As fire and brimstone have engulfed the Washington Capitals dreams of postseason play and the boo birds have invaded Verizon Center like it’s Bodega Bay, many have begun questioning everything that isn’t working. Why can’t they score? Is Hunter the coach for this team? Did McPhee’s non-action at the trade deadline kill this team? Of all the questions, one in particular keeps popping up. And it’s one that’s been around for a while now.
What’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin?
We may never know. Some have questioned his hockey-sense. Some have wondered if he’s injured. Some have wondered if time, age, and the physicality of Ovi’s game have simply taken their toll. Maybe it’s mental. Or maybe it’s what happens to wings at this stage in their careers. Whatever the cause, it seems to finally be hitting Caps fans that the glass jumping crazy man we grew to love is probably not coming back. So what happened? To answer that, first you have to figure out when the down-slide occurred. Has there been a gradual decline or was there a definitive game, series or other event that caused (or coincided with) the fall?
The first event to examine is the Caps’ Conference Semifinals loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. Sure, Ovechkin had a point in every game and 14 points in the seven game series. But he took the loss hard. Did he fall off a cliff the following season? Ovi’s stats the following October would seem to say no: 13 games, 14 goals, 9 assists, +10. His pace would have put him on a trajectory for 88 goals and 145 points in 82 games. Ovi actually came out of the gate on fire to start the 2009-2010 season. That’s not it.
The next possible event occurred November 1st of that same season. In a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Ovechkin injured his shoulder something, resulting in having to sit out six games. Was this THE event? Was Ovechkin ever the same again?
Looks like a knee injury to me…
Over the next 41 games, Ovechkin went 28/38/66. While his goals-per-game dropped pretty significantly, his assists increased to almost a helper per game. Ovechkin still seemed to create offense consistent with his career numbers, even if he wasn’t the one lighting the lamp.
The next stop on our timeline is the 2010 Winter Olympics. Prior to the extended break that began after the Caps’ February 13th game, Ovechkin had put up 42/47/89 totals in 54 games. Sounds like Ovechkin to me. However, upon returning from a disappointing tournament in Vancouver, Alex put up un-Ovechkin-like (at the time) numbers of 8/12/20 in 18 games. Maybe he hurt himself again pushing that camera guy?
So, there are two distinct events that seem to have contributed to Ovechkin’s decline as an elite point producer. First is the injury sustained in the game against the Blue Jackets. Here’s Ovi’s career stat line pre- and post-injury:
For those into averages, he’s the ‘per gamers:
It sure looks like Ovechkin hasn’t been the same at shooting the puck since then (quality and quantity). It doesn’t seem like much, but the difference between .69 and .47 over an 82 game season is the difference between 57 goals and 39 goals. One event, sudden drop of 18 points. What about after the Olympics?
And the averages?
Ovi’s goals-per-game average doesn’t change as much as it did after being stung by a Blue Jacket, but his assist-per-game averages drop pretty significantly. So with two separate events in the same season, Ovechkin ceased being able to shoot the puck like his old self and was unable to compensate by feeding his teammates more often (or his teammates failed to take advantage of those situations) beyond the Olympic break.
One could also look at the first round loss to the Montreal Canadiens as the jumping point. After all, Ovechkin has only gone 58/77/134 in the 140 games since (and is currently on pace for a measly 66 points this season). But that series loss doesn’t happen with the Ovi that started the 2009-2010 season. The signs point to both the Columbus game and Olympics as the starting points for Ovechkin’s decline as a goal scorer and offense producer, respectively.
Since we’ve seen him in 24/7 and in other media with his shirt off and without surgical scars, it seems that Ovechkin is probably playing through a chronic injury that is messing with the velocity, accuracy and range of motion/quickness of his shot. It could explain why he doesn’t shoot as often (pain/realization that he’s ineffective) and why it doesn’t go in as much (not as accurate/hard/release point has changed so that goalies see it/it gets blocked more often). As for the assists? I think we can all agree that Ovi used to be a much better scorer than passer. When defenses know you can’t shoot, you become easier to predict.
Ovechkin’s physical style asks him to lean quite heavily on his shoulders (when the rest of the team isn’t perched there) and might not allow him to fully recover. He probably needs surgery, but maybe he’s been told it will sideline him for a while and doesn’t want to let the team down (or others are advising him not to). As painful as it would be to Caps fans everywhere, the truth of the matter is that not having a post season to worry about might actually be a Godsend if it allows Ovi to fix his issues, physically.