Alex Ovechkin recorded no shots on goal in the Capitals’ 5-2 loss to the Predators on Saturday night. It was the third time this month that he didn’t put a single shot on net. That wouldn’t be a remarkable feat for a normal player, but Alex Ovechkin is not a normal player.
Historically, Ovechkin had lingered around five shots on goal per game, which is nuts if you think about it. He’s had ups (run-and-gun in 2008-09) and downs (Dale Hunter), but he’s been generally prolific in his offense.
When the 2016-17 season began, Ovechkin was already off by about one shot per game. And over the course of the year, he’s dropped from around four to three.
A few years ago, Eric Tulsky wrote about the aging curve for forwards. In his work, he described a precipitous drop-off in shots on goal, among other things, around age thirty.
At age 31, Ovechkin has, until now, shown impressive resistance to that diminishment. We can’t be certain that Ovechkin’s recent drop is the result of age, but it would explain it. If it’s due to another chronic issue or something else specific and solvable, the outcome is undeniable: the Capitals are not getting what they used out of Ovi. And they’ve already adjusted to that, in a fashion.
The Caps have waxed and waned in their attempt rate when Ovi’s on the ice this season, but his individual portion of the attempts has gently and steadily decayed.
Note that this is offense rate per sixty minutes, not raw counts. (I’m curious what the relationship between ice time and shot rates is as a player ages; could one mask the other?)
Ovi’s share of his line’s shot attempts has dropped from around one third to around one quarter. For the overall Caps team (and using raw counts instead of rates), Ovechkin’s share of the total offense has dropped from above ten percent to around seven percent.
And yet the Capitals’ overall offense rate has only slightly ticked down. The Capitals have averaged 58.1 shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, and they have not dropped off much over the course of the season. That suggests something important: the Capitals might not need Ovi to be Ovi like they used to. With Oshie, Kuznetsov, Williams, Eller, and even Jay freaking Beagle increasingly contributing to scoring, the Caps’ depth might both minimize the detrimental effect of Ovechkin’s slowdown to the team — and might also contribute to it. Other players are taking the shots, so he doesn’t have to.
When Brian MacLellan speaks of the Caps’ window closing, he’s mostly talking about affordable contracts for good players expiring, but Alex Ovechkin’s aging will also be a factor. Before then, the Caps have got some homework to do. Are they confident that Ovechkin’s reduced shot volume is a result of aging? What other factors are involved? What tactics will keep Ovechkin effective longer? What deployments will make that slowdown hurt the team less? When does Ovechkin stop being a top-line player, and has it already happened?
The Caps are gearing up for the home stretch. Aside from the recent spat of injuries, there’s not a lot of problems. But their star player has also been the best playoff scorer in recent hockey history (hat tip to JP), and they’d like to see him remain such in 2017. For good reason, I worry for what the postseason Capitals might look like without the old Ovi, so to speak.
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