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Two Dudes: Alex Ovechkin's Defense - Does it Matter?

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On whether or not we should care that the Caps' captain might not be able to pick his goalie out of a lineup

Rob Carr

Say what you will about plus-minus as a statistic, but that Alex Ovechkin currently ranks 825th in the League in that metric ain't a good thing. For years we've been subjected to endless criticisms of Ovechkin's play outside of the offensive zone - some of it fair and some of it clearly rooted in something else - and this season it seems to be a bit more on-point, as the Caps struggle to get back into playoff position and that minus sticks out like the sorest of thumbs for mainstream media and fans to point at.

Our question here isn't whether or not Ovechkin plays consistently good defense (he doesn't) or defense at all really (he doesn't)... but whether or not it matters. Does it?

Rob: Of course it matters. How can it not? He doesn't need to get in the Selke discussion; he might not even need to be competent or average defensively. What he has to do is try. This is a guy that has been the heart, soul, and pulse of this team since virtually Day One of his NHL career. He's a guy that we've been told all along is a "lead by example" guy. What kind of example is this? "Find the thing you do well and just do it, even if that means playing only 60-70 feet of the ice." If the team is following Ovechkin's lead, maybe it's no shock they are constantly in a state of defensive disarray.

More importantly, no team relies on one player for offense like the Caps rely on Ovechkin. Not only is he running away with the Richard race (if it can even be called a race at this point), but the delta between Ovechkin and the Caps' second-leading goal scorer (Joel Ward, 19 goals) is far greater than the spread between any other team's top two. I can already hear you asking, "so how is Ovechkin the problem?" Because if he's the guy they need to score goals to keep them in games in the first place, he can't be giving goals back when he's on the ice.

If the Caps are going to tread water with Ovi on the ice (and at even strength, to say they're treading water is more than generous), then the Caps don't have a prayer. Even if the other three lines lock it down defensively (hint: they don't), they aren't scoring enough goals to win games. So the team bleeds goals at even strength and is going to rely on Ovi blasting one-timer power-play goals. That's not a recipe for success. That's a recipe for an even earlier tee time than this team has become accustomed to.

J.P.: But they are scoring enough goals to win games, nearly four per outing over the last 12 games and they've won seven of those (with two of the five losses coming after regulation). The problem with this team is its defense (to be sure, that includes the forwards as well), and that's not on one guy - certainly not the one guy who's carrying them, and certainly not a guy who plays the position with the least amount of defensive responsibility on the ice.

And the team actually isn't even "treading water" with Ovechkin on the ice at even strength - they're drowning. They've allowed 46 goals with Ovechkin on the ice at five-on-five and only scored 30. That's a ghastly 39.5%.

But let's dig a little deeper there. First of all, Ovechkin has the lowest on-ice save percentage on the team, and while it's tempting to conclude that it's because his defensive indifference is leading to higher-quality chances for opponents, the reality is that any individual skater's contribution (positive or negative) to this stat is minimal, especially when that skater is a wing. Second, Ovechkin's on-ice shooting percentage at fives is a lower-than-average 6.6%, despite his personal rate of 10.6%. Translation: the guys he's skating with aren't finishing. To wit, with Ovechkin on the ice at five-on-five, the rest of the Caps have scored 10 goals on 270 shots this season, a conversion rate of just 3.7%.

With saves and shots more in-line with what could be reasonably expected, that 30-to-46 number (and Ovi's much-maligned plus-minus) would look a heck of a lot better without him playing an ounce more defense. And if he was getting the same on-ice save and shot percentages he got in the shortened 2012 season, those numbers would flip to 47-39 and no one would be lamenting his defense... because he's actually been better at five-on-five this year than last, posting a 51.0% Corsi versus last year's 49.2. The difference has largely been a combination of luck and the guys around him.

Obviously it would be nice if Alex Ovechkin played a bit more defense or at least pretended to be interested in doing so (which isn't to say there aren't moments of inspired backchecking, but those tend to be the exception), and the animated GIFs are hilarious and embarrassing and so on. But he is what he is and it's up to the general manager and coaches to adjust to that by playing him with players and in systems that can cover for it rather than trying to put snow tires on a Ferrari. He's piling up the shots and goals at five-on-five. It's hard to ask for much more than that.

Rob: Fair points on the percentages dragging down Ovechkin's numbers, and a bit of positive regression (as opposed to the regression the team has experienced since Boudreau...) would certainly make the numbers look better. Still, I don't see any reason why regression and better defensive effort have to be mutually exclusive - Ovechkin might break even at even strength if the percentages went his way. Could he be, dare I say, a positive even-strength player if he were more committed to hustling without the puck?

The Caps have scored goals in the last four games, and they've sure needed to because they continue to bleed goals against. It's easy to blame the defense, and certainly justified at times - but it's hard not to notice that on the Panthers' second tying goal last week, Ovechkin was doing loops in the defensive zone (on the left wing's defensive side of the ice, no less) and was (one of the four players) out of position as Boyes slammed the puck home. And against Boston, Ovechkin's top line let up a goal against the Boston fourth line; there was a time where the Caps' top line against a fourth line would be a huge mismatch. Not anymore.Then, against Philadelphia on Sunday, there was the power play turnover leading to the Flyers' second goal and most glaring of all the recent goals-against, the Flyers first goal last night on which he was chasing Claude Giroux after losing him around the blueline. We talk about how awful the Caps' defense is, but in seemingly every game, Ovi's got his fingerprints on an awful breakdown that ends up with a puck behind Holtby.

The Ferrari analogy is catchy, but misplaced. There's no reason hockey players need to be made for one purpose. There's no reason a player that is supremely skilled in one aspect of the game can't also find ways to succeed (or at least try hard) in the aspects of the game that don't come as natural. To resurrect a past refrain around these parts, if a $9-million winger needs to have his linemates cover for him to keep him from being a defensive liability, he's not worth that $9 million. But hey, Ovechkin's scoring goals by the bushel, so let's party like it's 2009.

J.P.: I'm not sure how his power-play boner against Philly implicates his defensive ability, but there's no shortage of examples that do. Again, we all wish Ovechkin would play more defense, but I think the extent to which it matters is grossly overstated by Mike Milbury, Jeremy Roenick and you. (Oh no I didn't! Oh yes I did!) The guy's a positive possession player at fives for the first time in years, and that's mostly enough for me. The goal differential will come along... unless you're of the mind that his defensive play is so woeful that opponents are getting markedly higher quality chances when he's on the ice, which is a bit of a stretch.

The problem here isn't the generationally-talented point-producer - it's what he's been surrounded with and the system he's playing in. Twenty-nine other coaches in the NHL would love to have Alex Ovechkin, and a lot of them would know how to mitigate the impact of his shortcomings as a player. It's not on him to play, coach and manage - racking up goals at a near-historic pace is enough.

Now let's go back to the bar and work on our personal shot totals. I believe it's your round.

Rob: Fair enough. And while we're at it, how about a white Russian that won't drive us crazy?