Alexander Ovechkin appears to be back and then some. With four goals against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals' captain has now scored 26 times in 29 games this season—a total that puts his goal scoring not only where it was in his 2007-10 heyday, but beyond it
But while the goal scoring is back, there are crucial differences to his game, which we will look into here.
So what’s happening? Is Ovechkin back to being the player he was or are there subtle differences between the player he is now and the guy who averaged 57 goals and 110 points for three consecutive seasons?
Let’s start by looking at where Ovechkin’s goals are coming from. The following chart shows Ovechkin’s 82-game goal pace at both even strength—we have included his four career short-handed goals as even-strength markers—and on the power play:
Ovechkin’s three seasons of dominance stand out here. They’re the three consecutive seasons when Ovechkin averaged more than 35 even-strength goals per 82 games.
The diminishing returns on the power play are interesting too. Prior to the hiring of Adam Oates as head coach, Ovechkin had never been an especially dominant power-play scorer.
The most interesting part of the chart is the last two seasons. While we instinctively think of 2012-13 as the year Ovechkin returned, he wasn’t the same player he used to be. His offence at even strength stayed mired in its three-season slump, but he had a career-best year on the power play.
That brings us to 2013-14. Not only has the power-play scoring held up, but suddenly Ovechkin is back to scoring at five-on-five too, finding the back of the net at the same rate as he ever did. The result is that Ovechkin is scoring at a 74-goal pace over 82 games, the best total of his career and almost 10 goals better than his previous high.
Is the goal scoring sustainable?
As most fans know, shot rates tend to be more stable than shooting percentage. Let’s look at Ovechkin’s shots-per-hour totals and shooting percentage in five-on-five and five-on-four situations to see if we can’t answer that question:
|Season||5v5 S/60||5v5 SH%||5v4 S/60||5v4 SH%|
At even strength, the news is encouraging. Ovechkin is averaging three shots per hour for the first time since he was running roughshod over the league and his shooting percentage (14.9 percent) at five-on-five this year is only a little better than what he averaged from 2007-10 (14.0 percent).
He has his goal scoring magic back at five-on-five.
The news on the power play is a little more mixed. Ovechkin’s back to taking as many shots per hour as he averaged in his prime, so that’s a positive, but the reason he’s scoring so much more with the man advantage is largely percentages-based. He had a 16.4 shooting percentage five-on-four during his three dominant years and now that number is at 28.7 percent.
Either Oates has figured out a power-play role that consistently gives Ovechkin high-percentage shots or Ovechkin’s riding a hot streak that will end in the not-too-distant future.
Either is possible, and we may be seeing a combination of the two. Ovechkin spent a lot of time on the power-play point during Boudreau’s tenure as coach, which tends to result in poorer shot quality. These days, he’s mostly used as a one-time option closer to the net.
Behind the Net indicates that Ovechkin’s average shot distance five-on-four was over 40 feet every year under Boudreau. It was less than 35 feet last year under Oates.
Whatever the case, there is no arguing that Ovechkin is back to scoring goals the way he has in the past.
What about Ovechkin’s assist totals, which are down a bit from the glory days? On the power play, those numbers have shrunk even as Ovechkin’s goal totals have risen, which may well relate to the move down from the point we’ve discussed.
At even strength, the answer seems awfully straightforward: Ovechkin’s linemates are snake-bit something awful. Take a look at the Capitals' five-on-five shots and goals with Ovechkin on the ice this year:
|Ovechkin on ice||14||239||5.9|
It’s pretty hard for any player to get assists when the guys on the ice with him are in a 1-for-152 shooting slump. That won’t last. No single NHL shooter is that incompetent, and when those guys start scoring, Ovechkin will start picking up helpers.
Putting it all together, we find an Ovechkin who looks a lot like the guy hockey fans remember. He’s back.