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This Old Hart: Alex Ovechkin, Age and Value

A look at the Old Man and the “C”

Montreal Canadiens v Washington Capitals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

For the most part, hockey is a young man’s game.

The last three scoring champs - Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Nikita Kucherov - all won the award in their 24- or 25-year-old season... and McDavid won it the two years prior without being able to (legally) celebrate the first with a glass of champagne in Vegas. In fact, no player has won the scoring title for a full season beyond age 30 since Mario Lemieux did it in 1996-97, at age 31. The average age of an Art Ross Trophy winner since the League started handing it out after the 1947-48 season has been 25.8.

The Hart Trophy, given out annually to the League’s most valuable player, skews slightly older, with the average age of the 97 recipients sitting at 26.9, but without a winner in his 30s since Joe Sakic received the accolade in 2001.

The oldest player to win the Ross (excluding 37-year-old Martin St. Louis in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season) was 34-year-old Gordie Howe in 1962-63. The oldest players to win the Hart were 35-year-old Herb Gardiner (1926-27) and Eddie Shore (1937-38).

You know where this is going - Alex Ovechkin is 36 years (and 91 days) old.

via NHL.com

Now, let’s be perfectly clear - the season is barely one-third of of the way through its schedule (although, really, who the hell knows); Ovechkin’s on-ice scoring rate is almost certainly unsustainable (his 16.4 on-ice shooting percentage at five-on-five is higher than any player with 250 minutes played has posted over a full season since it’s been tracked, which includes a sample of 9,669 dudes); and McDavid and Draistaitl... well, they’re pretty good (and play for a team that spends twice as much time trailing in games as Ovechkin’s Caps, so score effects, etc.). In all likelihood, Alex Ovechkin will not lead the NHL in scoring by the end of the season and snap that ~25-year streak of young whippersnappers retaining the Ross.

The Hart, on the other hand? Now that’s another story.

Obviously some of the same caveats apply - relatively small sample, likely unsustainable production and so on. Winning the MVP would be “easier” with a scoring title and/or goal-scoring title on your resume (see 2008, 2009 or 2013 Alex Ovechkin). Voters frequently conflate “most valuable” and “best” player, and brightline achievements can muddy those waters further. But so far in 2021-22, Ovechkin has arguably been both. No player with 20 games played has a higher average or total GameScore (a metric designed to measure individual contributions to winning) than the Caps’ captain:

via Hockey Stat Cards

Not bad, old man.

Ovechkin leads the League in even-strength points (35, and his 8-point lead over second-place Kirill Kaprizov is equal to Kaprizov’s lead over 26th-place Evgeny Kuznetsov), is second in five-on-five goals (12, two behind Kyle Connor) and leads the circuit in five-on-five assists, (18, twenty percent more than a handful of players; at 36, the greatest goal-scorer in the history of the game is looking like an elite playmaker).

Now imagine where he’d be if the Caps’ power play wasn’t terrible (since opening night, the Caps’ 14.5 percent efficiency with the extra man ranks 29th in the League).

And while we’re using our imaginations, let’s focus on that “most valuable” piece by simply imagining where the Caps would be right now without Ovechkin. With more than 100 man-games lost to injury - including 28 for Nicklas Backstrom, 16 for T.J. Oshie, 19 for Anthony Mantha, a dozen for Nic Dowd and on and on - the Caps are somehow tied for first place in the toughest division in hockey (the Oilers, by contrast, sit precariously in fourth place in the NHL’s weakest grouping).

And that’s with Ovechkin being the sole focus of opponents’ defensive game-planning (at least the Oilers can split McDavid and Draisaitl and force opponents to pick their poison a bit):

via HockeyViz

On second thought, don’t imagine where the Caps would be without Ovechkin - it’s too upsetting. Through the 2021-22 season so far, there has been no player more valuable to his team than Alex Ovechkin, and it really isn’t even close.

Reminder: when Alex Ovechkin played his first NHL game, Connor McDavid was eight years old.

What Alex Ovechkin is doing right now is absolutely incredible (almost literally), and potentially historic, and he isn’t simply having an amazing season “for a player his age,” he’s having an amazing season, full stop. Don’t take it for granted, because it won’t be this way forever.

Unless, of course, it is.