What has happened to Alexander the Great? Once the league's best goal scorer after a season for the ages, he has become mortal again, seeing his goal totals drop to 32 goals and even lower the next season. The big, fast Russian winger also has had no trouble scoring in the playoffs, but can't seem to get his team deep into the spring. It's certainly not for lack of talent, so what gives? None of the other great goal scorers of all time seem to have this kind of career scoring arc and come back for huge seasons. Is his career as an elite winger over? Will he really just be Alexander the Very Good?
As it turns out, Alexander Mogilny did return to being Alexander the Great. He even won a Stanley Cup in his career and was a productive scorer until age 34 before retiring from the NHL at 36. He didn't have the traditional smooth arc in his production like many of the great American and Canadian goal scorers did. Then again, he isn't American or Canadian.
Alexander Ovechkin is only 26, but he is under contract with the Capitals until he turns 36 and many people who follow the Capitals are worried that he may never return to his MVP form. If you thought the issues facing Ovechkin were unique, that is far from the truth. It is funny to hear Capitals General Manager George McPhee say he hasn't seen another player return to form after a dip in production like Ovechkin's. After all, he managed two of them in Vancouver, namely Mogilny and Pavel Bure. Ovechkin's career scoring arc is following the mold of the great Russian scoring wingers, which means Ovi should be right on pace to pot 50 goals next season and make a deep playoff run very soon.
The other, other Alex
Alex Ovechkin burst onto the scene as a once-in-a-generation goal-scoring talent. He scored 52 goals as the 2005-06 rookie of the year, making him only the 4th player to do accomplish the feat. The other 3 players on that list have all scored over 500 goals in their careers (Teemu Selanne: 659, Mike Bossy: 573, Joe Nieuwendyk: 564). Ovi dipped to 46 goals the next year, but busted out in 2007-08 for a league-leading 65 goals and potted another 4 goals in his first playoff appearance. He again led the league in goals the next season with 56 and put on a show in the playoffs with 11 goals in only 14 games. The 2009-10 season was saw Ovechkin continue his frenetic scoring pace, even if it was fraught with injuries and suspensions; with 50 goals in 72 games, Ovechkin was only 1 goal shy of a 3rd straight title. Something happened to Ovechkin during that season that took its toll on him, whether it was the league adjusting to him, injuries, or a general malaise. He has seen his production drop over the last two seasons to 32 goals last year and now 29, a far cry from his halcyon days not so long ago.
The bad news for Ovechkin is most of the great NHL goal scorers peak around age 25 and then drop off, gradually decreasing in production over time. Some of them manage to be productive into their late 30s, but rarely have great seasons at an advanced age. If Ovechkin followed that pattern, he'd steadily decline, maybe post another couple 40 goal seasons if he followed the trend of, say Brendan Shanahan or Teemu Selanne. The good news is that if his career follows a pattern set by the other Russian scoring wingers in the same stratosphere, Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny, Ovi's regular production should return by next season.
Looking at Alexander Mogilny again for a moment, he ended his career as the second-highest scoring Russian-born and trained player in NHL history, with 473 goals in 990 games. He also posted healthy playoff scoring numbers with 39 goals in 124 games. Despite his consistency as a scorer for many seasons, his Stanley Cup win in 2000, his Lady Byng Trophy in 2003, his 4 All-Star appearances, and the two 2nd Team NHL All-Star appearances, Mogilny's career is defined by his monster season in 1992-93.
All told, Mogilny was a consistent 30-goal scorer with the skill and potential to dominate and a penchant for injuries that could make him invisible. His triple-dip career arc is more the norm for Russian-born scorers than the exception, as many of the great Russian scorers have experienced it.
If their careers look like roller coasters, it's because they were.
Like Ovechkin, Mogilny came to the NHL from Russia as a 20-year old. After a 15-goal rookie season in 1989-90, he upped his production to 30 and 39 goals the next two seasons, establishing himself as a goal scorer. The 1992-93 season was where everything went right for him. With his blazing speed and heavy shot, Mogilny racked up 76 goals in 77 games, plus 7 goals in 7 playoffs games. After that monster season, Mogilny dropped to 32 the next season and to 19 goals 44 games in the strike-shortened 1994-95 season, leading many to believe Mogilny's big season was an aberration. Once the Buffalo Sabres traded him to the Vancouver Canucks in 1995 he re-emerged as a big-time scoring threat, posting 55 goals in his first season in British Columbia. He again dropped to 31 the next season and muddled through two more moribund seasons with a rudderless Canuck team while fighting through injuries. In 2000, while the Canucks were once again heading for an early off-season, they traded Mogilny to New Jersey where he finished off a 24 goal season with a Stanley Cup championship. Mogilny proceeded to score 43, 24, and 33 goals over the next 3 seasons, and won his only individual NHL award in his last full season.
The other great Russian scoring winger to follow this career arc was Pavel Bure, the 3rd-leading Russian goal scorer of all time, with 437 goals in 702 games. Bure got his nickname of "The Russian Rocket" because he was a blur on the ice, terrorizing goalies from the moment he entered the league. His 34 goals in his rookie season of 1991-92 earned him rookie of the year. He proceeded to score 60 goals each of the next two seasons, leading the league in 1993-94. That spring, Bure also produced 16 goals in 24 playoff games, nearly posting his 17th in Stanley Cup Final Game 7 loss in Madison Square Garden.
Like Mogilny, Bure's storybook career took a left turn after that season. His production dipped to 20 goals in 44 games in the strike-shortened 1994-95 season, and then injuries limited him to 6 goals in 15 games the season after that. Bure only managed 23 goals in 63 games in 1996-97, leading many to wonder if he would ever return to form. He was even re-united with his old World Junior teammate in Mogilny, but it didn't break him out of his funk. It wasn't until 1997-98 that Bure finally regained his form as the Russian Rocket. It took 3 years, but Bure posted 51 goals, 1 off the league lead. A trade demand and knee injury limited him to 13 goals in 11 games the next season in Florida. He came back out the next two seasons and lit up the league with 58 and 59 goals, leading the NHL putting himself in the running for MVP for getting the Panthers back to the playoffs. Unfortunately, his next season was his last full campaign in the NHL. Even though he was only 30 years old and put up 34 goals in 68 games, the knee injures had taken their toll.
Alexander Ovechkin doesn't have the pronounced dips or major injuries that Bure or Mogilny had, so it's much more likely he will return to form next year. As for another 65-goal season, that will be as likely as his first one was. Everything has to go just right for that to happen. Remember that Ovechkin is a consistent 50-goal scoring forward who has the size and strength to dominate if circumstances are right. He is consistently better than Bure or Mogilny were, and he has the passion to win, too.
For Capitals fans searching for an example closer to home, look no farther than all-time leading goal scorer Peter Bondra. The Ukrainian-born and Slovakian-trained Bondra experienced a similar series of dips in his career as Ovechkin. Bondra went from 12 to 28 to 37 goals in his first 3 seasons before dropping to 24 while dealing with a wrist injury. He broke out the next season for a league-leading 34 goals in 47 games in 1994-95, then posted 52 goals in 67 games, 46 in 77, and a league-leading 52 in 76. He dipped to 31 then 21 over the next two injury-plagued seasons, and Caps fans will remember that there was serious talk of trading him in the summer of 2000. Bondra put that talk to bed when he busted out for a 45-goal season at age 33. He potted 39, 30, 26, and 21 goals over the next four seasons, staying productive deep into his thirties.
Even if Alexander Ovechkin does not return to the rarefied air of 65 goals, or even 50 for that matter, he is still likely in for a Hall of Fame career. Ovechkin has the physical gifts and offensive talents to be at worst a 30-goal scorer for the next 7 seasons, more likely the next 12. Like Bondra, Mike Gartner had the speed and shot to be an effective goal scorer even after his prime. While he only ever posted one 50-goal season, he posted 15-straight seasons of 30 or more, 17 in all, and finished as the 6th highest scoring forward of all time with 708 goals.
The all-time leading powerplay goal scorer, Dave Andreychuk, is another example to give Ovechkin hope. The large-bodied Andreychuk had 14-straight seasons of 25 or more goals to open his career and 5 more 20-goal seasons to finish it, posting his last such season at age 40. Andreychuk did not post his first of two straight 53+ goal seasons until age 29, and he remained an effective player for a long time because of his large frame, craftiness, and willingness to battle in front of the net. Ovechkin combines Andreychuk's size and snarl with good speed and hands, plus a top-notch shot like Bondra and Gartner. Since both of his parents were pro athletes, he also has the genetics to maintain his conditioning and avoid injuries, meaning he should possess a lethal combination of skills well into his 30s or even his 40s, much like Brett Hull and Mark Messier.
Alex Ovechkin will be back. He will adjust to defenders. Once his regular playmaker gets back into the lineup, he will start terrorizing the league again with regularity. Fear not, comrades, Alexander the Great will rise again.