Alex Ovechkin is the league’s most prolific scorer, but he did a lot less of it in 2016-17. Ovechkin shed 15 percent of his shot-attempt volume and 44 percent of his goalscoring during 5-on-5 this season. Paired with his diminished individual offense was a stark increase in opponent shooting rates when number eight was on the ice. Concerned, analysts and pundits have looked at Ovi’s declining possession and searched for solutions.
One leading idea: Barry Trotz should swap Ovi’s center, Nick Backstrom, with Evgeny Kuznetsov. With a different center, maybe Ovechkin could get his offense back. That was the thought, and it was one I voiced several times.
I was wrong.
I was for the center swap just last month. From March 19:
The Caps are not fully exploiting the league’s most dangerous forward, and they’re giving up way too many scoring chances (8.9 every hour). Trotz could get even more out of his top six just by swapping the centers.
The Beagle line does better in shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals, and actual goals than the Ovechkin line. That’s both praise for the fourth line and cause for Barry Trotz to swap his top-six centers.
The case for the swap is straightforward: The Caps had been better at shot-attempt percentage when Ovechkin and Kuznetsov were out together.
|Combo||Time||Attempt %||Goal %|
|Ovi + Backstrom||721||49.5||61.0|
|Ovi + Kuznetsov||324||50.6||53.8|
The Caps are underwater during 5-on-5 (unweighted) when Ovechkin and Backstrom are out together, but they’re shooting and saving terrifically — perhaps unreliably.
The goals-for percentage for 8+92 looks less terrific, but it’s driven by a bad save percentage, 89.9, that I wouldn’t give much credence.
It’s the defensive side of the ice that I worry about with Ovechkin; he bleeds shot attempts and scoring chances. That doesn’t get any better with Kuznetsov vs Backstrom (actually one opponent attempt per 60 worse), it’s just that they had offset it with more offense. That torrid opponent shot-attempt rate got me wondering what’s happening on the blue line, and here’s what I’ve come up with.
Yeah. This is actually another Karl Alzner story. I tricked you. I’m not sorry.
Turns out that Alex Ovechkin does just fine with either center, but he gets routinely creamed with Karl Alzner — regardless of who’s on his line. And it’s the Ovechkin-Backstrom pairing that gets used with Alzner a lot more than the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov one.
Ovechkin-Kuznetsov spent just 93 of their 324 minutes with Alzner, but Ovechkin-Backstrom has spent 298 of 722 with him. In those minutes, opponents get 13 to 21 percent more shot attempts. It would have gone far worse if the team weren’t shooting 9.9 percent and saving 92.4 percent during them.
I want to acknowledge differences in deployment, but I’m not sure how much bearing they have on the shot-attempt outcomes. Ovechkin+Backstrom+Alzner get used primarily in the defensive zone (which is baffling in its own right), but the other deployments are uniform — using a great scoring line in the offense, appropriately.
And that’s the crux of it. Alex Ovechkin is a weapon, but he needs support. That support can be found in either Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nick Backstrom, who are each great in different ways. But the failure of this team to recognize and adjust to Karl Alzner’s obviously faltering performance this season is a glaring, lonely flaw. I hope it doesn’t burn them in the playoffs.
Headline photo: Patrick Smith
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