Thursday, April 2, 2015

Alex Ovechkin Staking His Claim as the Best Player in the NHL

He's back.

For the first time in five years, Alex Ovechkin can make a solid claim to being the best player in the NHL. Not only is he continuing his goal-scoring prowess in one of the lowest-scoring NHL seasons, he has done it while playing solid defense and arguably his most complete game ever.

Against Carolina on Tuesday, OV scored his 50th goal of the season, the 3rd earliest he has ever done so:


Season
Date Reached 50
Goal Total
2005-06
April 13
52
2007-08
March 3
65
2008-09
March 19
56
2009-10
April 9
50
2013-14
April 8
51
2014-15
March 31
Not done yet



With five games left in the season, OV may likely be putting up his third-highest career goal total, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that he beat his 2008-09 season's number.

The stat that everybody knows about right now is that this is OV's sixth 50 goal season; he is one of six players all time to hit that milestone, along with legends Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy (9), Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, and Mario Lemieux (6).

However, what sets OV apart from these all-time greats is the era OV has done it in. Offense is at a premium in this league, especially this year, where only a handful of players will reach 80 points, and no other player will reach 50 goals, a far cry from the heyday of the other six-time 50 goal scorers:

What makes this season even more impressive, however, is that these last few seasons, scoring has been decreasing league-wide. This season and the last are both the lowest-scoring seasons that OV has notched 50 goals for (per hockey-reference.com):


Season
Goals/Game/Team
2005-06
3.08
2007-08
2.78
2008-09
2.91
2009-10
2.84
2013-14
2.74
2014-15
2.74


That OV has been able to score 50 so many times with so little scoring is mind-boggling, especially when compared to the other legends on the list. For each player's 50 goal seasons, here is the highest and lowest GPG/team (from hockey-reference.com):


Player
Highest Goals/Game/Team in 50 goal year (Season)
Lowest Goals/Game/Team in 50 goal year (Season)
Wayne Gretzky
4.01 (1981-82)
3.51 (1979-80)
Mike Bossy
4.01 (1981-82)
3.30 (1977-78)
Mario Lemieux
3.74 (1988-89)
2.92 (1996-97)
Marcel Dionne
4.01 (1981-82)
3.32 (1976-77)
Guy Lafleur
3.84 (1980-81)
3.30 (1977-78)
Alex Ovechkin
3.08 (2005-06)
2.74 (2013-14, 2014-15)

OV has by far the lowest 'highest' gpg/team and the lowest 'lowest' gpg/team. League scoring has decreased dramatically since the late 70's and 80's, which is when many of the legends had their finest seasons. Only one season out of the 36 combined 50 goal seasons from Gretzky, Bossy, Lemieux, Dionne and Lafleur has had a gpg/team below 3: Lemiuex's 1996-97 season, at 2.92. Conversely, only one of OV's six 50 goal seasons has had a gpg/team above 2.92, let alone above 3: his rookie year, 2005-06, which is currently OV's third highest goal total for a season.

But enough about OV's historical dominance. The point of this article is not to compare OV to these legends (who he holds up extremely well against), but rather to discuss why OV is firmly in the discussion for the best player in the league again.

Honestly, there are only three players who belong in the discussion for best player in the league right now: OV, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin. These three have been undoubtedly the best in the league since joining the league, and are a league ahead of everybody else in the league.

In previous years, one would look at the points or points per game of these players, and find that Crosby and Malkin are a step above the rest of the league in these regards. But both of these are unfair methods of comparison. OV is a goal-scorer on a team with few other goal-scorers, a goal-scorer who rarely, if ever, plays with another goal-scorer on his line. Points will inevitably favor players who pass more.

Instead, we have to look at some other stats. Thank god for the explosion of advanced stats in recent years, which makes it a lot easier to compare players with more criteria than just points. 

First, we need to compare the HERO charts of the three, which provides a detailed breakdown of advanced stats such as Corsi (shot attempts) and Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts):
Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin HERO charts
Courtesy of ownthepuck.blogspot.ca

Very little separating the three here. They are all obviously elite offensive players capable of putting the team on their back.

One of the main discrepancies here is between the assists/60 numbers of the three. However, this is a bit of an unfair metric, in that assists are treated as equal to goals, when in fact they definitely are not. Whenever you can get two assists for each goal, the goal is definitely going to be worth more than the assists. One can attribute the point and point per game advantages that Malkin and Crosby have to the secondary assist.

Still, to just throw out assists is unfair to Malkin and Crosby, who have the luxury of playing with strong shooters and thus rack up more assists. It therefore may be more useful to compare primary points, or a sum of goals and primary assists, thus eliminating the secondary assist, which is rarely the most important factor leading to a goal, and essentially just an arbitrary line drawn by the NHL.

Here are OV, Malkin and Crosby compared by primary points (from stats.hockeyanalysis.com):


Player
Goals
Primary Assists
Primary Points
Alex Ovechkin
51
20
71
Evgeni Malkin
28
21
49
Sidney Crosby
25
29
54

Yup. You're reading that correctly. OV has a HUGE lead in primary points over Malkin and Crosby. If this were the KHL, where only primary points are counted as points, Malkin and Crosby would be nowhere near the top of the leaderboard.

Now, let's look at how these numbers compare to those from 2007-08 to 2009-10, when OV was considered by many to be the best player in the game. For this, I'll be looking at the difference in Primary Points between the #1 and #2 in this category (from stats.hockeyanalysis.com):


Season
Primary Point Differential (First Place, Second Place among Three)
2007-08
+16 (Ovechkin, Malkin)
2008-09
+4 (Ovechkin, Crosby)
2009-10
Even (Ovechkin, Crosby)
2014-15
+17 (Ovechkin, Crosby)

When comparing primary points, this has been Ovechkin's most dominant season over the other two superstars ever. Although this is subject to change as the season winds down, it is still telling of OV's amazing return to form this year.

Ovechkin has been amazing this year, and this could possibly his best season ever. And when you compare him to the two other best players in the league, it is easy to see that OV is more than holding his own against those two, and may have even passed them in the league hierarchy.

Time alone will tell what the future has in store for Alex Ovechkin, but Caps fans can be comforted by the fact that OV is back among the league's best, hopefully for good.

Good luck NHL. OV is back.

1 comment:

  1. You should list the number of 50 goal scorers when Gretzky, Bossy, Lemieux, Dionne, LaFleur, and OV scored their 50 goals. This will give us a perspective of how difficult or easy it was to hit that magic 50.

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