2018 is done and in the old books like Leviticus. Lord Stanley’s silver trophy lives in Northwest DC, and it, too, can barely afford its rent. It was one hell of a good year for the Washington Capitals, their fans, and their captain, Alex Ovechkin.
Between a world championship, the joy of fatherhood, and the eviction of one (1) back-sized monkey, 2018 will be hard to top for Ovechkin.
But 2019 is here now, and the Great Eight is already looking forward. And there’s one New Year’s resolution that the captain already appears to be making good on.
Alex Ovechkin - Left Wing, Captain
Resolution: A Matured, Sustainable Scoring Style
What do you resolve to accomplish in the New Year if you’re Alexander the Great, scanning the edge of creation itself for a worthy foe, a challenge worth accepting?
If you’re Alexander of Macedonia, you weep, for there are no worlds left to conquer.
If you’re Alexander of Moscow, you grin that cobblestone superhero’s smile and declare, “Not suck back to back.”
And indeed, that is the stated goal for the Capitals captain. But to win the Stanley Cup again this year, Ovechkin will need to keep a resolution that will serve him for the long-term, as well: continue to evolve his game into a more mature - and, yes, different - style than the one that made him famous fourteen years ago as a rookie.
Look, Father Time is a no-good schmuck. He’s a jerk and a thief and the type of guy to root for the Yankees, the Cowboys, and Duke. But he is undefeated. And he is coming for Alex Ovechkin.
Ovechkin, for his part, knows this better than anybody. That’s why he’s skipping this year’s NHL All-Star Game, despite being voted the Metropolitan Division team captain by the sport’s fans, perhaps the only people outside his friends, family, and teammates whose opinion he seems to care about.
Per Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post, who is also the best in the business, Ovechkin said:
“First of all, thanks for all the fans who voted for me. I know it’s a tough decision, obviously. I like to be part of all the events, but right now I think that time of the year and my age we decide to take a one-week break. It’s hard, but it’s better for me.”
Time was, ‘round about a decade or so ago, Ovechkin could rely on his frame and wheels, much like a well-built truck or the Bigus rigus, to lead the league in hits, shots, goals, terrified goalies, whatever you like. But as we’ve seen with the slow death of his once scorpion venom-quick curl-and-drag move along the boards, that’s just not as viable an option as it once was.
And so Ovechkin is adapting, like a superbug.
He still leads the NHL in goals as of this writing (29), and is doing so at the second-most efficient clip in the league this season, trailing only Toronto’s Auston Matthews in Goals/60 (2.17). He still leads all Capitals forwards in individual scoring chances (143), and leads the team in Shots/60, too (11.27).
But the way he’s doing it, and from where, is why he may have a real, honest-to-goodness, don’t-get-laughed-out-of-the-bar chance to pass Wayne Gretzky’s 894 career goals.
Check out these two charts, courtesy of the indomitable HockeyViz:
Above, those are the locations of Ovechkin’s even-strength shots from 2007-2009, when his playing style was best characterized, in my humble opinion, as “....like a warthog dipped in hot sauce and kicked in the ass.”
They look like a mega-virus on a petri dish, about to explode.
Now, check out his even-strength shots from this season:
There are, basically, two places Ovechkin is shooting from: His Oval Office™, and right directly in front of the stinking net. Just as he did when he showed up before the 2017-2018 season looking thinner, Ovi has trimmed the fat from the rare prime rib that is his game.
“But Jason,” you might be asking, “Is he sacrificing good shots for easy ones?”
No, theoretical reader! In fact, the chart below shows the locations of all of Alex Ovechkin’s missed shots from 2007-2009. Notice anything?
Almost all of his missed shots came in the areas he has removed from his game this season.
In fact, from 2007-2009, Ovechkin averaged 31.26 individual Corsi Events For (in plain English, that’s all shots: blocked, missed, or otherwise) per 60. Over that same time, he averaged 15.74 Shots (successfully on net) per 60. That difference - the blocked or missed shots - is what I'm calling Wasted Shots. During those years, Ovechkin averaged 15.52 Wasted Shots per 60.
This season, shooting from just those two primary places, Ovechkin’s Wasted Shots are down to just 12.55 per 60, an improvement of -2.97 Wasted Shots per 60.
In even plainer English: Ovechkin is hitting the net more often at least partially because he’s picking his spots better than ever before.
Check out this chart of his missed even-strength shots from this season. He may still be missing the most from the one spot where he shoots the most (as logic would dictate), but notice that his shots and misses no longer overlap nearly as closely as they did in 2007-2009.
And the result?
Ovechkin is currently shooting at 19.2%, by far the most efficient scoring rate of his entire career.
Why It Matters
The real upshot is this, though: Ovechkin’s new, slower playing style is sustainable for years to come. It doesn’t put his body at the same inherent risks that flying through the high slot with your head down or crossing circle-to-circle in front of the blueline do.
Heck, just ask Jaromir Jagr how long a career you can make out of sharp instincts, a heavy body, and great positioning. You may think of Jagr as the high-flying 20-something MVP from Pittsburgh. I remember him as the guy with the huge ass and strong legs that no one could get the puck from in Florida. That guy scored 27 goals when he was 43 years-old.
If Ovechkin plays until he’s 40, he’ll need to average just north of 35 goals per season from now until the Ragnarok that is his retirement from hockey to pass Gretzky.
Oh, and his career average is 45 goals per season.
Happy New Year, Ovi!