Alex Ovechin turned 30 last month, and that is scary. It is scary mostly because age is a dauntless demon who will one day lay waste to all the fun stuff about living like jumping jacks, erections, and hearing above 16 kilohertz, but it is scary also because scoring goals in hockey becomes rarer as players get older.
Alex Ovechkin’s best season was eight years ago, when he was 22 and scored 65 goals and 112 points. Since then it’s been — well, see for yourself.
Just two seasons after his peak, Ovi began a dramatic decline that coincided with the team’s retreat from championship contention. It seemed to begin when Bruce Boudreau’s Caps became a defense-first team in late 2010, although Ovi’s yips on the power play that season might’ve been an even bigger factor. Hunter Hockey didn’t help either, and that coach’s struggles with his star player served to underline a a few pernicious narratives.
“The truth seems to be that the league has solved Ovechkin,” Brian Cazeneueve wrote for SI all the way back in 2011, with all the sophistry of the guys who shout “first!” in comments. And then more coaches came and went, and the story became this:
Milbury: Is Ovechkin a coach killer? http://t.co/MCH1RDwc
— CBC Sports (@cbcsports) November 28, 2011
The pressure isn't on Adam Oates in Washington. It's on Alex Ovechkin to prove he's not a coach-killer.
— Adam Proteau (@Proteautype) June 26, 2012
Boudreau répond à la question suivante; Est-ce qu'Ovechkin est un coach KILLER?… http://t.co/m3BF7XIM8Z
— Martin Lemay (@MartinLemay) May 6, 2014
It wasn’t just media blowhards who foretold the downfall of Ovi. Seeing Ovechkin’s declining possession as well as historical comparables, stat geeks predicted he might never hit 50 goals again, and the evidence backed them up. Ovechkin’s unprecedented 13-year contract began to look like an albatross around the team’s neck. The decline in Ovechkin’s production outpaced even the most pessimistic models, and the economics of the pre-CBA NHL could not justify the expenditure of his deal given his on-ice performance.
All players decline with age, but Ovechkin was breaking the mold in the worst way possible.
Then, in the shortened 2013 season, Ovechkin won the Hart and Richard on the strength of the Capitals’ terrific power play. Even-strength hockey was still a disaster, but even the staunchest of skeptics had to admit that Ovechkin had not truly lost his scoring touch after all. Ovechkin scored a career-best 24 power-play goals the next year and then one-upped that mark in 2014-15 — at which point, with the post-Oates Caps, his 5v5 scoring also improved.
Ovechkin has now scored 50-plus goals two seasons in a row. Considered washed up just three years prior, Alex Ovechkin has won the Rocket Richard Trophy three years running.
The only players to win the scoring title four years in a row are Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull, and Wayne Gretzky.
Now, for the first time since 2012, Alex Ovechkin is seeing the puck belong to his team more than the opponent.
Twenty fifteen was a good season at evens, and Ovechkin spent much of it with Marcus Johansson and Tom Wilson on his opposite wing. This season in that spot he’ll see TJ Oshie or Justin Williams or maybe even Andre Burakovsky– any of whom I’d reckon a significant upgrade. Nick Backstrom will be healthy before long, and with any luck he won’t play hurt for roughly 70 percent of the games like he did last year. And, judging by Sunday’s efforts, the NHL seems no closer to eliminating the crown jewel of the Capitals offense, the Ovi Shot from the Ovi Spot.
In short: it’s looking to be a promising season for Alex Ovechkin.
So, while Ovechkin is not the immune from the effects of aging, it has become clear that he is far from washed up, and that our prior beliefs– of Ovechkin as a coach killer or as a boondoggle of an investment– are no longer borne out by the evidence.
The sharp decline we saw once Ovi hit age 25 was probably primarily the result of systems and coaching changes on the Capitals team and the failure of his management to surround him with complementary players. The man himself surely deserves some blame, but that blame has been by now obliterated in the wake of those 104 goals he scored in the last two seasons.
No, Alex Ovechkin can’t keep it up forever. One day he will no longer be a trophy-winner playing twenty minutes a night. He’ll eventually retreat from the top line and the scoring title like all great players do in time, and that needn’t be a sad thing. It also needn’t be soon.
Alex Ovechkin can hit 50 goals again, perhaps for the last time, at age 30. He can win the Rocket Richard Trophy for the fourth time in a row and join the ranks of Hull, Esposito, and Gretzky. Alex Ovechkin can once more prove wrong the bloviating, incurious sluggards.
Gray hair be damned.
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