game stretch from March 11th through April 17th.  He did not score a goal in the four games he played after that to close the regular season.

Odd Ovechkin Fact II… His ice time record was a classic case of higher ice times resulting in worse team performance, perhaps owing to the Caps trailing in such games necessitating his increased ice presence.  The Caps were 3-8-1 in the 12 games in which he skated at least 22:16.  At the other end, they were 7-0-0 when he skated 16:43 or less.

Odd Ovechkin Fact III… Ovechkin is the only active player to average more than half a goal per game since reaching his 30th birthday (0.58; Brad Marchand is second at 0.46 goals per game).

Game to Remember… March 16, 2021 vs. New York Islanders

When the New York Islanders came calling in mid-March at Capital One Arena, they were going to face a hot team and a hot player.  The Caps were returning home after a 3-0-0 road trip and were looking to extend a five-game winning streak overall.  Alex Ovechkin was on a three-game goal scoring streak of his own and had four goals in his previous five games.  But the Islanders, if anything, were even hotter, arriving in Washington with a nine-game win streak and a 12-game points streak (11-0-1).  T.J. Oshie got the Caps off on the right foot with a goal in the 11th minute of the first period.  Ovechkin assisted on the goal, making him the 35th player in NHL history to record 1,300 career points and 20th to do it in fewer than 1,200 games.  Then, the Caps went on a power play late in the period, and this happened:

It was Ovechkin’s 718th career goal, passing Phil Esposito for sixth place on the all-time NHL goal scoring list, and scored as so many of his goals have been recorded, on the power play from his “office” in the left wing circle.   That it would be done on home ice, with former coach Barry Trotz on hand behind the opponent’s bench made it a bit more memorable.

Game to Forget… April 18, 2021 vs. Boston.  This is actually a “take your pick” pick.  Ovechkin had two minus-4 games this season, both in Boston against the Bruins a month apart.  The first came on March 5th, when he had one of his more frustrating games – eight shots on goal, four hits, no points, on ice for four Bruins goals, and all in 22:41 in ice time.  The April 18th game might be more forgettable, though.  He was on ice when Boston opened the scoring, the Caps allowing a shorthanded goal to Patrice Bergeron while they were on a power play.  And then, after the Caps took a 3-2 lead early in the second period, he was on ice for three of the four unanswered goals scored by the Bruins in what would end up being a 6-3 loss to Boston.  He finished with five shots on goal, but he also had four attempts blocked.  He had five credited hits, but also a pair of giveaways.  And he did it in less ice time than in the March game in Boston (19:26).  Almost half that ice time (8:30) was spent on power plays, and while he was on ice for one power play goal, he recorded no points with the man advantage.

Postseason… Despite back and leg injuries, Alex Ovechkin still tied for the team lead in goals (two) and points (four) in the Caps’ first round five-game loss to Boston in the postseason.  He also recorded 20 shots on goal, comfortably at the top of the team rankings.  On the other hand, he had only one even strength point (an assist), both goals and the remainder of his points on power plays.  It was the first time he went without an even strength goal in the playoffs since 2013, when he had none in a seven-game first round loss to the New York Rangers (also the only other time in his career he failed to record an even strength goal in the postseason).  Despite the injuries, Ovechkin finished the 2021 postseason continuing a productive run dating back to last season.  He is 6-3-9 in his last nine playoff games.

Looking ahead… Alex Ovechkin is a free agent.  Not that many believe he will sign a contract with any NHL team but the Caps, but how he gets to “signed” is one of the more complicated matters of the off-season.  Will he be unprotected for the expansion draft, allowing the Caps to protect another forward, before he signs a new deal?  Will he go straight to a new contract?  If so, for how long and at what compensation.  His just expired deal had a $9.538 million salary cap hit, and while it would be nice if his new deal provided some level of relief in terms of a lower number, a $10.0 million per year number is a nice round number, too. 

Then there is the matter of term, and this is where his future intersects with his pursuit of the all-time NHL career goal scoring mark held by Wayne Gretzky (894).  Ovechkin needs 165 goals to pass Gretzky to capture the top spot, and given that he scored 46 or more goals in 11 of his 16 seasons, the possibility he accomplishes the feat cannot be discounted.  But he will be 36 years old when the puck drops on the 2021-2022 season.  If his window is four years, he would need to average just over 41 goals per season to get to 895.  Only three players in NHL history have posted seasons with 41 or more goals, and none of them (Teemu Selanne (48 in 2006-2007), Gordie Howe (44 in 1968-1969), and Phil Esposito (42 in 1978-1979)) did it more than once. 

If you ae looking at a milestone Ovechkin is likely to reach much sooner, when he takes the ice for his third game next season, he will become the eighth player in NHL history to record 700 or more goals and play in 1,200 or more games. 

In the end…

It was a frustrating season for Alex Ovechkin, who had to deal with injury/illness absences to a degree he avoided over the first 15 seasons of his career.  He still managed to be a productive scorer, but the consistency one usually finds in his production was lacking, most of it coming in a limited stretch of games.  Ovechkin will have to return to the more durable, more consistently productive player of years past for the Caps to challenge for a Stanley Cup in 2021-2022, but fans know by this time that discounting Ovechkin’s ability to push back against Father Time can be a fool’s errand.

Grade: B