Cupping it up

I have slacked a lot lately when it comes to writing, well, almost everything. But, that’s to be expected with as much going on in the real world as there had been. Couple that with fewer sports related conversations happening over email and instant messenger between the old blogging team of the Combine and it makes it increasingly difficult to get much of anything out.

As we move into Stanley Cup season in the National Hockey League there’s always a few interesting things to come out. Being a Washington Capitals fan I’ve not only endured the unending failures of my team but furthermore the ongoing ridicule of other team’s fans. Some of it is well deserved. Some of it is complete crap.

Before getting into the thoughts and predictions regarding this year’s matchups though I wanted to take a second to respond to any number of posts I read regarding Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps ongoing issues in the playoffs. I’ve written a lot about Alex, defending him, and the Caps, explaining their weakness, and lots of other attempts at giving context to things in the organization quite a bit in the past, so I’ll probably avoid rehashing most of that. What it comes down to is primarily during Alex’s time with the Caps they’ve failed miserably in the playoffs and somehow the team failure is due in no small part, or more often, directly to the team Captain, Alex Ovechkin.

It’s a nice narrative to pin those kind of losses on a single superstar player but it’s rarely true and in Ovi’s case it’s verifiably incorrect.

It takes an entire team to win, or lose, on the ice. That’s true in the regular season and doubly true in the post-season. You’re talking about the combined efforts of a usual configuration of three forwards, two defensivemen and a goalie on any given shift, or of 12+ forwards, 6+ defensivemen and 1+ goalie in a given series of which Ovi, or any individual player, would be only one of the guys participating.

It takes coaching staff, support staff and trainers. It takes general manager and their staff and ownership as well. It means that you can make the argument that the Caps as a squad have choked or the entire franchise has choked but you cannot dilute the reality to it being Ovi, and Ovi alone, has choked. Unless, of course you can prove that Ovi’s numbers are so substantially bad during the playoffs that he, and he alone, would bear the responsibility. Generally though, there’s many individual and systemic factors that go into success, or failure, that make it near impossible to accurately blame one player.

Furthermore, plenty of players who actually choke in the playoffs have gotten their name on the cup, be it choking during their cup run or generally having a choke reputation in the playoffs and still winning. Does anyone really think Craig MacTavish’s career 0.3 points per game & 0.1 goals per or Duane Sutter’s 0.34P/G or Bobby Carpenter’s 0.42P/G performance was really cup worthy compared to their career averages and regular season reputation and yet they still have their name etched on the cup. And then there are the merely average, or even more interesting the non-contributors who still have their name on the cup like Brad Bomdardir, Connie Broden, Jay Caufiled, Jeff Schultz or Mark Hartigan. These guys received the accolades of Lord Stanley because of their team and franchise. They are cup winners, even if their contributions were less than what is usually considered Cup worthy. Being on the cup doesn’t make you great in-and-of itself is the point here.

And, further still, plenty of other great regular season and playoff performers haven’t won a cup but who’s contributions are so important to the NHL they are Hall of Famers and All Time Leaders such as Marcel Dionne, Mats Sundin, Curtis Joseph, Wendel Clark, Borje Salming, Pat Lafontaine, Adam Oates, Mike Gartner, Pavel Bure, Cam Neely and there are a few guys who were near additions to this list if not for being traded to winning situations at the right time like Ray Borque and Dom Hašek. Meaning not being on the cup doesn’t necessarily have to diminish your greatness.

Ovechkin’s playoff numbers are absolutely stellar so far in his career. He has appeared in 58 games for a total of 1292 minutes of ice time that span 6 seasons of his 9 season career (excluding this year since we don’t have his totals yet). The seasons Ovi didn’t make the playoffs were not for lack of trying either, as he received plenty of individual accolades and his regular season individual numbers are beyond impressive, but the overall team structure was weak, lacking complimenting depth players, coaching and so on.

Let’s focus though on Ovi’s lack of ability to choke in the playoffs for now, since the numbers tell a story counter to the ‘it’s Ovi’s fault’ narrative:

61 SCP (Stanley Cup Playoffs) points or a 1.05 points per game clip. That ranks Ovi’s point per game 23rd on the all time list playoff list, and behind only Crosby, Malkin and Giroux of active players. It is expectedly lower than his regular season career number just shy of 1.2. But most players see a similar dip in their regular season-to-post season points production since, after all, it is the playoffs and it’s much more competitive hockey.

However, if you take the 1.051 Points per Playoff game and translate that to the all time regular season list, it would land Ovechkin at #37. How good is #37 relatively speaking? It’s better than Gordie Howe’s 1.047 regular season GPG and there are only three active players (Crosby, Malkin & Jagr) anywhere in the all time top 50 in the regular season other than Ovi’s regular season rank at #15 with 1.181. Ovechkin’s post-season numbers put him in elite company even against the weaker regular season stats all time.

I used points per game because it also helps normalize the difference in games played from player to player, but in raw numbers 61 points is good for 232 on the all time list and 32nd among active players which isn’t too shabby either. Each subsequent post season he participates in should see his 61 points increase and him continue to move up the list while some of the guys above him will remain static as they retire.

31 SCP goals at a 0.53 per game rate, or just below his career 0.62 in the regular season. The goals per game ranks Ovi 9th on the all time list and first among active players while the raw number sits him at an impressive 148 all time and 19 among active players in the playoffs. Once again, that raw number should continue to grow as he makes more appearances but even given his relatively short playoff career it’s very good.

Want to put this in a more historic perspective? If the 0.53 Goals per Game in the playoffs, where goals are notoriously more difficult to achieve, was re-slotted into the regular season all time list it would put Ovechkin at #18. Impressive as that is, contextually it puts his playoff output at less that 0.03 goals per game fewer than Stamkos’ regular season GPG rate, the only other current player in the all time top 30 for regular season scoring (For the record, Ovi in the regular season ranks #5 all time for Goals per Game and #53 all time in raw goals scored).

22 of them at evens for almost a .4 per game clip and representing 62% of his playoff points production and 71% of his scoring which ranks him in the top ten all time and first among active players for goals per game at evens. It runs counter to the notion that Ovi is primarily a Power Play Specialist. Again, for context the 0.379 at evens in the playoffs would land Ovechkin at #128 on the all time list, with only 12 active players putting up points in all situations in the regular season better than what Ovi does against the leagues elite competition during the post-season.

9 Power Play Goals or a .15 per game clip. I couldn’t find a conversion number and it’s tough to find comparison tables for historical reference. I can tell you that a raw 9 scores ranks Ovi #148 on the all time list and 22nd among actives. If I make a rough calculation from the top 50 all time and the remaining active players against Ovi’s PPG/GP it would rank him #18th overall and #4 among actives behind only Malkin, Briere & Zetterberg.

5 of his scores were game winners. While five doesn’t sound like a lot, from a percentage standpoint that’s 8% of the games he appeared in he directly won and is in line with Jagr’s 7.9% and Claude Lemieux’s 8.1% conversion for game winners and good enough for top 20 all time as a percentage. If you look at it from the perspective of only the 27 games the Caps won Ovi was responsible for 18.5% of them directly.

5 of 31 scores is also 16% of his scoring output going into game winners, which is right in line with his regular season average of 17% of his scoring being game winners and on the all time conversion list would rank him just out of the top 50 but still ahead of guys like Mark Messier and Jari Kurri.

In raw numbers at 5 he’s tied for #139 with the likes of Bobby Hull, Al MacInnis, Alexander Mogilny, Trevor Linden, Milan Hejduk and other top-flight names who played many more games to reach their five.

When you combine that with 4 scores in which Ovechkin was the primary assist this represents 15% of the games he’s appeared in directly contributed to a team win and that’s a whopping 33% rate for only the wins. And, speaking of assists…

30 SCP assists for a 0.51 per game average which is just shy of his career set up number of 0.56 per game. Furthermore, it works out to almost a 1:1 ratio of goals to assists showing Ovechkin is a very balanced player in the playoffs which runs counter to the puck hog narrative. It’s also good enough for 85th on the all time list and 15th among actives on a per game basis which for a winger who’s primarily a scoring threat is pretty solid too and good enough in raw numbers for 323nd all time and top 75 among actives.

For perspective again though, a 0.51 assists per game rate in the playoffs translates to #136 if mapped to the regular season list putting Ovi’s assists per game during the tighter playoffs in the same realm of regular season performance of guys like Jeremy Roenick, Igor Larinov, Brett Hull, Saku Koivu, Guy Lapointe, Ray Whitney, Luc Robitaille and better than Eric Staal while just shy of Daniel Sedin for some modern context. You may not think of Ovi as being an assists machine but the numbers say he’s certainly no slouch.

275 SCP shots on goal. This converts two ways, first it’s 4.74 shots per game average, comparable to 5.06 in the regular season and second an 11.3% shooting percentage which is comparable to his regular season career number of 12.3%. I would have to really dig to find the all-time stats to comparing him to other players but considering his stature as a shooter in the regular season and the info above it’s hard not to imagine these numbers put him in some pretty good company. Especially when you consider it two fold, if you don’t shoot you cannot score and that shooting volume is such an important part of the advanced stats foundation for relative puck control. And, speaking of advanced stats…

Advanced stats are much more difficult to come by although I found some that seemed to speak to being comparable to the trends we saw within the above traditional stats. In the regular season at evens 2007 through last season’s end SOG: 233, iF: 333, iC: 476 which works out to 1.21 G/60, 12.24 SOG/60, 17.46 iF/60 and 25 iC/60. His playoff ones for the limited years I could find worked out to 10.95 SOG/60 and 21.25 iC/60 which seems to keep a similar trend to all his regular season-to-post season numbers. It’s a shame there aren’t more comparables just for the playoffs out there right now on most sites but that alone when put against the context of regular season numbers like was done above certainly looks quite impressive.

And, just for shits and giggles +/- is a positive 9 in the playoffs and +59 for his career. There’s a lot of noise in this stat but in the playoffs the +9 it’s good for #180 on the all time playoff list, ranking with Mark Recchi, Igor Larionov, Craig MacTavish, Wendel Clark and Adam Foote to name a few. Wouldn’t call most of them slouch defenders, would you?

Additional stats are even harder to come by for league wide historical comparables without doing a lot of extra work but looking on the individual team level year-over-year in the playoffs for the years it’s available Ovechkin either led the team or been second in hits and ranks each series in the top three on the Caps for blocked shots, particularly notable with his leadership in it during the Hunter era in doing so. This isn’t a guy who just waits in the offensive zone to score as he’s been accused of. He’s down in the trenches doing the dirty work in the post season, which when you look at his hits totals, for example, in the regular season isn’t that surprising.

This is not a player acting as a passenger during his team’s playoff runs. This is a Captain who leads his team in such a way that his actions rank among the playoff elites historically.

What happened in those years was a combination of players like Mike Green, Alexander Semin and former cup winner Troy Brower, as well as to a lesser degree Backstrom going cold. Secondary scoring being a weak spot to begin with during some of those regular seasons was even more pronounced when the big guns other than Ovechkin were easily silenced.

Furthermore, shallow defenses that leaned heavily on young, inexperienced players who mostly came up through the Caps AHL system recently made up the majority of the blue line for the Caps throughout Ovi’s entire career leading into the current season. Granted, the Caps developed out of that Carlson, Alzner and the aforementioned Norris runner up Green the defense has been a notorious week spot on the whole. The goalie carousel that’s primarily consisted of young, untested goalies stepping into playoff runs. While there were memorable performances by Varly and Holtby over the years they were relative unknowns at the time and their inexperience was eventually exploited.

And, one can argue coaching that lacked Stanley Cup level experience behind the bench (and throughout management) as I explained in the Coach Killer article.

These are not excuses for the Caps failures but they are explanations on to why it’s a systemic problem in the Capitals collapse and not something that’s directly attributable to their captain.

So, where does that leave the Ovi and the Capitals this year?

Lets start with Ovechkin’s regular season performance as a benchmark for how he should be judged during the playoffs. He’s a shot producing machine, leading the league by a wide margin for both attempts and SOG. He’s been a scoring machine. At evens he’s in the top three for scoring and on the league’s #1 ranked Power Play he leads the league by a wide margin which produces runaway Rocket trophy material, plus he’s the league leader to game winners. He’s pretty good as a setup man as well, where is combined points total has been good enough to rank him top three in the league and his assists place him squarely in the top 50 for forwards. His +/- has rebounded but the real story in that is the play of the guys around him – what is more notable though is Ovi’s Corsi numbers are near the top especially looking at the effects of score such as CFClo. He’s been physical, top ten in the league for hits and the only 30 goal scorer to break 200 hits. Everything you hoped the burly sniper would be, Ovechkin has been and if the past is any indication he should carry this production into the playoffs with him.

Coaching: Trotz is the first coach in Ovechkin’s time in the NHL to have NHL-level head coaching experience and it’s shown throughout the season in how Ovi and the team have functioned. He has a highly talented and experienced staff around him

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About thedoormouse

I am I. That’s all that i am. my little mousehole in cyberspace of fiction, recipes, sacrasm, op-ed on music, sports, and other notations both grand and tiny: https://thedmouse.wordpress.com/about-thedmouse/
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