Sports

Picking Splinters: Alex the Pretty Good?

What’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin?

On one hand, the question hardly seems fair. After all, the Great 8 still has 20 goals and 35 assists this season, with that latter figure ranking him among the top 10 in the NHL. But while those totals are hardly anything to scoff at, Ovechkin has not performed up to the lofty standard he set for himself through his first five seasons in the NHL.

Through 55 games this season, Ovechkin has averaged “only” a point per game, putting him on pace to finish 10 points below his career low of 92. It’s not like point-per-game players are particularly common, but Ovechkin has established himself among the most elite players in the game, averaging nearly 1.3 points per game through his first five seasons. Over the course of the season, that’s about 27 goals the Caps will miss out on unless Ovechkin gets it in gear.

But what exactly is the problem? He still appears to be getting his shots, his 253 this season have him perched atop the NHL as usual. And it doesn’t appear to be from lack of ice time. His 21:37 per-game average this season is only 10 seconds off his 2009-10 mark. So what gives? Here are three key reasons Alex The Great has been Alex The Pretty Good this season.

Predictability

Close your eyes and envision Ovechkin rushing to the net. I bet this is the image you just watched in your mind’s eye: No. 8 comes barreling down the left wing, puts on the brakes around the left faceoff circle and cuts hard to the center of the ice. Once between the circles, he fires a wrist shot, oftentimes between the defenseman’s legs. Now think about this, if you know exactly what Ovechkin wants to do with the puck on the rush, don’t you think NHL defenders, who have spent thousands of hours studying game footage from the past five seasons, know his preferences too?

A great example that showed Ovechkin isn’t fooling anyone this season came in the final game before the All-Star Game, a 1-0 shutout by the Thrashers. For much of that game, Ovechkin went up against Dustin Byfuglien – a new addition to Atlanta who formerly had played forward with the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference. In terms of familiarity, Ovechkin and Byfuglien should practically be strangers. But the way Byfuglien played him made the hulking defender look like Kreskin.

Knowing his tendencies allows defenders to anticipate his moves and neutralize the advantage Ovechkin has in speed and size through positioning. Not only does that defensive posturing keep Ovechkin from firing his usual shot, but it also helps prevent him from setting up his linemates. As a right-shooting forward playing the left wing, Ovechkin must pass to his teammates off of his backhand … a process made more difficult by a massively curved stick blade.
Semin

Caps fans run hot and cold over Alexander Semin, who demonstrates loads of talent and a dearth of good judgment by taking absolutely confounding penalties in the offensive zone. There were a lot of people, myself among them, who were surprised to see the Caps stick with him and re-up his contract for next season. Perhaps Ovechkin’s struggles were part of the reason why.

This season, 21 of Ovechkin’s 55 points have come with Semin on the ice. Last season, 46 of his 108 points were recorded with the Russian right wing by Ovi’s side. Missing Semin for some 15 games this season has surely cut into Ovechkin’s production, particularly on the power play where defenders must choose between challenging Ovechkin at the point or Semin along the wall.

The System

Head coach Bruce Boudreau has emphasized to his forwards that they need to be more responsible in their own zone. Not that Ovechkin is going to with a Selke Trophy for the league’s top defensive forward any time soon, but he is spending far more time below his own blue line. Furthermore, the Caps have seemingly cut back on the number of long passes typically used to spring Ovechkin on the rush. Combine the two and he’s just getting fewer chances to take off down the ice against flat-footed D, a scenario where Ovechkin holds a huge advantage.

It’s doubtful that Boudreau will relax the system to ignite Ovechkin, but Semin’s return to the lineup Tuesday should certainly help. And as for switching up his offensive tendencies, well, that’s how Ovechkin will define himself. You see, the truly great ones always know how to adapt.