Let’s talk Ovi.
Seventeen games played, four five-on-five goals. Considering that he had 27 such tallies in just 68 games (conveniently four times as many as he’s played this year) and 28 in each of the two prior campaigns, it’s fair to be both disappointed in and concerned with this downturn in production.
But that’s not the half of it. The thing is, Alex Ovechkin’s goal production at fives so far is actually exceeding expectations.
You read that right. Based on “expected goals” models, Ovechkin’s four five-on-five goals is around one more (or 33 percent more) than we’d think, given shot locations, types and so on. Now that’s troubling - it’s not that he isn’t scoring, it’s that he’s not getting the chance to score. To wit, Natural Stat Trick has Ovechkin’s individual expected goal (ixG) rate at the lowest point in his career for which they have data:
From left-to-right, the first 17 games of 2021 represent the lowest individual expected goal, shot attempt, unblocked shot attempt and scoring chance rates of his career (but only the second-lowest high-danger chance rate!).
If that’s the shot (no pun intended), here’s the chaser: he’s doing (or not doing) this with some of the most favorable zone starts in hockey, starting a higher percentage of shifts in the offensive zone than all but three players in the League (including top dog Evgeny Kuznetsov), a whopping 81.7 percent, a career-high by lightyears:
So that’s some of what’s going on at the individual level, which, unsurprisingly, translates to not-great things at the on-ice level:
The Caps’ five-on-five offense is worse than League average (in this case, nine percent worse) with Ovechkin on the ice for the first time since 2013-14. (It should be noted that, as a team, they’re roughly ten percent below average, so Ovechkin certainly hasn’t been the anchor here.)
So what’s going on? For one thing, the Caps are squandering a lot of those offensive zone starts right off the drop of the puck... literally. Ovechkin’s most common center, Nicklas Backstrom, has a woeful 35.8 win percentage on five-on-five faceoffs in the offensive zone, sixth-worst among the top-100 draw men in the League (and Kuznetsov’s 39.7 percent is no picnic either). With Ovechkin on the ice for 101 five-on-five faceoffs in the offensive zone so far this year, the difference between ~37 percent and break even is 13 chances at possession and offense. Remember these?
Perhaps helps is on the way in this area... or is already here:
Capitals hired Michael Peca as a development coach to work with their taxi squad and advise team on faceoffs Feb. 10.— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) March 1, 2021
After Feb. 14, Caps ranked 28th in the NHL at 46.0% on faceoffs.
Over their 6-1-1 surge since. Feb. 16, they are 10th in NHL at 52.7% on faceoffs.
We’ll see. And no, a slight uptick in faceoff win percentage won’t get Ovechkin above water in xGF% on its own... but it’s a start. Whatever the next step, the Caps need to find a way to create more chances for the greatest goal-scorer the game has ever known.
Look, if you didn’t expect the Caps’ offense to take a bit of a hit under Peter Laviolette (ostensibly in exchange for greatly improved defense and an overall better goal differential, which is, after all, the point of the game), you haven’t been paying attention. But the drop-off in Alex Ovechkin’s five-on-five offense has been stark:
Put that together with Ovechkin’s customary, uh, attention to defensive detail (an inspection worthy of its own post) and you get an expected goals-for percentage of around 45 percent. To put that in some perspective, Alex Ovechkin’s xGF% this season is the same as Garnet Hathaway’s despite the former’s far more favorable zone starts and teammate quality:
That’s just... yeah.
It’s far too early to proclaim this “the beginning of the end” for Ovechkin or any such nonsense (though, with free agency looming...), but it may be time for him to reinvent himself a bit, and it may be time for his coach and teammates to find ways to help him out a bit more. After all, to paraphrase Michael Scott quoting Wayne Gretzky, you miss 100 percent of the scoring chances you don’t get... even if you’re Alex Ovechkin.