The Washington Capitals are bad this season. They score a lot, when they want to, but allow a lot more than they score. They're not very good away from home. They're mired in an awful slump. A lot of metrics say they belong where they are: In the bottom third of the league.
And this was, let's not forget, a team that many people figured would be a playoff contender. They shored up their scoring depth, which had been a problem, by acquiring Mikhail Grabovski, but did nothing to address their calamitous defense, which allowed 32.3 shots per game last season, and is currently giving up 33.5 a night (perhaps owing to the fact that their division is no longer the Southeast). Their team save percentage at even strength is 92.2, good for 18th in the league, and that's not helping.
So people look around for things to blame. The names George McPhee or Adam Oates, weirdly, don't seem to come up very much when you talk to the “watch the game” crowd. Instead, and perhaps predictably, their attentions turn to the best player on the team, and whether he's doing enough to help the team win.
This is, obviously, an absurd question. Alex Ovechkin has 39 goals in 52 games this season; the next-closest guy on the list is Phil Kessel, who has 30 in 57. That's about .75 goals per game for Ovechkin, and the second-place guy is sitting on just .52, a drop of roughly one-third from the league's premier sniper. Whatever ailed Ovechkin when he scored “just” 32 and 38 in those consecutive seasons a few years back seems to have vanished. Moreover, he's not relying on an incredible shooting percentage, as he was in the second half of last season when he scored 14 goals in his final 13 games, but rather upping his shot volume by an incredible amount. He takes 5.5 shots per game in all situations, and he's trailed by Rick Nash and Evander Kane, who have 4.1 per apiece. Again, that's a huge gap between first and second, and shows just how uniquely dominant a scorer and shooter Ovechkin is.
For some people, though, this is not enough. Through Friday, he had been on the ice 26 goals for at even strength this season (18 of those being his own), he's also been on for 39 against. That is, to be fair, a lot. And it is, despite what some people have lately suggested, not particularly his fault. The save percentage behind Ovechkin at 5-on-5 this year is .909, the lowest of the last three seasons by a wide margin, and well below the overall team mark of the aforementioned .922.
After Thursday night's contest in which he was a minus-5 against Columbus and failed to score, he called himself the “worst player” in the game and was eviscerated in certain circles for not even trying to play defense. Ken Campbell of The Hockey News wrote a bit of claptrap saying that “Ovechkin simply has to commit more to a two-way game,” and cited plus-minus in the second paragraph. And then again in the third, and fourth, and fifth, during which it is acknowledged that plus-minus is “not the perfect stat.” One thing you often hear about this statistic is that it is bad or not good or not perfect and it's all of those things. This seems to not stop people from using it regularly to support flimsy arguments.
Didn't we try that “Ovechkin playing a two-way game” thing already, by the way? Didn't Dale Hunter have him blocking shots? Isn't that one of the reasons he scored at a much lower rate than his career numbers that one season? How is the lack of quality of his teammates and coaching in any way his fault?
The reason Ovechkin isn't on the ice for more goals-for is that while his shooting percentage at 5-on-5 is 10.18, that of his linemates is — get this — close to 3 percent. Meaning that when those guys take 100 shots, only three of them go in. Which pretty well blows up the even more ridiculous argument in the Toronto Star (from an alleged advanced-stats collective of whom no one in hockey's advanced stats community has ever heard) that he's not “making the players around him better” based on his “assists per goal,” which is a ludicrous argument to make. Ovechkin cannot make the shots his linemates take go into the net and thus to castigate him for that failure seems frankly bizarre.
You hear this kind of argument a lot, though, about how guys who score goals are “one-dimensional players” but it has always seemed to me that if you're going to specialize in one dimension — in the way stay-at-home defensemen or enforcers do without criticism — then scoring goals at a rate about 50 percent better than your nearest competitor is a pretty good one to start with. You don't pay Ovechkin to lay out for a shot. You pay him to bury one at a billion miles an hour on another phenomenal one-timer. And you're getting your money's worth every time he does it. “The worst 50-goal season” in a player's career is like the worst ice cream sundae: It's still pretty damn great.
Similar criticisms have been leveled at P.K. Subban, and Erik Karlsson, both top-flight defensemen who can annihilate opponents. Likewise, Phil Kessel faced this kind of critique from the Toronto media last season, about how the team couldn't win with him playing as he has, and that his one-dimensional game didn't fit their needs. This, too, didn't make a lot of sense, and he's proved it with every one of his 30 goals this year, a mark that's second in the NHL. He's been on the ice for more goals-against than Ovechkin, but his linemates have helped him out with a high shooting percentage, and he's easily outscoring the competition as a result. His critics have vanished. Funny how that works. If Nicklas Backstrom could put the puck in the net every once in a while, there would be no criticism to make.
You can blame Ovechkin for his lack of defensive wherewithal but the problems go so far beyond him that such blame is woefully misplaced, plain and simple. The guy's on a team that used Jay Beagle as its No. 2 center yesterday. If anything, the Caps need him to score more, not less, to make the playoffs.
What We Learned
Carolina Hurricanes: Cam Ward has been recalled from the Charlotte Checkers, where he posted a .937 save percentage over a two-game rehab stint. However, it's important to note that Anton Khudobin's save percentage in January was .927, which is also really great.
Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks have lost 10 of their last 11 games that required extra time to decide. That's a lot of points to leave on the table, so it's a good thing they're one of the two best teams in the league.
Colorado Avalanche: I could watch Ville Leino get devoured by Nathan MacKinnon's speed all day and night for the rest of my life. Poor Ville just didn't have an answer.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Ryan Johansen has been straight up killing it this season. He's on 22 goals and 42 points in 55 games after posting just 5-7-12 in 40 last year.
Montreal Canadiens: This is how P.K. Subban asks for a trade.
Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: If you watched Saturday's Blues/Preds game, you'd know exactly why Barry Trotz was happy to just lose in a shootout. They were down 2-0 early in the second, having been outshot by a wide margin, and stormed back to get the game to OT.
Ottawa Senators: Clarke MacArthur says the Senators have been playing “boring” hockey on purpose for a while now. They want to get back to their style of play from last season, which would be a good idea because they were great then and are not now.
Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers don't have a “true sniper” to help Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek, but that's a pretty common problem because there are like six “true snipers” in the league. Odds are that most teams could use one.
San Jose Sharks: The Datsyuk move by Joe Thornton oh nooooooo.
Toronto Maple Leafs: This run of success for the Leafs apparently came because Dave Nonis threatened to trade everyone. Seems like not having to play under Randy Carlyle any more would actually be an incentive to play worse.
Washington Capitals: Mike Green has a “head injury.” Christ. This poor guy.
Play of the Weekend
T.J. Galiardi couldn't score another goal like this if he had 1,000 chances exactly like it but man that was nice.
Gold Star Award
Phil Kessel I love you.
Minus of the Weekend
Philip Seymour Hoffman I love you as well.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “ElsinoreBrewery” has an idea for something rotten in the state of Pennsylvania
Malkin and Letang to EDM.
Perron, Eberle, Gagner, J.Schultz, and 2 1sts to PIT.
Alas, poor trade proposal. I knew it well.
I wish some strong, chivalrous man would lend me his jacket, or pants.