This week, Andrew Berkshire has been releasing Sportsnet’s rankings of the top 20 players at each position using Sportslogiq’s proprietary stats. Alex Ovechkin was ranked the league’s 10th best left winger, which… yeah, seems low to me.
Here is the graphic they made to show Ovechkin’s biggest strengths. Predictably, they are shot attempts (both from the perimeter and the slot) and, a bit surprisingly, scoring chance-generating plays (i.e. playmaking).
The rankings are based entirely on a quantitative system, with a composite of offensive, defensive and transition statistics weighted to 55/15/30 percent, respectively. Ovi sits behind players like Tomas Tatar, Jaden Schwartz, and Filip Forsberg (at number two).
What do I think of the rankings? Well, developing any purely quantitative system for ranking players is hard, and I give credit to the authors for the accomplishment. Because, while interesting and thoughtful rankings, nobody would swap the Great Eight for Tomas Tatar, no matter how invested in the numbers they are (all due respect to Tatar, a fine player). Berkshire seems to admit this in Ovi’s blurb:
One of the problems is that analytics underestimate goal scoring talent a little bit.
We’ll come back to that in a minute. Berkshire goes on to point out that Ovi is dinged by his shoddy defense and a mediocre transition game. If the rankings were based purely on offense, Ovi would slot 2nd to Dallas winger Jamie Benn, which would raise fewer eyebrows.
The stats that anchored Ovechkin include loose puck recovery, stick checking, controlled entry and exit rates, and other Sportslogiq numbers. While it’s fair to say that Ovechkin probably does not rank highly in these defensive play statistics, there are some non-proprietary numbers that we can check.
Predictably, Ovi has a strong showing in more than just goal scoring. In the possession game his 5v5 shot attempt percent was 53.9 last year, good for 7th among left wingers playing 1000 minutes via corsica.hockey. Ovi was 8th in shot-attempt percentage relative to his team, with plus-3.4. His relative scoring chance percentage was plus-9.7, tops on the Caps by a mile and the best in the league among left wingers (third among all forwards). In short, the team does exceptionally well when Ovechkin is on the ice.
There are a few caveats to these rankings. First, the authors included the last three seasons and do not mention weighting each year differently. While a bigger sample is generally better, without any weighting Ovechkin likely suffered heavily from the final year of Adam Oates, when his line was shredded at even strength.
For example: Ovi’s relative goals for percentage in 2013-2014 was minus-15.2 compared to plus-9.6 last year. That’s a 25-percent swing. It’s reality that Ovechkin didn’t have a great year under Oates, and bad systems probably hurt other players in the rankings as well. But the massive swing in team-wide performance from Oates to Barry Trotz is reflected strongly in all data we have on Ovechkin, and it did him no favors in this ranking.
Second, and most importantly, it’s unclear how stats within each of the three categories were weighted. And really this comes down to what Berkshire himself mentioned: goal scoring. It’s just one category out of many in the offensive portion of the ranking, despite reliable goal scoring being one of the rarest and most premium skills in the NHL. Over the last three years Ovechkin is so far ahead in this category it’s not even funny, with 1.92 goals per 60, 18.5 percent higher than the next player, Steven Stamkos. This unreal separation from the pack in such a key statistic is (admittedly) not fully accounted for in the rankings.
While these rankings are completely transparent and fair, it’s clear that they aren’t capturing the uniqueness of Ovechkin’s skill set and priceless ability to will goals into existence out of nothing. Nor is it fully capturing the incredible revival in his all around game and ability to dominate possession that we have observed under Barry Trotz.
Also worth checking out is the top-20 centers list, on which Evgeny Kuznetsov comes in at only 18th (again, blame that three-year sample) and Nicklas Backstrom clicks in a bit higher at 16th. Kuznetsov’s biggest strengths were scoring chance-generating plays (which he generated at about the same rate as Ovi) and passing. Unsurprisingly, Backstrom excelled in defensive zone passing, passes off the rush, and carrying the puck.
What say you? Agree with the rankings or disagree? Would you trade Alex Ovechkin for Tomas Tatar?
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