The 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons were, in many ways, pretty bleak for everyone associated with the Washington Capitals, from the owner on down to the fans and everyone in between. Not “2004 through 2007” bleak, and certainly not “1974 through Langway’s arrival” bleak, but bleak nonetheless.
Perhaps it’s strange to consider the first of those seasons to be disappointing - after all, it resulted in a(nother) Southeast Division title (and the best record in the East), a relatively easy first round win over the Rangers, and the typical “Rock The Red” Era second-round flame-out. But on the heels of 2009-10’s Presidents’ Trophy dominance and ensuing first-round Halak-ing, it was clear that the team’s trajectory had changed... and probably didn’t need to.
The second of those two seasons featured Bruce Boudreau being sacked one-quarter of the way through, and the entirety of Dale Hunter’s tenure behind the bench (which, interestingly enough, ended with the Caps as close to the Conference Finals as they’d been since going to the Stanley Cup Final late in the previous century).
Perhaps most notable in that two-year stretch was Alex Ovechkin’s decline in production, as the Caps’ big gun amassed “just” 70 goals in 157 regular season games after potting 65 in a single season just a few years earlier (and 56 and 50 in the interim campaigns). Over the same span, Steven Stamkos lit the lamp 105 times, and three other players scored more goals than Ovechkin did, which was unfamiliar at the time and even more so in retrospect for the guy who leads the NHL in goals since the start of the 2000-01 season... .a full five years before he even entered the League. Ovechkin’s assists dropped off the table, too, in 2011-12, dipping to roughly half of his career-to-date average. Graphically, that drop in production looked like this:
Yikes. The media (and fans) were ready to stick a fork in Ovechkin - he was done.
But as was the case with ol’ Sam Clemens, Old Spice and the Star Wars franchise before him (and, lord willing, democracy since), Ovechkin’s demise had been greatly exaggerated. Four-consecutive Rocket Richard wins as the League’s top goal-scorer (and a couple of Division titles, one of which carried with it another Presidents’ Trophy) later, the only question about Ovechkin’s goal-getting greatness is where he ranks among the best to ever play the game.
And then came the first quarter-plus of this season.
With the obvious caveat that it’s only 30 games, Ovechkin’s production (to say nothing of his possession numbers) are more than a little concerning. He’s scoring goals at a lower per-game rate than in any season of his career other than 2010-11, registering assists and points at the lowest clip of his career, and firing shots on goal at the second-lowest rate of his career, ahead of only 2011-12.
And, really, it’s not just these 30 games - Ovechkin isn’t calendar year 2016’s top regular-season goal-scorer (he does have a very respectable 43 in 73 games, though) and 6th in even-strength goals over that span. Those are hardly panic-inducing stats, given sample sizes and variance - Ovechkin is still shooting and scoring, he’s just doing it at “great for a mere mortal” rates. Throw in the decline in his overall minutes and the fact that his five-on-five goal-scoring is actually humming along at his second-highest per-sixty rate since 2009-10 and we can blame the (early season) power-play woes (and, to an extent, vice versa) for his “downturn” in goal-scoring. As the power play heats up, expect Ovechkin to assume his rightful place atop the League in goals, etc.
What may be a bit more panic-inducing are Ovechkin’s assist totals, which have dropped from 0.66 per game through his first six seasons to 0.35 in the five-plus seasons since, bottoming out at 2015-16’s 0.27 and standing at 0.30 so far this season and a woeful 0.23 (17 in 73 games) in calendar year 2016. To put that last number in some perspective, Ovechkin has fewer regular-season assists in CY2016 than Nicklas Backstrom has so far this season.
But wait, there’s less - in those 73 regular-season CY2016 games, Ovechkin has managed only four primary assists at five-on-five, or one every 18 games or so. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, Ovechkin has five total primary assists at five-a-side; Evgeny Kuznetsov has 35 (Brooks Orpik has six). Of the 49 forwards with 1,500-plus minutes at five-on-five since the start of last season, Ovechkin ranks 49th in five-on-five primary assists, and only Patrick Marleau is chilling with Ovi in single digits. You get the point.
Throw goals (those silly things) back in the mix and Ovechkin ranks 24th in that group in primary point (goals plus primary assists) rate, and adding in secondary helpers paints an even prettier picture. But the fact remains that Ovechkin has as many primary assists at five-on-five since the start of the 2012-13 season as Kuznetsov has since the beginning of last season. Blame the system, blame his linemates, but be sure not to absolve Ovechkin - he’s a terrific passer, who needs to find a way to create for his teammates as well as for himself as he loses some zip on his fastball (and, of course, the more dangerous his linemates are perceived to be, the more space he’ll get to do what he does best).
So far in 2016-17, the Caps have been a worse team with Alex Ovechkin on the ice at fives than when he’s off it, and the underlying metrics back that up (though it should be noted, of course, that when he’s off the ice, the Caps are generally facing easier competition). He needs to be better and presumably can be. But if the latest tweaks to his game don’t take hold, he’s at risk of becoming a one-trick pony sooner rather than later, if he’s not already, and no matter how impressive that trick, eventually it’ll get figured out... if it hasn’t already.
Then again, any pronouncements as to Ovechkin’s demise might once again be a bit premature. It wouldn’t be the first time.