In the spring of 2010, I did a post about Ovechkin and WOWY, a Tangotiger concept where you look at how people do with and without certain players to try and tease out something about their impact. Through the end of that season, Ovechkin’s impact was pretty clear: he was a Corsi monster. When he was on the ice, it tilted significantly towards the other end. Big Corsi generally means big goal diference, which means wins and all that good stuff. Ovechkin was a star.
Since that time, Ovechkin’s suffered through two years of bad boxcars. He played 79 games in 2010-11, scoring 32-53-85 and 78 games this year, scoring 38-27-65. For most players, those are pretty decent seasons but, coming off a three year stretch in which he put up 112, 110 and 109 points, it seemed like a bit of a letdown. Neil Greenberg, who writes for the Washington Post and ESPN has done quite a bit of work showing how Ovechkin’s shooting numbers have declined. I thought I’d build on that and my previous WOWY post and poke a little deeper into it. These numbers are 5v5.
As I indicated, there’s a bit of narrative that Ovechkin’s problems started in 2010-11. I’m not entirely convinced of this. In a sense, it started in 2009-10 and in a sense it started in 2011-12. You can see that his G/60 number plunged in 2010-11 but he’d already started to see his S/60 numbers drop – the decline in 2009-10 was covered up by his shooting percentage spiking and a fantastic year in terms of goals for. That slide has continued. This year though, there was a whole new troubling thing – suddenly the Caps are getting bombed in shots when he’s on the ice. You can see from the SF% (percentage of the total shots while Ovechkin was on the ice that were taken by the Caps) and the SFON/60 that he sort of, well, cratered this year. Those are the key takeaways from this table.
I’ve added some other stuff, just for general interest. The “Other Caps w 8 on Ice” chunk shows that their performance was stunningly consistent in 2010-11, 2008-09 and 2007-08, with a spike in 2009-10 and a crash this year. The total S/60 for both teams when Ovechkin is on the ice is pretty consistent, with a slight dip this year; the puck has to be somewhere, etc. Ovechkin’s share of the Caps’ shots spiked in 2008-09 but was otherwise consistent.
OK. So that’s a decent summary of Ovechkin’s performance. Let’s turn to the WOWY stuff now. We’ll start with Corsi events. What I’ve assembled is a table showing how the ten non-goalie Capitals who had at least 100 Corsi events in 2010-11 and 2011-12 did with and without Ovechkin in those years. As you’re probably aware, the Caps had all sorts of problems this year. Bruce Boudreau was fired. When Boudreau got fired, GM George McPhee explained it in the following terms:
“The reason for the change was we weren’t winning, obviously, and this wasn’t a slump. You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce. Bruce did a terrific job here but when the players aren’t responding you have to make a change.”
Straightforward enough. Let’s look at the Corsi WOWY.
As it so happens, there’s something very interesting here. Remember: Ovechkin had a fine Corsi in 2010-11. The Caps enjoyed a huge shots edge when he was on the ice and it disappeared this year. You can see, looking at how the share of Corsi events that these ten players had when on the ice with Ovechkin in 2011-12 versus 2010-11 that everyone took a hit. Here’s the weird thing though, and the thing that makes me question the extent to which this was a Boudreau problem: the numbers that those guys posted without Ovechkin don’t look much different than they did last year, when the Capitals were a 107 point team instead of a 92 point team.
Looking at the five forwards first, two of them actually saw their Corsi share improve this year when not on the ice with Ovechkin compared to last year. Backstrom saw a very slight dip. Knuble’s is a bit bigger and Laich’s is large. There are, I think, extenuating circumstances with Knuble and Laich. Laich looks to have been used much more as a hard match against the other team’s best this season than he was last year. He was first this year in QualComp amongst Caps forwards who played at least 40 games; last year he was behind Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon and Matt Hendricks. His ZoneStart fell from 53.5 to 43.1. There’s considerable evidence that his role changed and he moved into a harder job, which would explain the drop in his numbers. In any event, he experienced a far more significant decline while playing with Ovechkin than when he didn’t. Knuble had a smaller decline in Corsi% without Ovechkin than Laich; he’s getting older and also saw his ZoneStart fall, both of which would have contributed to that.
The defencemen are the exact same story. Huge declines when on the ice with Ovechkin that dwarf any change when they weren’t. The Caps look to have matched their defencemen more aggressively this year, with Alzner and Carlson playing tougher roles while other guys had less difficult roles. On the whole though, if you look at how these ten players did in terms of Corsi percentage without Ovechkin on the ice, it’s difficult to make an argument that there was much of a change at 5v5. It looks an awful look like 2011-12 was more of the same numbers from 2010-11.
Neil Greenberg (follow him on Twitter!) was kind enough to forward me his scoring chance data. It shows the same effect. (I think Neil copied Alzner’s data for Carlson or vice versa; I don’t think it matters). Same deal. Very small changes without Ovechkin, save for the guys whose jobs got harder or easier and then everyone gets hammered with Ovechkin.
What about goals? These are a crude way of looking at it, because goals are so rare but, again, it’s the same thing. Slight decline in plus/minus away from Ovechkin, absolutely cratered with Ovechkin.
Behind The Net has Ovechkin as being on the ice for 51 5v5 GF this year and 56 GA. Last year, it was 66/43. That’s a 28 goal difference swing, something like nine points in the standings. While the Capitals had other problems, you can fairly ascribe a lot of the decline to whatever happened to Ovechkin at 5v5 this year. I think it’s critical to understand that this year was something different. I’ve found a lot of the criticism of Ovechkin in the past overblown – for all the talk that he never won anything, he was producing in the playoffs and teams weren’t shutting him down. On this evidence though, it’s hard not to conclude that something specific to him was different this year.
The second post I’ve linked there has some interesting stuff:
Although I disagreed with Healy on-air about making Ovechkin comfortable and playing him like crazy, Hrudey backed that idea.
Why? Al Arbour.
Both Healy and Hrudey loved playing for Arbour, one of the sport’s most successful coaches. And, one thing they said about Arbour was that he didn’t grind his players when things were going badly. (On the other hand, he could be very tough when things were going well.)
Boudreau and McPhee discussed a tougher approach this past summer. Ovechkin generally had his run of the place over the past six seasons and he gave the Capitals a lot in return. There were 300 goals and millions of dollars in ticket sales. Much of that comes from him.
But, the team never came close to doing what really matters: winning it all.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked one Eastern Conference coach about Ovechkin. He said, “If you look at the last few Stanley Cup champions, they were led by dominant two-way forwards. Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane (who didn’t get enough credit for how good he was), Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk all dominated at both ends of the ice.”
“Ovechkin is not there. In the defensive zone, he is above the puck all the time,” the coach added.
Criticizing Ovechkin for always being above the puck in the defensive zone seems a little silly. I’m not sure who this coach Friedman is citing is but the name of the game is getting results. How you do it is irrelevant. I’m a terrible skater who can’t shoot by NHL standards; if I also possessed some magical ability that made my team outscore like crazy when I was on the ice, an NHL team would be crazy not to sign me.
Blaming Ovechkin, or saying that there’s something he needs to change in his game in order for the Caps to win (before this year) seems awfully dumb too. The guy produced in the playoffs. He’s a dominant regular season player. If glory days Ovechkin is the best player on your team, you can win Stanley Cups.
There was an even sillier story in the Washington Post this spring trying to suss out what’s wrong with Ovechkin. It had some interesting stuff though:
“The game has changed since Alex entered the league, and we are looking for him to be a better all-around player,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said in an e-mail. “We want him to adapt his game to be productive within the framework of our team, not necessarily in comparison with others in the NHL.”
In 2007, the Capitals launched a “Young Guns” marketing campaign around Ovechkin, Green, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. On and off the ice, the group was tight-knit, driving to games together, hanging out away from the rink. A lot has changed since.
Ovechkin has “been hanging out with a whole new set of people,” said one person with knowledge of the locker-room dynamics. Among teammates, Ovechkin remains closest to Semin, a fellow Russian. “I don’t know, things have changed. They don’t hang out as much any more and it’s caused an uncomfortable situation within the team now, the chemistry with the guys. There’s no more ‘Young Guns,’ or whatever you guys in the media called it.”
(This one kills me. “Guy gets five years older, circle of friends changes” is not only a reality of everyone’s life, it’s referenced a lot in books about great hockey teams by the guys who played on those teams. You get older, you have new interests, some guys have wives and kids. That’s how everyone’s life works. Mike Green)
At the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, NBC broadcaster Pierre McGuire was stationed between the teams’ benches during the quarterfinal game between Russia and Canada, so he saw the carnage up close. When it was over the Canadians had routed the Russians, 7-3.
“I have never been part of a game as a player, coach or broadcaster, where one team got so thoroughly beat down,” McGuire said. “I’ve never seen that before. It was really something to behold. You can understand why some guys might have dented psyches after that.”
This is like the infamous “The Olympics Broke Tommy Salo” theory that ignores the fact that Salo was awesome down the stretch in 2002 for the Oilers. Ovechkin scored 20 points in 18 games after the Olympics and added 10 in 7 games against Montreal during the playoffs. So his psyche was dented, but it didn’t REALLY manifest itself until this year. Next Habs GM, please.
Speaking of Montreal:
The Capitals finished that season with the league’s best regular season record but were ousted in the first round of the playoffs. Ovechkin had five goals and five assists in the seven-game series, but many around the league now credit Montreal and its coaches for devising the blueprint on defending Ovechkin.
Crediting Montreal with the blueprint for shutting down Ovechkin is like crediting France with the blueprint for stopping German invasions. I blame Friedman for this meme – he had a column with a bunch of excellent sounding quotes from Josh Gorges and Hal Gill that I wrote about when Washington lost to Montreal; when you examined whether the data supported the quotes, it became laughably apparent that it did not.
So, when you’re talking about why the Capitals struggled this year, I think the answer is pretty much the same as the answer to the question “Why is Ovechkin getting hammered at 5v5?” I’ve considered whether teams figured out how to defend Ovechkin better this year but it seems unlikely to me. NHL coaches are smart, obsessive types and it seems unlikely to me that it would take so long for them to figure out how to defend him. The numbers of the guys who spent time with Ovechkin in 2010-11 and 2011-12 suggests that it’s not them, it’s him. Explanations that are premised on last year having been a bad year for him (or his decline having started with the Olympics) don’t make much sense to me because there was still a lot of good stuff there, including a lot of possession going the right way.
It’s a hell of a mystery. Washington has an astonishing amount of money invested in Ovechkin going forward and, if this is what he is now, it’s devastating for them. I would assume that Dale Hunter’s position isn’t really secure beyond this season; if I was in charge of hiring the next Capitals’ coach, whoever had the most compelling plan for fixing Ovechkin would be the guy I’d hire. It’s the difference between Caps as a perennial Cup contender and the Caps as a team that fights for the playoffs.