How Can Alex Ovechkin Have 49 Goals and a Minus-35 Rating?

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistApril 7, 2014

Washington Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin, of Russia, celebrates after scoring a goal against the New Jersey Devils during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, April 4, 2014, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez

Of the 868 skaters who have played at least one NHL game this season, nobody has scored more goals than Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin, who has lit the lamp 49 times.

However, the really bizarre part is that only one of those 868 skaters (Steve Ott, until recently of the woeful Buffalo Sabres) has a worse plus/minus total than the minus-35 Ovechkin’s lugging around.

How is it that the NHL’s most proficient goal scorer and its second-worst two-way playerin terms of plus/minus anywayare the same person? Let’s find out.

The way goals are calculated is pretty straightforward, but plus/minus has some wrinkles. From NHL.com, here’s the official explanation of how the statistic is tabulated:

A player is awarded a "plus" each time he is on the ice when his Club scores an even-strength or shorthanded goal. He receives a "minus" if he is on the ice for an even-strength or shorthanded goal scored by the opposing Club. The difference in these numbers is considered the player's "plus-minus" statistic.

The NHL’s plus/minus statistic is biased in favour of players who kill penaltiesas it's only possible to receive pluses while short-handedand against players who spend time on the power playwhere it’s only possible to get minuses.

This means that a lot of top offensive weapons have their plus/minus dragged down by special teams.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 25:  Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals celebrates with his teammates after scoring a goal in the first period during an NHL game against the Los Angeles Kings at Verizon Center on March 25, 2014 in Washington, DC.  (Photo
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Certainly that’s true in Ovechkin’s case. He plays more than five minutes per game on Washington’s power playNicklas Backstrom is second on the Caps with an average of 3:43 on the man advantage per game.

The Capitals have allowed nine short-handed goals this year and Ovechkin’s been on the ice for eight of them. He spends almost no time on the penalty killless than a minute all seasonthough remarkably he picked up an assist on a short-handed goal in that span.

That makes him minus-seven in special teams situations. It’s the plus/minus tax that the NHL levies against offensive difference-makers.

Add in that 22 of Ovechkin’s 49 goals have come with the man advantage, and suddenly the discrepancy between his goal totals and his plus/minus becomes easier to understand. Huge amounts of his offence are coming in situations where he can only get a negative plus/minus.

There’s still a big gap at even strength, though. In five-on-five situations, Ovechkin has been on the ice for 32 goals for and 59 against, a disparity of 27 goals.

What’s driving that?

Let’s start on the offensive side of the equation and split Ovechkin off from his linemates. The following table shows the shot and goal totals at five-on-five for the Capitals while Ovechkin is on the ice:

Five-on-five goal-scoring with Ovechkin on the ice (2013-14)
Ovechkin’s linemates113183.5%

The Capitals have a problem scoring goals with Ovechkin on the ice, and the problem can be summarized as “everybody who isn’t Ovechkin.”

For the sake of contrast, here’s what those numbers looked like during the 48-game 2012-13 campaign:

Five-on-five goal-scoring with Ovechkin on the ice (2012-13)
Ovechkin’s linemates2322510.2%

Ovechkin’s taking roughly the same number of shots relative to his linemates and scored roughly the same number of goals. His linemates, however, have seen their shooting percentage drop by two-thirds, and so instead of scoring 35 goals (last season’s pace extrapolated over 74 games), they’ve scored only 11. This constitutes a 24-goal drop in Ovechkin’s expected plus/minus.

It’s a nice example of the dangers of pretending plus/minus is a defensive statistic. When most fans see Ovechkin’s plus/minus, they assume there is something wrong with his defensive game.

In reality, a big part of the problem isn’t his and isn’t defensive.

There is, however, a defensive component to the problem. Opposing teams are averaging roughly 3.5 goals per hour of five-on-five play when Ovechkin’s on the ice, which is one of the worst totals among regular forwards in the NHL. What’s happening there?

A look at a trio of five-on-five statistics for the last seven years is instructive:

Five-on-five goals against with Ovechkin on the ice

The Capitals have, over time, become a team that surrenders more shots against. Ovechkin’s trend line has broadly followed that of the team. This season, he’s the worst regular forward in terms of shots allowed.

It’s a problem, and a significant one, but it isn’t the reason his plus/minus is so bad.

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 25: Braden Holtby #70 and Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals  defend the goal against Josh Gorges #26 of the Montreal Canadiens during the NHL game on January 25, 2014 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo
Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

Ovechkin’s plus/minus is terrible this season because the goalies are posting a sub-0.900 five-on-five save percentagethe league average is typically around 0.920while he’s on the ice.

This doesn’t seem to be a trend. Save percentage fluctuates up and down. It has over Ovechkin’s career and in this case it’s in a down curve.

The takeaway from all of this is that Ovechkin’s ugly plus/minus says a lot more about the statistic than it does about the player.

The Capitals allow too many shots while Ovechkin’s on the ice, but that isn’t what’s driving the number. The drivers are instead things like playing a lot on the power play, snake-bitten linemates and poor goaltending.

None of those things have much to do with how diligently the Capitals captain backchecks.

Statistics are courtesy of BehindtheNet.caExtraSkater.com and NHL.com and are current through the start of action on April 7.