When Barry Trotz came to Washington in 2014, one of his primary goals was to broaden Alex Ovechkin‘s game.
In their first meeting after Trotz was hired in 2014, Trotz told Ovechkin he wanted him to be a more two-way and defensively responsible player without hindering his offensive production.
In a sense, that has happened. Washington has allowed fewer than 2 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey the last two seasons, and opponents see fewer overall shot attempts when Ovechkin’s on the ice when compared to the Oates and Hunter years.
But whatever progress we’ve seen in Ovechkin’s defensive game risks undoing this season. Lately, when Ovi hits the ice, it’s a feeding frenzy for opponent scoring chances.
Under Dale Hunter and Adam Oates, the Caps allowed more and more shots from opponents, and Ovechkin was not immune. The defensive improvement with Trotz was not a mirage, but the opponent shot rate has been creeping up lately.
Click to zoom.
That’s unfortunate, but not alarming. And then you see the opponent scoring chances rate.
Ovechkin has gone off a cliff — when it comes to the quality of his opponents’ shots. Eighteen percent of the other team’s shot attempts are from the scoring chance area. For all the talk of a more defensively responsible Ovechkin or his increased commitment to being a 200-foot player, Ovechkin struggles in those first few feet.
I asked Micah McCurdy about this the other day. McCurdy runs hockeyviz.com, where he delivers great visualizations of hockey data. This next one is a heat map comparison of opponents’ shots when he’s on the ice and on the bench. The color green means there are more opponent shots during Ovechkin’s shifts, purple means fewer.
That big green blob right in front of the net means Ovechkin’s opponents are getting many primo scoring chances from the most dangerous spot on the ice. The bleed towards Ovechkin’s side of the ice implies quite a bit too.
We discussed a similar phenomenon with Dmitry Orlov in December. Like Ovechkin, Orlov has seen opponent scoring chances spike this season (as have the Caps as a whole, though to a lesser extent thanks to stingy players like, oh, I don’t know, NATE SCHMIDT who sees a team-low 5.6 per 60 minutes, around half of Ovechkin’s 10.4).
But also like Orlov, Ovechkin can offset the increased danger to his team’s net by generating tons of offense. Ovechkin’s defensive problems cannot be used to measure his overall value unless they’re taken in proportion to his offense, which is among the very best in the league. Ever.
But for a team that has enjoyed so much success this season (and, by the way, all that time leading games might reasonably contribute to the severity of their opponents’ attack), Washington has an opportunity to get even better. I hope they’re asking the same questions I am. How can Alex Ovechkin limit opponent scoring chances without sacrificing offense? How can the team support him in that task?
Here’s one idea: pair Ovechkin’s line with Nate Schmidt more often. As of now, Schmidt is Ovechkin’s least common defenseman by ice time. Schmidt’s speed and positioning may complement Ovechkin’s damn-the-torpedos offense. Let’s find out.
A final note: in this article, like all others, I used hockeyviz.com and corsica.hockey extensively. Both sites are crowdfunded using Patreon. If you can spare it, please join me in throwing a few bucks their way every month to keep those sites going.
Headline photo: Patrick Smith
All stats as of January 25.
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