Over the last decade or so, the rule in DC has pretty much always been that as Alex Ovechkin goes, so go the Caps. He has long been the dominant and driving force behind the Caps' success (and the first place the fingers point when they fail). His scoring droughts often coincide with the team's slumps; his streaks, the team's winning streaks.
This year, however, things are a little different.
Thanks in part to the pieces put in place by GM Brian MacLellan, the system and culture instituted by Barry Trotz, and the buy-in of every player from Ovechkin on down, the reliance on the captain has diminished. The Caps are off to one of the best starts in franchise history... and they're doing it as a team.
Ovechkin has scored 12 goals so far this season, good enough for top-ten in the League and just slightly under his career goals-per-game rate. And while that's a legitimately good start for Ovechkin, what is more impressive is that his team ranks third in the League with 74 goals (and fourth in goals per game with 3.22) despite the fact that Ovechkin's goals account for "only" about 16% of that total.
Take a look at how much of the team's offense has been from Ovechkin in the past:
|Season||Ovechkin Goals||Total Goals||G%|
Ovechkin's contribution, while still good in its own right, is accounting for the lowest percent of the team's total since 2009-10 and 2010-11 - which were both seasons in which the Caps finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference. In those campaigns, like this one, the Caps featured a much more balanced attack throughout the lineup, and have gotten points from forwards and defensemen alike.
The biggest factor in that balanced attack has been the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has been able to contribute alongside Ovechkin on the top line and provide a dangerous one-two punch when he's centered the second line. But it's not just him. Nicklas Backstrom has been pitching in with goals, and is scoring on pace with his best per-game rate of his career. Jason Chimera is red-hot to start the season, while the newest Caps, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, have combined for 13 goals so far. And of course, don't discount the major impact being made by John Carlson and the rest of the blueline, with 13 goals and 55 points to their credit.
All told, only four players have yet to score a goal this year (and only two are without a point), and none of those players have appeared in every game this season. Eleven different players have a game-winning goal already this year (and Ovechkin only has one of those); last year they had 13.
Okay, so they're getting offense throughout the lineup... but what about the power play, aka Alex Ovechkin's bread and butter? Observe:
|Season||Ovechkin PPGs||Total PPGs||G%|
This is probably the area in which Ovechkin has "struggled" the most so far this season (and he's still tied for the team lead in power-play goals). But as we've seen, his struggles are more likely due to other teams paying too much attention to him and not enough to the other weapons on the ice. The result? A lot of goals from suspects both usual and unusual, with nine different players having at least one goal with the extra man.
All of it feeds into the larger point, which is that the team as assembled right now is more balanced than we've seen in a long time - and because of that, they're able to win, even when Ovechkin isn't at his best.
That's not to say that Ovechkin's not still needed, of course, or that he's not playing well; he is, on both counts. All it means is that the team is able to win on nights when he's not steamrolling opponents and scoring in bunches... and when he is? Watch out.