So here’s an unfortunate reality that we have all been trying not to notice: the Caps’ top line is not working. After an absurdly successful Cup run, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov seem to have lost their magic at 5-on-5. After outscoring opponents 35 to 28 last season (and 20 to 9 in the postseason), Ovi and Kuzy are now being outscored 12 to 10. Considering how bad their defensive play has been, they should be thankful it’s that close.
Here is the case for breaking up Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.
As of Friday night, there were 270 forward trios in the league with at least 20 five-on-five minutes together. Of those 270, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov’s trios are at the extreme lower end of most shot-based metrics.
|With Linemate||Attempt%||Attempt% Rank||Expected%||Expected% Rank|
In general, you want any trio’s shot-attempt and expected-goal percentages to be above fifty, i.e. they’re getting more offense than their opponents. But for a marquee line like Ovechkin’s that gets lots of minutes and high-leverage starts in the offensive zone, it’s even more important for them to be driving play. But not only are Ovi-Kuzy in all their variations not driving play, they’re getting dominated like some of the worst lines in the league.
Here are the bottom-25 lines in the NHL according to their shot-attempt percentages.
|Sutter / Virtanen / Mote||VAN||21||25.0||16.6|
|Schenn / Perron / Schwartz||STL||20||25.8||47.8|
|Vesey / Hayes / Spooner||NYR||20||31.0||44.1|
|Paajarvi / Pyatt / Smith||OTT||27||31.4||33.3|
|Ryan / Tierney / Boedker||OTT||46||31.6||25.2|
|Puljujarvi / Draisaitl / Rieder||EDM||22||31.6||36.6|
|Athanasiou / Abdelkader / Vanek||DET||28||32.2||32.4|
|Shore / Janmark / Seguin||DAL||25||32.4||44.9|
|Fiala / Bonino / Harman||NSH||21||32.5||30.1|
|Barkov / Dadonov / Hoffman||FLA||31||34.0||28.6|
|Comeau / Janmark / Faksa||DAL||36||35.0||48.2|
|Burakovsky / Stephenson / Eller||WSH||24||35.6||38.5|
|Rakell / Getzlaf / Terry||ANA||23||36.1||19.0|
|Ovechkin / Stephenson / Kuznetsov||WSH||32||36.5||42.5|
|Cullen / Hornqvist / Sheahan||PIT||49||37.5||48.2|
|Coyle / Eriksson Ek / Greenway||MIN||44||38.2||44.1|
|Soderberg / Bourque / Nieto||COL||35||38.8||39.2|
|Yamamoto / Draisaitl / Lucic||EDM||35||39.2||20.5|
|Ovechkin / Kuznetosv / Vrana||WSH||43||39.3||32.4|
|Fortin / Martinsen / Kruger||CHI||20||39.5||42.6|
|Ladd / Komarov / Filppula||NYI||79||39.9||40.6|
|Neal / Gaudreau / Monahan||CGY||23||40.0||37.3|
|Henrique / Silfverberg / Comtois||ANA||51||40.2||43.0|
|Ovechkin / Jaskin / Kuznetsov||WSH||37||40.3||21.2|
|Sprong / Cullen / Sheahan||PIT||26||40.4||38.0|
These are some abysmal trios, including the bottom-six dregs of Ottawa, Edmonton, and Vancouver. But also in there are three appearances by the greatest scorer of our generation and the supposed best line of the Washington Capitals. So that’s not great.
I want to emphasize two factors here. First, it’s not just shot attempts. If Ovechkin and Kuznetsov found a way to trade attempts with opponents because they knew they’d generate more dangerous chances, that’d be one thing. But that’s definitely not happening. In addition to getting out-shot and out-scored, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are getting blown out in every measurement we have of shot quality.
And the second factor is this: the right wing is not the problem. Speaking to both points, here are numbers are from Natural Stat Trick:
Given that percentages below 50 are undesirable, we should also acknowledge that numbers below 40 percent are particularly atrocious. In 43 minutes, the Vrana version of the top line gave their opponents five high-danger scoring chances for every one they generated. This is a sign that something is deeply wrong with the line, but the fact that those results are not uncommon for other iterations of the line suggests that it’s not the fault of Brett Connolly, Jakub Vrana, Dmitrij Jaskin, Chandler Stephenson, or Devante Smith-Pelly.
Head coach Todd Reirden has tried every conceivable flavor of Ovechkin-Kuznetsov, and every experiment has reinforced the same inescapable conclusion: it is Ovechkin and Kuznetsov that are the problem.
No one would call Alex Ovechkin defensively sound (at least not since he was drafted in 2004). His talent has always been in generating explosive offense, even as the how of that generation has changed as Ovechkin has evolved. The same can be said of Kuznetsov, whose playmaking skill is undeniable, but whose two-way talents have long been in dispute, here on RMNB at least. Several years ago, when Kuznetsov was paired with Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, he centered one of the best shutdown lines in the league, but with those players gone it has become clear who was behind their collective stoutness.
Now together, it seems to be Ovechkin and Kuznetsov’s play without the puck that is the culprit. Neither of them fills the role of the aggressive forechecker in a 1-2-2 setup, the guy who pressures the puck carrier and corrals him towards teammates. Instead, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are opportunistic — in a good way. They float high and wait for the right moment to create a play. Except, lately, that moment happens less often.
Here’s a short explanation of the 1-2-2 forecheck and a diagram of its initial state from Hockey Plays and Strategies by Ryan Walter and Mike Johnston:
This forecheck involves hard pressure from the first forward (F1), and then as the puck is moved, quick pressure from F2 or F3 while F1 recovers. When F1 initiates pressure, he should angle the puck carrier in order to provide F2 and F3 a read on where the puck may go. Some coaches like F1 to stop the puck carrier from getting the back of the net and turn him up the boards, while other coaches encourage F1 to angle—steer and get a hit to separate the puck from the puck carrier. If F1 pressures the puck carrier and the puck is moved in the direction he is skating, then he should avoid finishing the hit and continue on to pressure the pass. . . F2 and F3 should be wide to initially take away passes to the boards and then react to mid-ice passes as they happen.
We have seen various right wingers attempt the role of the top line’s F1, especially Jakub Vrana, but they have not been consistently successful. The best example from any line on the team is Nicklas Backstrom. He is relentless in board battles, a savvy stick-checker, and one of the strongest puck carriers in the entire league. Without a capable player leading the forecheck, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov can’t apply pressure, especially along the boards. (When was the last time you saw Ovechkin in a board battle?) As a result, opponents get out of their zone cleanly and start more dangerous rush attacks against the Washington net.
This discussion so far has conveniently omitted a player. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov’s assumed third man, Tom Wilson, has been suspended since the preseason. Wilson is a fast, aggressive forechecker who is ferocious along the boards — all the things that Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are lacking right now. But history suggests that Wilson might not help.
From the last three seasons, here are opponent rates (per hour) against Ovechkin with and without Wilson on the ice:
While opponents see a minor decrease in the volume of the offense, they get notable upticks in the quality of their offense. Even if Wilson could forecheck effectively, there may be more wrong here than he could fix.
I wonder if the magic of the playoffs has us all — but Todd Reirden especially — misremembering Ovechkin and Kuznetsov’s history. Since the beginning of 2016-17, they’ve played together on what I consider eight occurrences.
While there were some bright spots — especially January 2018, when they were the best part of a top-heavy Caps crew — Ovechkin and Kuznetsov have not been consistently dominant at 5-on-5. But now, for whatever reasons, they are spiraling.
Todd Reirden seems to know something is wrong; in one month he has tried five different players at right wing. But the repeated failure of that line despite replacement of a single variable tells us the problem lies elsewhere. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are both spectacular players, but together they have fallen into bad habits that are hurting one another and the team. It’s time for them to get a break from one another. It’s time to reunite Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Additional reporting by Julia Karron
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