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In Defense of Alex Ovechkin

January 23, 2014
Capitals Radio Network Red
Capitals Radio Network

It's a fact of life, it seems, that when times are tough for the Washington Capitals, Alex Ovechkin takes an unfair share of grief from some members of the media. Some of that may come from being our resident superstar, and his path being so closely aligned with Washington's team success. Some of it seems to come from those that just like to fill up a couple of hours of talk radio, with little to no idea what goes on in our locker room. In the latter case, the knives came out again today on Alex in Toronto. More on that below. 

Thought it might be good to provide some common sense and statistics to back up the case for how valuable Alex Ovechkin is to the Washington Capitals. Thankfully, we have our statistical guru Arik Parnass (@ArikParnass) on the case. What follows is a reasoned look, at why Alex Ovechkin is truly one of our game's most elite talents. Sometimes, it's good to dig a little deeper for the facts, rather than rely on personal opinions. 

My thanks to Arik for putting this together. Well done, sir. 

Capitals StatTalk - On Alex Ovechkin’s Plus-Minus


There are very few players in the NHL as polarizing as Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. When he’s scoring, hockey fans — and Caps fans most of all — can’t get enough of him as he rips one-timers into the upper corner, performs jaw-dropping dekes, and hammers the opposition into the boards. But as soon as this team begins to struggle, the criticisms emerge. “He’s not a good leader.” “He can’t perform in the playoffs.” “I would rather have Gregory Campbell on my team.” “They won’t win with him.” These are tiring narratives that involve very little thought and even less research. 

No, the Capitals haven’t had a lot of playoff success. It’s a fact that the organization has had to deal with. But pegging it all on one player, a player who is over a point-per-game in the post-season in his career, is misguided. It’s easy to label a player a winner or a loser based on the outcome of a few short series. We see it in every sport. If Tom Brady of the New England Patriots’ career had gone in reverse, he would probably have many of the same labels placed on him as Ovechkin today. “Seven straight seasons on a good team without a Super Bowl Title? He must just be a pretty boy who can’t get it done when it counts.” But football is a team sport, just like hockey. And they are both games that are heavily impacted in the short term — whether people want to admit it or not — by luck, streaks and variance. 

It’s why no NHL player has ever completed a full season with higher than a 20% shooting percentage, and why the Philadelphia Flyers made the Stanley Cup final riding two career backup or minor league goalies.  The Boston Bruins are seen as winners, but they were a post away from being eliminated in the first round both of the recent years they made the Cup finals. Remember when Mike Green hit Halak’s blocker in the dying minutes of Game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens down by one? In a strikingly similar alternate world, Mike Milbury calls out somebody like Milan Lucic for a lazy shift, and Alex Ovechkin is praised for playing the game the right way after winning a cup. 

And that brings us to plus-minus, the stat that measures a player’s two-way results but for some reason is still seen as the go-to exclusively defensive stat in hockey. Plus-minus is the differential between a player’s on-ice goals for and on-ice goals against. But there are a few caveats. First, it only includes goals scored at even strength, which makes some sense considering that power play guys will inherently get more chances to score and penalty kill players will get scored on more often. For some reason, however, the NHL decides to include shorthanded goals in the measure. So while a player can’t get a “+” for a power play goal for, he can get a “-“ for a shorthanded goal against. Furthermore, empty-net goals against at even-strength are included. That means that if a team pulls its goalie and the opposition scores, each player on the ice there will get a “+” or a “-“ despite the fact that it was a hell of a lot easier for one of the teams to score than the other.

And that brings us to Alex Ovechkin. Earlier today, former assistant Toronto Maple Leafs GM Bill Watters went on the radio in Toronto and blasted the Capitals’ captain for amongst other things his “no leadership skills” and pointed out — as many have before — that his “-16” rating, second lowest on the team, is inexcusable. Watters, however, went so far as to say that the team would in fact be better off without him.  So let’s look at what is behind Ovi’s plus-minus, and whether or not it is really as bad as it looks. To do so, let’s first eliminate empty-net and shorthanded goals from the equation, because they aren’t representative of true even-strength play. The Capitals this year have allowed six shorthanded goals, and Ovi has been on the ice for five of those. That takes him down to a “-11”. The captain has been on the ice for three empty-net goals against and one empty-net goal for, which means that we knock the ticker down to “-9”. Those in the stats world refer to this as “True +/-“ and it’s a better tool for looking at a player’s even-strength success. But even with that, there are issues.

The second big issue with plus-minus as a metric is the fact that it’s goal-based, and as I’ve mentioned here before, goals are rare enough events, even over the course of a season, that they tend to be heavily impacted by variance. While shooting percentages dip up and down like a roller coaster between seasons, shot-based metrics tend to stay fairly stagnant, which makes them a better — not perfect, but better — predictor of true talent and future results. Consider also how often players will receive a “+” or a “-“ after going to the bench or for a play in which they realistically took no part. That “noise” — as it’s referred to in the stats world — evens out over large periods of time, but can skew smaller samples. 

So what do Ovechkin’s shot-based metrics at even-strength say about him? Ovechkin has a 51.6% Corsi percentage (the Caps take 51.6 percent of the total shots with him on the ice at even-strength), which is third highest on the team amongst regular forwards and his highest since the Boudreau era. So why the “-9”? Well, with Ovechkin on the ice at even-strength, the Caps have shot only 5.9%. That on-ice shooting percentage ranks 245th out of 284 forwards who have played at least 75% of their teams’ games this season. In other words, a guy who has shot the lights out on the power play hasn’t been getting the bounces at even-strength, and neither have his linemates. On the other side of the coin, Caps goalies are only maintaining a .916 sv% with Ovechkin on the ice at even-strength. That on-ice save percentage ranks 186th out of that same group of forwards. In both those statistics, Ovechkin is second-last on his own team, which shows that although a small part of these issues may be systematic, a larger part of it is luck.

Ovechkin is never going to have it easy in the NHL, at least not until he wins a Stanley Cup. He is a poster boy for laziness and selfishness, even though he has earned neither of those labels. It’s easy to cherry-pick statistics, just as it’s easy to pinpoint bad shifts, but if you don’t know how they fit into the bigger context, you will mislead yourself and others. The Capitals have work to do to get out of this slump, and the team’s even-strength play — while improved — is at the top of that list. But to look at one person, or even one very flawed statistic, as the source of the team’s problems is simply wrong. Alex Ovechkin is the present and future of the Capitals, and that’s still the way it should be.