Alex Ovechkin’s place in the pantheon of NHL superstars is controversial because of concerns about his two-way play, but what isn’t controversial is that he’s one of the best pure scorers in the game of hockey. Even during a 2013-14 season that was in some ways difficult, Ovechkin managed to lead the league with 51 goals.
How many will he score next season?
For any player, goals are a product of two distinct but related functions. The first of these is shot volume; with all else being equal, a player who shoots more will score more. The second is shooting percentage, or the efficiency with which a player converts those shots to goals. Fluctuation is expected from year to year in both numbers, but for the most, part shot volume tends to be more constant while shooting percentage can bounce around significantly.
Ovechkin’s even-strength track record over the last four seasons bears out that general statement:
|Ovechkin's even-strength scoring, 2010-14|
|Season||Shots/60||NHL Rank||SH%||NHL Rank|
While Ovechkin’s shooting percentage has actually been pretty durable over the last four seasons, we see one example of a wild swing—in 2010-11. Ovechkin scored a career-low 32 goals that season, as his shooting percentage on both the power play and at even strength fell off dramatically, despite the fact that he continued to generate high-end shot volume.
The numbers above are also the principle building blocks when it comes to predicting Ovechkin’s even-strength goal scoring next season, but we also need to estimate his usage.
We don’t know how new head coach Barry Trotz will utilize his star winger, but we do know that his predecessors over the last four seasons have given Ovechkin between 16:50 per game at evens (Bruce Boudreau in 2010-11) and 15:29 (Adam Oates last season). On average, he’s played a touch more than 16 minutes a night in this discipline, and it seems reasonable to guess that Trotz will use him in that same range.
We also don’t know how many games Ovechkin will miss due to injury. We do know he has played 679 of a possible 704 regular-season games over his career, which works out to 96.4 percent of the schedule or roughly 79 games per season.
If we combine those two numbers, we end up with Ovechkin playing a little under 1,300 minutes at evens in 2014-15.
If we then take Ovechkin’s shots-per-hour rates of the last four seasons, adjust them a little for the typical NHL age curve (which shows scoring offence peaking around age 25, then slowly dropping as a player approaches 30) and weigh them by how many minutes he actually played, we end up with Ovechkin taking 226 shots at even strength. Multiply that by his 9.6 shooting percentage at evens, and we would expect him to score something like 22 goals.
Is 22 even-strength goals a reasonable forecast? If we project Ovechkin’s totals in 2012-13 over a full 82-game schedule, he’s scored between 19 and 24 goals at evens in each of the last four seasons, putting 22 right in the centre of our expected performance range.
The real question is will Ovechkin equal or surpass that total on the power play, where he scored 24 goals in 2013-14. Whatever Oates’ failings as a coach, he knew how to get production on the man advantage, and we can see that Ovechkin’s shot production spiked dramatically when Oates took over:
|Ovechkin's power-play scoring, 2010-14|
It’s unknown whether Trotz plans to continue the strategy of his predecessor. One item well worth noting: The Nashville Predators have been a pretty good team for the last few seasons on the power play. Some of that can be chalked up to Shea Weber, but given the overall offensive cast in Nashville, it feels like Trotz deserves some credit, too.
Oates made the decision to use Ovechkin pretty much all the time on the power play; he averaged more than five minutes per game in that situation in 2013-14. That’s one area where Trotz may decide a reduction is warranted, as previous coaches have used Ovechkin significantly less.
If we split the difference in all categories—shot volume, shooting percentage, ice time—how many power-play goals would we expect from Ovechkin?
Combining the totals, we would project Ovechkin to fire 109 shots and score 17 goals. That’s a somewhat pessimistic projection because Ovechkin’s shooting percentage problems in 2010-11 extended to the power play and drag down these numbers; I’d be inclined to nix those results and project Ovechkin to score something closer to 20 goals on the man advantage.
Toss in two or three empty-net goals, and we’d see Ovechkin fall short of the 50-goal mark but surpass the 40-goal plateau for the seventh time in his career.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.