Monday, February 26, 2024
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Can Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin shake off slow start, continue his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky?

Alex Ovechkin is the greatest goal-scorer in hockey history, but he hasn’t really looked like it this season. Now, Ovechkin’s pursuit of Wayne Gretzky on the all-time goals list has lost steam. Can the Washington Capitals sniper get back in the race?

Ovechkin, now in his 19th NHL season, has scored at least 40 goals in 13 different seasons. He has won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading scorer nine times, more than any other player in history. Ovechkin is not used to slow starts. He normally lights the lamp early and often en route to 40-50 goals.

That has not been the case in 2023-24. Ovechkin has five goals in 21 games, which puts him on pace for 19 goals. That would be far and away the lowest production of Ovechkin’s career, and he hasn’t made up much ground on Gretzky. Ovechkin still needs 67 more goals to tie The Great One, and he needs 68 to stand alone as the top goal-scorer in hockey history.

The question now is whether the combination of Father Time (he is 38) and a lackluster Capitals roster is taking its toll on Ovechkin or if this is simply a slow start. To figure that out, we need to start by looking at how Ovechkin is performing this season when compared to past seasons, and not just when it comes to raw goal totals.

Goals/GP

Shots/GP

Avg. TOI

Sh%

2023-24 season

0.24

3.71

19:34

6.4%

Career average

0.60

4.71

20:49

12.9%

The two discouraging trends for Ovechkin this season are that he is playing over a minute less per game than his career average, and he is getting roughly one shot on goal fewer than he has in his career. Admittedly, those two things are not conducive to scoring more goals. Generally, if a player wants to score as much as Ovechkin, they need to actually be on the ice and firing shots on the opposing netminder.

Those two minor dips aside, Ovechkin’s numbers haven’t looked that much different than usual. In fact, his expected goals per 60 minutes this season (1.36) is higher than the average of the previous three seasons (1.33), per Natural Stat Trick. Even the rate at which he generates high-danger chances has gone up a tick when compared to the 2020-2023 campaigns. So, it’s not that the quality of his shots has fallen off a cliff.

One of the biggest factors in Ovechkin’s slow start seems to be crummy puck luck. That’s not the most satisfying explanation, but many of the numbers point in that direction. For starters, Ovechkin’s shooting percentage is less than half of his career average.

That has led to Ovechkin falling well short of his team-leading 9.33 expected goals in all situations, which is extremely rare for him. Last season, Ovechkin scored 42 goals on 34.5 expected goals. The year before that, he scored 50 goals on 35.6 expected goals. You can see a trend developing there.

OK, what if Ovechkin’s shot just isn’t what it used to be? That isn’t exactly the case either. Ovechkin can still fire missiles off his blade.

According to NHL Edge, Ovechkin’s top shot speed of 96.68 mph puts him in the 94th percentile of hardest shots. That shot wasn’t a fluke either. Ovechkin has taken 22 shots between 80-90 mph, and he has ripped 17 shots of 90-100 mph. That puts him in the 95th and 99th percentile in those categories, respectively.

The other contributing factor to Ovechkin’s scoring woes is the fact that the Capitals’ power play has been ice cold so far. That is where Ovechkin has done a large portion of his damage, and Washington is converting on a putrid 8.3% of its power plays this season. That is easily the worst number in the NHL.

Perhaps teams have just learned to put their bravest penalty killer in front of Ovechkin for the full two minutes and hope none of his shots ever make it to the net. That’s pretty doubtful considering Ovechkin has been feasting from that left circle for 19 seasons, and I don’t think anyone has suddenly found the secret sauce when it comes to stopping him. Well, that and the fact that the Capitals are actually creating some decent looks with the man advantage.

The Capitals are sixth in the NHL with 9.5 xGF/60 on the power play. Their 2.78 GF/60 ranks 32nd. The process does not match up with the results — not even close. Washington’s power play should start heating up, and when it does, Ovechkin will be the biggest beneficiary.

As concerning as it is to see Ovechkin tied for 150th in goals at this point in the season, especially considering his age, the hot streak should be coming. The Great Eight will eventually start finding the back of the net with regularity, and when he does, Gretzky will have to start checking his rearview mirror more frequently.

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