For the most part, it seems like people largely don't appreciate how important a player he is. He is one of the league's all-time greats; only Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne before him broke the half-century mark six times. (Gretzky and Bossy did it nine apiece, which is crazy.)
But by the start of next season, Ovechkin will have turned 30, and given the sort of heavy game he tends to play, and his cap hit (more than $9.5 million for six more seasons after this one), there has to be some legitimate concern as to when — not whether — the wheels come off. It wasn't so long ago that some particularly braindead publications were musing that the Capitals should let him walk to the KHL for nothing, and the “Trade Ovechkin” thing has been swirling for years.
And really, this just isn't a league in which a lot of goals are scored any more, meaning that in theory, Ovechkin's value is likely to keep declining. Average goals per game this season is just 2.74, down considerably from where it was about a decade ago, but more or less in line with more recent years. We're approaching “Dead Puck Era” numbers right now. Not coincidentally, save percentages are and have been on the rise since the 2004-05 lockout. Likewise, we've settled into a nice little groove of .911-.914 goaltending being the norm league-wide, and there's probably no reason it wouldn't stay in that general range for the next few years as well, barring any considerable rule changes.
So the question is just how reasonable it is to expect Ovechkin to score 50 every season from now on.
There have been just 17 seasons ever in which a player on the wrong side of 30 scored 50 times, all of them by current or future Hall of Famers (Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla are the only two still playing). No one has done it since 2007-08.
The good news for Ovechkin and the Capitals is that this is a player who positively delights in shooting the puck at every possible opportunity, and doing it extremely well. His career shooting percentage of 12.4 percent is well above that of the average shooter over these last 10 seasons, and you also have to keep in mind that he's led the league in shots on goal in all but one of those years (2011-12's “mere 303” when he tied for fifth behind Malkin, Neal, Kovalchuk, and Nash, and with Stamkos). That was the second-worst season of his career from a goalscoring standpoint; he still scored 38 times.
What he's done since, though — both in the lockout-shortened season and the two that followed — is get himself into a nice little groove again. He's shooting the puck at almost his normal career rate of 5.05 per game, and getting roughly the same percentage of his attempts on net as he ever has (he's actually at a career low this season, if you can believe that).
The thing with evaluating Ovechkin going forward is that he is a unique player in league history. No one shoots the puck like this, both in terms of quantity or effectiveness, and thus we have no real way to guess at how much he's going to score when he's 30, 32, 34, etc. And what's very interesting here is that the Capitals have over the last few years, very quietly, reduced Ovechkin's ice time. He's playing some of the fewest minutes of his career, but generating roughly the same number of shots per game. You can't really tell from that chart there, but this season and last are clustered with big goal-scoring years down in the bottom right, even as his minutes dip.
This says to me that he's being put in more advantageous situations, which is maybe among the small number of smart things Adam Oates did when he was behind the bench. Teams are always going to play their best defenders against Ovechkin, but the zone starts have gotten gradually easier.
But those are overall numbers, and if you look at things in terms of just 5-on-5 play, Ovechkin is certainly still very good — 1.11 goals per 60 at full strength over the last three seasons is amazing, but only 10th in the NHL — but he's not the platonic ideal of how we see him as a goal-scorer any more. In the seven seasons between the lockouts, his goals per 60 was 1.32, fourth in the NHL behind Alex Semin, Sidney Crosby, and Marian Gaborik (though those numbers obviously include the 32- and 38-goal years, which were quite poor in terms of even-strength scoring).
What's interesting, though, is that the goal totals and rates for the last few seasons at 5-on-5 are right in line with his poorer years; 1.11 is only a slight improvement from the 0.9 or so seen in those two seasons when he was 24 and 25.
So that means, then, that he must be crushing it on power plays.
And oh boy, is he ever.
His goals scored per 60 on the power play in the last three seasons are, by far, the three highest of his career. He's also generating attempts and shots in line with or better than the best seasons of his career, as well as putting a larger percentage of his attempts on goal. This season, which to be fair still has five games to go, he's actually gotten less power play time than he did last year, but his rate his improved considerably because he's just pounding shots in. (Through Tuesday night.)
But you'll notice that chart also says Ovechkin has been extremely lucky, and putting his shots past goalies at a level he himself hasn't been able to keep up in his career. That he's shooting more is also helping to bolster his goal numbers, but that should give people pause to some extent. If his shooting percentage drops back toward his career norm, the likelihood that his 5-on-5 goalscoring is going to make up the difference and help him get to 50 reliably seems low given his recent usage.
Now, there's nothing to say that he couldn't become even more specialized, used in more advantageous situations at 5-on-5 and more often on the power play. But one problem is that Washington is drawing fewer penalties this season, spending just 354 minutes on the power play this season, down about 90 from last year. That's a loss of 45 minors on which Ovechkin could keep attempting shots at a rate of 1.72 per two minutes of power play time. That, in turn, obviously costs him a decent number of goals.
And it's not as though these minutes are disappearing because the Capitals are scoring considerably more on the power play; their rate is up a single percentage point. Washington drew the second-biggest number of power plays in the league last year (291); this year they're 22nd (225). Which is strange, because they have the puck a lot more.
So the takeaway here is that Ovechkin can probably keep up this level of scoring for a pretty healthy length of time, at least if he starts getting more power play opportunities and slightly easier usage as time goes on. Trotz has to get his team to draw more penalties to fully unleash what one of the greatest goal-scorers of all time can do to opponents. I wouldn't necessarily vote for him for any awards, but in terms of the scoreboard a goal at 5-on-5 counts just as much as one on the power play. That's probably all that really matters to the Caps.
And as far as individual quality goes, in some respects Alex Ovechkin is playing some of the best hockey of his Hall-of-Fame career.
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