The Capitals were once again eliminated from the second round of the playoffs just a few months ago, and is often the case after a disappointing playoff loss, many fans and analysts seem to put the majority of criticism and blame on the Capitals’ captain Alex Ovechkin. And though he doesn’t deserve a majority of blame, he did have a down year in 2016-17 – in fact, one of the worst years of his career.
Even when he had his lowest goal total of 32 in 2010-2011, he registered 367 shots on net, 54 more than what he had in 2016-2017. If one uses his shooting percentage from this past season, had he recorded 367 shots, he would have had five more goals on average.
For most players, scoring 33 goals in a season would most likely be considered a great season, but for Ovechkin it’s unusual. Hitting the 50-goal mark the season prior, then dropping nearly 20 goals is very unusual. Even if one factors in his age (31; 32 on September 17) there shouldn’t be such a dip in production.
However, he did make up for his lack of goals with 36 assists, his most since the 2010-2011 season, so it’s good to see him adapting. But first and foremost, he’s a goal-scorer, possibly the best ever, and the Capitals need him putting up more goals. And there’s no reason for him to not be a 40-plus goal-scorer, even 50, for years to come. So what happened, and how can Ovechkin get back to that level of production?
Ovechkin spent most of all last season with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie on the team’s first-line, a line that was pretty great together, especially for Oshie who had 33 goals in 68 games. Of course he was helped by a likely unsustainable 23.1% shooting percentage.
Backstrom also had his highest assist (63), goal (23), and point (86) total since the 2009-10 season. But as shown above, it just wasn’t a great season for Ovechkin. But how did two of the three players do so well on a line and the other not so well, at least compared to his usual results?
First let’s focus on the 5-on-5 goals. Ovechkin had 27, 5-on-5 goals during the 2015-2016 season, compared to only 14 this past season, so it didn’t help that he had his lowest 5-on-5 shot output ever in a full season. So what was the difference? Throughout the season, some fans called for Caps Head Coach Barry Trotz to reunite Ovechkin, Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, a line that became known as the TKO Line. From both a performance and statistical point, they were so dominant together when they played together. Ovechkin seemed to gel incredibly well with Kuznetsov. Trotz used the TKO Line at the beginning of the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 seasons, but he never kept them together for a long stretches.
This got me thinking. Why is this a thing? Why does Ovechkin seem to play better with Kuznetsov than Backstrom? Backstrom is the better center than Kuznetsov, there’s no doubt about that. But as the season went on, and I continued watching Ovechkin not register many, if any, shots or goals playing with Backstrom, the answer became clear: speed.
If one goes back and watches the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie line, they are slow up and down the ice, not only in transition but even while they are in the offensive zone. They rely heavily on the cycle, but Ovechkin can’t find open space on a cycle that includes two other relatively slower players. Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Oshie aren’t slow per se, but none of them are particularly fast. It works with some players like Backstrom and Oshie, but not with others like Ovechkin.
Now go watch Kuznetsov with the puck. He hates cycling it, it isn’t his game. He likes to get the puck below the net and work from there, or skate it back out to the blueline while finding that empty space to make a pass.
Even when he has to cycle, he gets rid of the puck quickly, and doesn’t like to continue the cycle. This is why Ovechkin did so well with him. While Kuznetsov was expertly protecting the puck with his speed and stickhandling, Ovechkin was able to find open space to make himself a threat. And it wasn’t just Ovechkin, it made all the Capitals players move around the ice, including the defensemen, so the opposing team had to keep track of all five players as they moved around. This is how Ovechkin can return to his old goal-scoring ways.
To add to this, Kuznetsov is just an elite playmaker. WinnersView did a cool little video on how Kuznetsov improves all of his teammates shooting percentage by a wide margin. There are two reasons as to why he is able to do that. 1) He creates space for his teammates to find soft areas as noted above and 2) he’s just a magician with his passes.
A player’s’ shooting percentage is going to skyrocket when a puck is on their stick five feet from a wide open net. But as noted in the video, with Kuznetsov, Ovechkin’s shooting percentage goes from 8.5% to 12.1%.
That’s a huge jump, especially for a player who can shoot a ton like Ovechkin. That 12.1% would have given Ovechkin 23 5-on-5 goals last season, nine more than what he actually scored.
The great thing is that Kuznetsov doesn’t just improve Ovechkin’s shooting percentage but also his shot totals. When playing with Kuznetsov, Ovechkin has one shot every 4.2 minutes of playing time at even strength. With Backstrom, it’s one shot every 6.4 minutes. That’s a difference between 9.3 shots per 60 minutes and 14.2 shots per 60 minutes. That may seem small, but it pays dividends over a whole season.
Now, none of this is an exact science because of the sample size, but it should give one a pretty good perspective on how much more productive Ovechkin is with Kuznetsov than he is with Backstrom. Here are the stats from over the last two seasons of Ovechkin while playing with the two centers. He not only registers more shots, but he has a higher shooting percentage when with Kuznetsov.
So if one takes the amount of time Ovechkin played last season at 5-on-5, which is 1,124 minutes, one can determine that over a full season playing with Backstrom, Ovechkin would average about 176 5-on-5 shots (he had 193), which equals about 16 goals (he had 14). But if one does the same math with a full season of playing with Kuznetsov, one could guesstimate that Ovechkin would have had an astounding 268 shots! That’s quite a bump, (75 more shots!).
And if one uses the shooting percentage he has playing with Kuznetsov (11.7%) to those 268 shots, it would give Ovechkin 31 goals, and that’s just at 5-on-5! He’s been averaging 18 power play goals a year, which would equal 49 goals Ovechkin could potentially score. Again, this isn’t an exact science, it’s highly doubtful Ovechkin could put up 268 even strength shots, as he hasn’t hit that mark since the 2009-2010 season, but why couldn’t he register 230 or more shots, like he did in the 2015-2016 season? That still clocks him in at 27 even strength goals, 13 more than he had this past season. That’s huge!
It may also be prudent to give Ovechkin more time on ice. Last year he had his lowest time on ice at 5-on-5 in his career, around 14:36 a game, when he usually gets 1:30 more minutes than that. If Ovechkin had 1:30 more minutes a game last season, he would hit around 1,323 minutes at 5-on-5. Adding the shots and shooting percentage of Kuznetsov, Ovechkin could have hit around the 315-shot and 37-goal marks at just even strength! Add his 17 power play goals from last season and that’s a total of 54 goals. Again, it’s doubtful Ovechkin would hit that shot or goal total, but there’s absolutely no reason to think he couldn’t hit 25+ even strength goals if he was given more playing time with Kuznetsov.
So just for a fun exercise, let’s say Ovechkin stays with Kuznetsov a full 82-game season and gets 45 more seconds of 5-on-5 time than he did last year, half of the 1:30 minutes that are recommended. And to be nice, we’ll meet in the middle of Ovechkin’s shooting percentage with Backstrom (8.88%) and Kuznetsov (11.7%) with 10.3%. And we’ll be even nicer and say Ovechkin gets one shot every 5.3 minutes (median between one shot every 6.4 minutes with Backstrom and 4.2 shots with Kuznetsov). So Ovechkin at 1,262 even strength minutes, with one shot every 5.3 minutes, means he would put up 238 shots over 82 games. With a 10.3 shooting percentage Ovechkin would pot 25 goals at even strength! That would have been tied with Connor McDavid last season for 10th-most 5-on-5 goals. And that’s being generous with the numbers, more than likely Kuznetsov would help Ovechkin increase his shot and shooting percentage meaning more goals. With just three more goals he would have had 28, the fourth-most even strength goals last season.
But it’s also important to note how Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Kuznetsov were deployed. When Ovechkin was centered by Kuznetsov, 60.1% of their shifts were started in the offensive zone. But while with Backstrom, Ovechkin started in the offensive zone only 52.3% of the time. So he obviously is going to have a better chance of putting up shots and goals when starting in the offensive zone 7.8% more of the time when with Kuznetsov. But maybe that’s how it should be. It’s not exactly a national secret that Ovechkin isn’t an amazing defensive talent, that isn’t his forte and that’s okay. Goal-scoring is what he’s the best at, so give him the most chances to do exactly that, and if that means starting in the offensive zone more than so be it. Backstrom is one of the best two-way forwards in the game, he is a talent at shutting down top-end talent, so let Backstrom do that to free up Ovechkin to play against lesser opponents with more starts in the offensive zone. Ovechkin was 74th in the league in offensive zone starts. One would think the best goal-scorer possibly ever would get way more offensive zone starts that!
And honestly, I think Ovechkin improves with any sort of speed on his line, it doesn’t have to be his center. Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana would be good candidates to play on that right wing position if Backstrom stays at center with Ovechkin. Both Burakovsky and Vrana have great speed and skill that they can create that space for Ovechkin. That speed also helps with zone entries, which could bump possession, meaning more shots too. With Oshie, the Ovechkin-Backstrom pairing had only a 50.1 Corsi rating over the last two seasons, but with Burakovsky they are much better with 56.5. With Marcus Johansson, another speedster with skill, they had an otherworldly 60 rating. The lesson to learn here is there needs to be some sort of speed on each line to help create space and possession.
Again none of this means that Ovechkin will definitely score 40-50 goals if he’s centered by Kuznetsov next season, but the evidence shows that the two Russian players play very well together. It’s worth a long look. The Caps are about to enter the season looking very different from last year and need their captain doing what he does best: shooting and scoring. So it’s vital to put him with the linemates that help him shoot at a high rate and increase his shooting percentage. Then, just increase his time on ice and offensive zone starts with said players and the goals should be rolling in. With those improved numbers, Ovechkin can help usher the Capitals to the promised land.
Brian MacLellan Makes it Clear Alex Ovechkin Must Evolve His Game: “The game is getting faster”
Don’t Shovel Dirt on Ovechkin, Just Yet
Despite His Impressive Overall Numbers, Ovechkin is Struggling More than You Think
Alex Ovechkin Ends Goal Drought
Ovechkin and Crosby: Mellowing With Age
By Luke Adomanis