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Alex Ovechkin, Steve Yzerman and Mythology

A look at the stories that we tell ourselves

Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights in game 5 of the Stanley Cup Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

One of the most persistent narratives recited in the grand story of Alex Ovechkin’s illustrious career is the retelling of one of the sport’s oldest allegories, that of the brash young phenom who takes the hockey world by storm, racking up personal accolades and achievements at a rate commensurate with the game’s immortals, but who is unable to find team success - to sip from that most sacred chalice - until he ultimately changes his game, buys in and plays “the right way,” opening pucks’ pearly gates and ascending to the kingdom of hockey heaven.

Tale as old as time, et cetera.

As Sports Illustrated’s Allan Muir so subtly put it in his April, 2014 hit piece entitled “It’s time to strip the C off Alex Ovechkin”:

[T]he Caps were hoping Ovechkin would grow into the role as other offensive wizards like Steve Yzerman or Mike Modano had done before him, that in time his new responsibilities would add a dimension to his game and make him a more mature player who would focus on putting team goals ahead of his own.

But it never quite worked out that way because Ovechkin isn’t about team. He’s all about Ovechkin.

...

While he continues to pile up individual accolades — he won the third Hart Trophy of his career last season — and produce league-leading numbers like his 48 goals this season, he treats defense as something better addressed by lesser players.

Luckily for the Caps and their fans, St. Barry of Winnipeg showed up soon thereafter, Alex Ovechkin had his come-to-Yzerman moment, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Barry Trotz has made Alex Ovechkin team player for Capitals” read a headline on Yahoo! Sports a year later. Just over three years after that, you couldn’t swing a dead penguin without hitting an article with a title like “An older, wiser Alex Ovechkin leading the way for Capitals” or “Ovechkin evolved his game, and now is reaping the rewards.”

After nearly a decade, the Caps’ captain reconnected the controller, introduced himself to his goalie on a rare visit to his defensive zone, and led the Caps to the Promised Land.

Ignoring whether or not The Yzerman Moment was actually a thing or, more precisely, the thing (it probably wasn’t, despite how you’ve heard it referenced when discussing Ovechkin or Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid - Yzerman’s three Cups came on teams stacked with between five and eight other future Hall of Famers, among other things), it’s worth exploring how much (if at all) Alex Ovechkin actually changed his game in order to become “a more complete player” and finally win something at the team level (other than, y’know, those three Presidents’ Trophies and eight Division titles).

To be clear, what we’re really talking about here is Ovechkin’s oft-maligned defense, the type of sometimes seemingly indifferent play with occasionally comedic results that would lead a serious journalist to ponder whether his fifth 50-goal season might be “one of the worst in history” (putting aside for a moment that having one of the “worst” 50-goal seasons in NHL history - to say nothing of being able to compare it to your other 50-goal seasons, plural - is sorta like dating one of the ugliest supermodels in the world).

So, was Alex Ovechkin, playing perhaps the least important/impactful defensive position on the ice, a horrifically detrimental defensive winger who woke up one morning and decided to try, thereby changing his - and his team’s - fortunes? Let’s take a look.

First, an overview of Ovechkin’s expected even-strength defense goals against replacement (xEVD GAR) rate. Think of this as his individual contribution to goals that you’d expect to be scored against the Caps if they got League-average goaltending:

data via Evolving-Hockey

In a surprise to absolutely no one, Alex Ovechkin, over the course of his career, has been a below-replacement-level defensive player (who, hilariously, finished 28th in Selke voting as the League’s best defensive forward in 2009-10, thanks to an absurd plus-45 rating; he also received votes in the prior two years). To put the numbers on that chart in some perspective, perennial Selke finalist Patrice Bergeron finished last season at .29, and the Caps’ leader was Carl Hagelin at .44; the only Cap lower than Ovechkin so far this year is Nic Dowd at -.21.

Micah McCurdy has similarly undertaken the daunting task of trying to isolate individual defensive impacts in hockey, and his results are similar (note that here, a positive impact by the player results in a negative number, so the y-axis is inverted):

data via HockeyViz

Both models show a solid 2009-10, a horror show in 2013-14 with a rebound for a couple of seasons followed by a lapse, and another bounce-back before a big drop in Peter Laviolette’s first year and an attempt to scrape back towards break-even now. Quite the yo-yo, with a clear downward trajectory - let’s just say that you wouldn’t want your retirement investment portfolio to look like those charts.

And in that Cup year, when Alex Ovechkin finally put it all together and became a complete, team player? Well, he was pretty lousy defensively. A significant net positive, to be sure... but pretty lousy defensively:

via Evolving-Hockey and HockeyViz

But there is that unmistakable two year improvement following the 2013-14 season. Only it wasn’t just for Alex Ovechkin. McCurdy’s Coaching Impact model paints a picture that’s worth several thousand words (and millions of dollars):

via HockeyViz

Barry Trotz wasn’t necessarily a great coach, at least not in those first two seasons in Washington (that “Always” sitting right at the charts’ origin points says as much). But he was a hell of a lot better than the guy who preceded him - the Caps didn’t so much scale a mountain under Trotz (in the regular season, at least) as they made their way out of a canyon. And maybe these “bounces” in Ovechkin’s annual defensive give-a-damn are actually more reflections of the coach and systems, personnel and performance. To wit, here’s that first chart above with a forward with whom Ovechkin didn’t often share the ice (jokes aside), Jay Beagle, charted as well:

data via HockeyViz

And if we compare frequent running mate Nick Backstrom?

data via HockeyViz

Those are fairly similar patterns to attribute Ovi’s descent into or climb out of the Great Pit of Carkoon of defensive performance to some personal epiphany at the Church of Trotz, with Jay Beagle and Nick Backstrom sitting in the next pew.

And, to add one more layer of perspective here, lets convert the rates into raw numbers. How many expected goals above or below average has Ovechkin’s defense contributed to over this span, and finally how many actual goals?

data via Evolving-Hockey

There’s a lot going on there, but the takeaways are that a) Alex Ovechkin has, with rare exception, never been a better-than-replacement defensive player at even-strength, and b) the impact of that has generally cost the Caps around three goals per season (an average of 2.7 actual goals and 3.1 expected tallies). That equates to around one standings point.

But let’s not lose the forest for the trees here. In each of these seasons (with the exception of 2013-14), Ovechkin’s even-strength offensive contributions have made him a net-positive even-strength contributor, with an average of around plus-seven even-strength goals above replacement. Because most years look something like the first three under Trotz did:

via Evolving-Hockey

So did Barry Trotz turn Alex Ovechkin into a better, more complete hockey player? Maybe. But not to the extent that many would have you believe, and not necessarily permanently, even while Trotz was still behind the Caps’ bench. Alex Ovechkin has never been and will never be a particularly good defensive forward (nor does he have to be). And while his attention to that end of the ice has waxed and waned at times, the systems in which he’s played and the personnel with whom he’s played (not to mention a few choice anecdotes and GIFs) have probably exaggerated those peaks and valleys. Measuring defensive impact in a sport like hockey is hard; telling the same old story is not.

Oh, and one last thing - guess who’s leading the NHL in even-strength points so far this season (by a lot), despite a negative even-strength defensive contribution. (Spoiler: it’s Ovi.) As long as the point of the game remains to outscore your opponent, Alex Ovechkin will remain “a team player” when he does, just as he’s always been.