In many ways, a latticework of accomplishment and criticism has been the defining pattern of Alex Ovechkin's career. Well, that and the fact that he's scored more goals (469) than any player since the 2001-2002 season, which happens to be, you know, three years prior to his arrival in the NHL— making him arguably the greatest goal scorer of all time.
His best statistical season — one during which he was made the Capitals' captain — ended in a surprising game seven loss and sparked the first wave of questions about his leadership. With the captaincy comes a new level of accountability, right?
Then came a couple of seasons (under a couple of coaches) during which Ovi failed to break the 40-goal mark; for a guy who'd broken the 50-goal marker in four of his first five seasons in the NHL, that drop-off was enough to fan the embers of the belief that the League had finally figured him out.
And then he stormed back with 32 goals in the lockout-shortened
2012-2013 season (nearly a 55-goal 82-game pace) and 51 goals in 2013-2014, earning another couple of Rocket Richard trophies for his efforts. Except his plus/minus was atrocious. Except he wasn't scoring enough at five-on-five. Except his possession numbers stunk. Except his team missed the playoffs, and, hey, that ‘C' on his chest shouldn't mean nothing.
Now, nine games from the end of the 2014-2015 regular season, there are no excepts about Alex Ovechkin's game. His offensive productivity is there — he's pretty much got the Rocket Richard trophy locked up for a third consecutive season, and he's got a good chance to bring home the Art Ross Trophy for most points as well. The underlying possession numbers are strong (and more on that in a bit). Even the dubious means of performance gauging that is plus/minus, such a lightning rod for criticism last season, has reversed course.
The narrative has, in a way, become the absence of a narrative. As Ovechkin himself would say, it is what it is: a world-class athlete playing his sport at a world-class level (and doing it with incredible reckless aplomb).
Over at CBS Sports, Adam Gretz recently shined the contextual spotlight on Ovechkin's current season. The conclusion? Ovechkin's current campaign isn't just the best goal output of this season across the League, but dang close to one of the top-20 goal-scoring seasons of all time.
And for some additional context, allow me to pull one of my favorite observations from that post:
For three years, there have only been two others players in the league that have averaged even a 40-goal pace over 82 games. And Ovechkin is still cruising along in the mid-50s range. He's still scoring goals like it's 1985 and the rest of the league (other than Stamkos and maybe Nash) is playing like it's ... well ... 2015.
The gap between Ovechkin and the No. 3 goal scorer on the list (Nash, a difference of .177 goals per game) is the same as the gap between Nash and the 37th-leading goal scorer (which, surprisingly, is Troy Brouwer).
Let's take a look at Ovechkin's season in context to performance — underlying and surface level — in year's past.
Goal volume aside, Alex Ovechkin is tilting the ice like he hasn't since that juggernaut '09-10 season — you know, the one that was so statistically dominant that it's almost always presented comparatively with an implied asterisk. But at the same time, until Barry Trotz arrived in town, the last time Ovechkin played on a positive possession team was Bruce Boudreau's 2010-2011 squad.
So, how has Ovechkin performed relative to his team?
Well. Really well. In fact, he's only driven his team's positive possession numbers to a greater degree twice in his career — once during his rookie year, when he was a tremendous talent playing against competition who didn't have the book on him (and with talent that couldn't keep up with him), and then again in '09-10 when he was the fifth best Corsi player in the NHL with more than 10,00 minutes played, and the best overall on teams that weren't the eventual Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks.
The goal scoring numbers are great, obviously. But even beneath the surface, Alex Ovechkin is back to the player he was before nightmare the Dale Hunter/Adam Oates period. And not for nothing, he's doing it against some of the stiffest competition he's ever faced.
But when you carry the level of responsibility that a guy like Ovechkin carries, it's not just about being better than the guys in the other sweater.
So take a look at what Ovechkin's doing for the guys who have skated alongside him for more than 40 minutes of 5v5 time..
|Player||GF%||CF%||GF%||CF%||CF Delta||GF Delta|
(WOWY data via stats.hockeyanalysis.com)
He's almost invariably lifting possession numbers for anyone who's seen meaningful minutes with him (Jay Beagle being the baffling exception here), and his impact on the goal-scoring numbers, as you'd expect, is immense.
Look at Nicklas Backstrom. The NHL's fifth-leading scorer, and top assist man, has skated at even-strength for 125 minutes — two full regulation games' plus an overtime's worth of ice time — away from Ovechkin without being on the ice for a single Washington Capitals goal. His CF% also drops by a massive 8.5 percentage points. Yeah, Ovechkin is helping his pals out alright — and that includes one of the other best hockey players in the world (who, incidentally, boosts Ovechkin from a 52.4% player to that 54.6%, so it's certainly not a one-way street).
The thrust of Gretz's piece was that goal-scoring in the NHL is slowing down, and Alex Ovechkin is not, and that's what makes him such a treat to watch.
How this manifests for the Capitals is that Ovechkin is responsible for a greater share of their overall goal count.
Check it out — the only time Alex Ovechkin has ever had higher percentage of the Caps' overall goals to his name was back in 2007-2008. That was a great season for Ovi, not just because his 65 goals were a mark that no one's even sniffed in the seven seasons since, but also because of his 47 assists that year, 36 were of the primary variety. This huge output resulted in 90.2% of Ovechkin's points being primary points.
Since then, Ovechkin hadn't come within five percentage points of matching that primary efficiency...until this year, where he's current got it beat, his 47 goals and 20 primary assists comprising 91.8% of his total production.
Here's a look at how that stacks up against the rest of his career.
And because it's interesting, here's a quantitative look at the phenomenon of Alex Ovechkin's scoring versus the League's overall decline.
Alex Ovechkin is currently compensating for 0.78% of the NHLs total goals — a behemoth number in a vacuum, and the fourth best of his career (which speaks to how ridiculous Ovi is outside the vacuum).
The reality is, with the context of League trends added, Ovechkin's performance is one of the finest of his career, and there are strong cases to be made for his winning the Hart Trophy for the fourth time, whether you translate the award literally (most valuable player to his team) or by the conventions of tradition in other major sports (best overall player).
But more importantly, Alex Ovechkin's skillset is something of an endangered species in today's NHL, and after several years of always finding a way to discount or mitigate his value, it seems the League at large has finally stopped to stand in awe of the marvel of the Great Eight.
The general hockey community has knelt to smell the roses because, frankly, they smell amazing.