What's behind Alex Ovechkin's scoring decline? Breaking his offensive slump

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Fifteen goals. That's all Alex Ovechkin is on track to finish the 2023-24 season at this rate.

Ovechkin has never finished a season with a measly 15 goals. He has never fallen below 20 goals, even in condensed seasons. And now, for the first time in his career, he has gone 13 straight games without scoring. The five goals he has right now aren't even that impressive: only three were scored with a goalie in net.

Even if Ovechkin, 38, is a long way from his prime, this is a marked and unexpected decline for one of the greatest scorers of all time. So what's behind the aging superstar's decline? Is this harsh reality the new normal? Is there any chance you can turn things around in the second half of the season?

The elephant in the room is his age. Not all players make it to 38 in the NHL, and if they do, they are often a shadow of their former selves at this point in their career. Aging curves, described in the work of Luke and Josh Younggren of Evolving Hockey or Cam Lawrence, now of the Columbus Blue Jackets, support that. These curves tell us that a player tends to peak in his late 20s and begins to decline in his 30s with a sharp drop in his 30s. It's worth noting that the sample of skaters still playing into their 30s is obviously much smaller to work with.

There can be outliers and randomness in the aging curves, and that generally centers on elite talent. Its peak tends to be so high that its eventual downtrend may still be above average. That, coupled with the fact that power play scoring tends to age better than even strength production (as indicated by the work of now Carolina Hurricanes assistant general manager Eric Tulsky), should, in theory, work in favor of Ovechkin. So should the fact that volume shooters tend to age better than snipers (as the work of Tulsky and Ryan Stimson pointed out). It just hasn't been the case this season.

The power play aspect is particularly evident as this is where Ovechkin tends to do a lot of damage. About 37 percent of his goals per season, on average, have come on the power play. In his prime, power play goals have accounted for 50 percent of his total goals. This year, with just one count on the power play, he accounts for a career-low 20 percent of his scoring. That's a drop of more than 10 percent from each of the last two seasons.

Ovechkin has had poor shooting luck this year, converting just 2.6 percent of his shots on the power play when it's usually closer to 15 percent. That ought it regresses closer to average and leads to more goals, especially since his shot rate isn't much lower than last year, when he had 14 power play goals. In fact, the quality of his shots is better than last year, with an individual expected goals rate of 2.3 per 60. Based on the quality of his shots, before even taking into account the shooting talent he has, It is expected to be closer to five goals. in the power play.

Via HockeyViz

About 30 percent of endpoint unlock attempts failed on the network, which is relatively low compared to previous years. But one difference is how much opponents block his shots. Just under 32 percent of his attempts have been blocked this season, which is pretty close to last season. On average (going back to 2007-08, due to data limitations), penalty takers only blocked about 27 percent of their shots.

In years past, penalty killers couldn't afford to overcommit to Ovechkin even though he was the team's biggest threat on the power play. There was too much talent elsewhere in that top unit to keep track. So having fewer options on the power play now likely explains why penalty killers are even more actively blocking Ovechkin's shots.

That may also be why penalty takers feel they can try to trick Ovechkin more, if not directly block his shooting lanes. Limiting their ability to get the puck first neutralizes the team's best power shot. Even better for the opponent if he can regain possession and clear the zone. Forcing someone like Ovechkin, who plays 95 percent of the available power-play time, to skate backwards can lead to fatigue during long shifts.

What you also have to consider is the predictability of your power play formation. There have been adjustments this season for sure: losing Nicklas Backstrom was one, moving Evgeny Kuznetsov from the top unit and adding Tom Wilson was another. But the lack of fluid movement and too much stagnation in the formation hurt Washington. The same goes for the obvious strategy of trying to feed Ovechkin his patented timer.

Slap shots aren't used much in today's game because it's fairly easy for players to read the setup, and in Ovechkin's case, that may mean waiting while his stick is in the air ready to attack. With the right pass preceding it, it can be one of the most difficult shots to stop. That movement prior to the shot is essential for the danger of a shot. It is difficult for a goalkeeper to react to a cross lateral pass. What makes his attempts less dangerous than in previous years is where that set pass often comes from. Whether he is deployed with the first or second unit, he is usually supported from the point by John Carlson or Rasmus Sandin.

Compare that to last year. Of Ovechkin's 15 goals last season, 11 were one-timers. While six were set up using centralized passes from the forward, another five were set up using a lateral pass. So, as dangerous as his one-shot is, those shots aren't as lethal as they could be because of the setup pass. The game is evolving and even some of the best have to adapt.

The only goal of the Ovechkin power play did This year's scoring actually started with a cross-field pass from Wilson. While the initial shot was not the one that beat Toronto's Joseph Woll, the player's movement in the subsequent sequence led to a goal rather than the play being cleared or the Capitals simply trying to repeat the same attempts.

The problem for Ovechkin is that his scoring problems extend beyond the power play. He only has one five-on-five goal on the season. Here, a low shooting percentage comes back to bite him, 1.85 percent, when his career average is around 11. But there are other worrying trends, including career lows (since 2007-08) in shooting volume. shots and the expected generation of goals. A higher percentage of his shots missed compared to last year and many more were blocked by his opponents.

In addition to the individual declines that can be expected at this point in his career, the team around him is influencing his start. It's not unrealistic to think that at 38 years old, someone even of Ovechkin's caliber would need more support to realize his potential. Surrounding him with high-caliber passers may be the key to sustaining his success, as he is no longer at the heights of years past. But based on Corey Sznadjer's tracking, his top centers Dylan Strome and even Evgeny Kuznetsov have been moving the puck less. Both players have seen drops in their passing to set up their teammates' shots and scoring opportunities, and there isn't a playmaking winger who can skate over Ovechkin to make up for that on this roster. That may explain why his shot numbers and scoring chances are down compared to last year in his isolated minutes with both Strome and Kuznetsov.

What does this mean for Ovechkin's quest for the all-time goals record?

Some areas in Ovechkin's game should regress closer to average. He shouldn't shoot five percent all year and could get closer to his career average of 12.8 if he can continue shooting the puck at a high rate. As it stands, he is the league's 10th most frequent shooter in all situations. And he has the fourth-largest differential between his actual goal total and expectations, behind only Matthew Tkachuk, Josh Anderson and John Tavares. All of this bodes well for a more productive stretch ahead. Had he kept pace with expectations to start the season, he would be looking at a potential 36-goal season that would have been ideal progress toward this next milestone. That's before even taking into account the shooting talent he's clearly demonstrated year after year, including last season.

But even if Ovechkin's pace increases, he has lost a lot of ground over the first third of the season. And there's no guarantee the pace will hit the pace he needs to stay on track for the scoring record. The squad support simply isn't there to make up for individual declines, and resistance could be an issue down the stretch. He's been less physical this season, which may protect him from that wear and tear, and his average time on ice has dropped to a career-low 18:22 in all situations. But an 82-game slate is routine for anyone, especially an aging star.

Aging is inevitable and no player, not even greats like Ovechkin, is immune to it. The race for record-tying 894th goal isn't lost yet, but such a slow start to this season makes the next 67 goals look even more daunting.

— Data collected before Sunday's matchup against Carolina, via Hockey in evolution, HockeyViz, Hockey-Reference, All three zones and Natural Stat Trick. This story is based on shot-based metrics; here is a primer in these numbers.

(Photo: Ronald Martínez/Getty Images)



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