After another eventful summer, Alex Ovechkin has returned to the USA. To mark the occasion, I’ve been revisiting something we looked a few times last season: why Ovi’s linemates couldn’t score during even strength.
During 5v5 last season, Ovechkin was on the ice for 33 Caps goals, 20 of them came from Ovi himself. Either Ovi was making his teammates worse (no), or the Caps weren’t doing enough to supplement their captain’s scoring. They were one-dimensional, and that one dimension was Ovi.
When on the ice with Ovechkin during 5v5, center Nick Backstrom scored 4 goals. Two were scored by Eric Fehr, who shared under 100 minutes with Ovechkin, and another two by Casey Wellman, which I can’t even. A bunch of other guys scored single goals, though Marcus Johansson, who shared 600 minutes with Ovi, scored not a one.
I’m gonna try– and fail– to figure out what’s going on here.
I don’t have an agenda or a master thesis for this piece. I’ve got a lot of data and a couple spare thoughts, so I’m just gonna share it with you. Ian told me this story is “a bit meandering,” and he’s not wrong. But it seems important. If the Caps want to again become a dangerous team during 5v5 (instead of 5th worst), they need to find a way to get Ovi’s linemates to hit the back of the net.
Most of this conversation will be about individual shot-attempt generation, but let’s establish a baseline first with general possession stats.
|Player||With Ovi||Without Ovi||Difference||TOI|
And here’s that data visualized.
Ovi makes players better. Or, perhaps more precisely, players see better results (measured in shot attempts) when they play with Ovi. That part is obvious.
Marcus Johansson is the biggest beneficiary of time spent with Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals got 6 percent more shot attempts (absolute, not relative) when he’s with Ovi compared to when he’s not.
Only a handful of players– Grabovski, Erat, Schmidt, and Beagle– did better possession-wise when they weren’t skating with Ovechkin. On average, that makes sense. Ovechkin is generally considered to be a strong possession player based mostly on how much offense he generates.
But now I want to turn our attention to how these players do individually when with Ovechkin.
My attention is drawn to Marcus Johansson and Eric Fehr.
Marcus went oh-fer on 38 shots. That’s a bad slump but not unprecedented (Semin went 0 for 44 in the 2010 playoffs). Not hitting net is curious, but not damning. The thing that strikes me is the paltry volume of his shots. Let’s come back to that later.
Eric Fehr, with 1/6th of Johansson’s ice time with Ovi, managed to score two goals (probably an artifact of random chance) and generate shots at a higher rate than Johansson.
There’s a few ways this could be explained– one of them just being statistical noise. But if we try to draw meaning from Fehr and Johansson, we could ask ourselves this: Did Fehr shoot more because he’s a more productive player or because he’s got better chemistry with Ovechkin? I’ll revisit this below.
In general, there’s one inescapable takeaway: shooting percentage by players on the ice with Ovechkin was awful– 3.8 percent– way below the league average of around 7.7 during 5v5.
Ovi’s most common defenders shot 2.2 percent, which is below average even for that position. His most common forwards shot 3.8 percent, which is even more below what we’d expect.
But let’s take heart. It’s possible those low numbers were just unlucky. Check it out in comparison to the last three years.
Unless there’s something really broken in Ovi’s other personnel or in his tactics (and I don’t think there is), we should expect his teammate’s shooting percentage to improve next season. That alone will do wonders for his plus-minus, if you care about that, which you shouldn’t, unless you play fantasy, which I don’t.
But I’m still concerned by two things: the forwards chosen to skate with Ovi and how they’re generating offense.
First, some background. Alex Ovechkin is the most shoot-iest player in the NHL, but his linemates are not. I want to look at how players change their shot rates with and without Ovechkin, but for those numbers to be meaningful, we’ll need some context.
I’ve split NHL forwards with at least 400 minutes of ice time last season into quintiles based on how many shot attempts (i.e. shots on goal, misses, and blocks) they generated per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time.
Here’s how they break down.
|I||8.06||B. Gordon, Bozak, M. Johansson|
|II||10.65||Perreault, Lecavalier, Malkin|
|III||12.13||Getzlaf, Giroux, Kopitar|
|IV||13.70||D. Sedin, Stamkos, Crosby|
|V||16.88||Ovechkin, Nash, Kessel|
It’s important to note that this is not a ranking of how good these forwards are, nor is it a resolute indication of their playing style. Some of these guys, like Boyd Gordon in group I, are excellent defensive players who aren’t expected to generate a lot of shots. Others, like Mathieu Perreault in group II are bona fide snipers who make their few shots count. Others might be revealed as overrated by their placement here, and I’ll let you decide who they are.
With that in mind, let’s see how Ovi’s fellow forwards did with and without him.
Note: These are individual numbers– shot attempts by each individual player– not on-ice numbers like we typically see with possession stats.
|Player||With Ovi||Without Ovi||Difference||TOI%|
Again, for all our visual learners out there:
For comparison, Ovi generated about 24 shot attempts per 60 minutes, third highest in the league.
The most productive forward with Ovi was Eric Fehr, who scored twice and created about 13 individual shot attempts for every 60 minutes with Ovi. Fehr was the only forward who saw a noticeable increase in shot rate when playing with Ovechkin. When playing with Ovi, Fehr is generating individual shots at a faster rate than most of the league, the 86th percentile.
Fehr also played the least with Ovi among all the players in that list (with a minimum of 90 minutes). If Fehr were to play with Ovi more next season, it’s possible he’d keep his shot rate up and get to the dangerous areas where he can score.
It’s also possible the small sample size makes Fehr look better than he is.
Marcus Johansson, on the other hand, simply doesn’t shoot enough to justify a top-line slot next to Alex Ovechkin. His overall numbers, which I discussed in his season review, suggested as much, but now we know he shoots slightly less when with Ovi. With or without Ovi, Johansson lingers around the fifth percentile of shooters.
That would be fine if Johansson brought other things to the line, but it’s apparent he does not.
Johansson’s performance as puck carrier is well below what we earlier believed. I asked Adam Stringham, who wrote about Johansson’s zone entries using Corey Sznajder’s zone-tracking project data, how he’d characterize Johansson’s puck-carrying skill:
When it comes to zone entries, Marcus Johansson is a bit of a mystery. Fifty-six percent of Johansson’s entries are with control [of the puck], good for 5th on the team among players with at least 50 zone entries. The mystery lies in the Capitals’ inability to generate shots after Johansson’s entries, which may be in part to his reluctance to shoot on the rush.
Johansson isn’t bad at getting into the offensive zone with control, but he’s not great. That might be reason enough to remove him from first-line duties. His inability to generate shots after getting into the zone is the bigger problem, and it seems to me like that’s just a sign of the player he is: a bottom-quintile shooter.
The good news is that Barry Trotz already sounds like he intends to mix the top line. In an intervew with Dan Rosen, Trotz mentioned both Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich as possible partners with Ovechkin and Backstrom.
Just in case you’re wondering, here are the numbers among defenders.
|Player||With Ovi||Without Ovi||Difference||TOI%|
The last thing that grabbed me as I assembled these data is how almost everyone shoots less when Ovechkin is on the ice. It’s like Ovi sucks up all the oxygen. I wanted to see if that’s an effect unique to him or if we’d see that with a player of similar style.
It’s hard to find a comparable player to Ovechkin, but I gave it a shot with Phil Kessel. He’s a
center right wing, but his playing style is similar and his shot output is too.
|Player||With Phil||Without Phil||Difference||TOI%|
It’s pretty comparable. A couple guys– Lupul in particular– shoot more when skating with Kessel, but for the most part Phil’s linemates tend to shoot less– just as like Ovi’s linemates. I doubt that shot generation is truly zero sum (i.e. every shot that you take deprives me of one shot), but it makes some intuitive sense that the linemates of the league’s best shooters are more inclined to pass and less inclined to shoot.
Whether that’s a smart tactic or not, I can’t say.
Once Barry Trotz begins the 2014-15 season with the Washington Capitals, he will first and foremost be judged on his effectiveness with Alex Ovechkin. While I don’t think the data presented here are even close to comprehensive, I think there are a few lessons we can take away:
That last one might just be my personal opinion.
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