ovechkin-goal-2017

It’s not exactly an open secret that Alex Ovechkin is one of the NHL’s great goal scorers of this generation.

Since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, the Washington Capitals megastar has scored 360 goals, 50 more than Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, who’s second on that list, per a scoreboard note shown before Ovechkin’s Capitals lost to the New York Islanders on Monday night.

Ovechkin is also one of the best power play scorers the NHL has ever seen. Going into this season, he’s either led or tied for the league lead in power play goals for five consecutive seasons. (Last season, his 17 goals with the man advantage tied for the most in the NHL with Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn, now with St. Louis.) Only two other players in league history, Phil Esposito and Tim Kerr, led the league in power-play tallies for three consecutive seasons, much less Ovechkin’s five-peat.

His power-play goal against Chicago on Wednesday was the 218th of his career, passing the ageless Jaromir Jagr for the lead among active players. But there were questions whether Ovechkin became too reliant on scoring on the power play after last season.

Ovechkin “only” scored 33 goals last season, his lowest total since the lockout-shortened season of 2012-13 (when he led the league) and his lowest full-season total since 2010-11. Seventeen of those 33 goals, more than half according to our calculations, came on the power play.

Things are markedly different so far this season. Through 31 games, Ovechkin leads the league with 21 goals, but only six of them have come on the power play. Ovi’s 15 even-strength goals is already one fewer than his total from all of last season.

So what gives?

Why is Ovechkin scoring in different ways than he did last season? While the Caps didn’t make Ovi available to the media in English after Monday’s 3-1 loss to the Islanders in Brooklyn, only in Russian, his line-mate and his coach have differing opinions about the way the 11-time All-Star is getting his goals.

“He’s gonna score,” Caps winger Tom Wilson, who’s on a line with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, told The Comeback. “So one year it might be a bunch on the power play, a bunch on even. Next year, it might be a bunch on even strength and next year it might be half and half.”

Despite Ovechkin not scoring as much on the power play as he did last season, Washington is still seventh in the NHL in power-play scoring percentage at 20.8 percent and seventh in total goals with 21. That’s off more than two percentage points from its 23.1 percent success rate from 2016-2017 — which was tied with Pittsburgh for third in the league during the regular season — but there’s still 50 games for the Caps to improve in that department.

Perhaps living up to last year’s standards as a team is unfair for Washington, which won the President’s Trophy with 118 points despite Ovechkin’s “subpar” scoring season, for his standards. The Caps are currently tied for second in the Metropolitan Division with average defense and a slightly below-average penalty kill. But more encouragingly for the Capitals, Ovechkin isn’t relying so much on scoring on the power play this season, and Wilson has taken notice.

“He’s hot five-on-five right now,” Wilson said. “He’s one of the best goal scorers and he’s a lot of fun to play with.” 

Capitals head coach Barry Trotz thinks there’s a reason why Ovechkin is like Hansel right now while skating at even strength this season after scoring the fewest goals in five-on-five during his 13-year career in 2016-2017.

“I think he’s just skating more,” Trotz said. “I think when he’s skating, he’s dangerous. He gets to areas where he can shoot the puck.”

After finishing second in shots on goal last season, Ovechkin leads the league this season, 13 ahead of St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko. And while the NHL doesn’t have player tracking data to prove Trotz’s theory that Ovi is skating more, (it plans to have player tracking data implemented by the 2019-20 season) being more active on the ice would certainly help lead to more scoring chances.

“I think his feet are more active and he’s been more involved,” Trotz said. “And because of that, his five on five play has benefitted and he’s been pretty dangerous when he does that.”

Whether you subscribe to Wilson’s theory that Ovechkin is going to get his goals regardless and he’s just getting a lot of even-strength tallies right now, or Trotz’s theory that Ovi’s skating more and getting to more opportune areas on the ice and that’s why he’s getting more five-on-five goals, it’s interesting how the game’s best goal scorer is getting it done in a totally different way than last season. And as we approach the halfway point of the NHL season, it’ll be something worth monitoring as the calendar flips to 2018.

About Shlomo Sprung

Shlomo Sprung is a writer and columnist for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He's also a baseball contributor for Sporting News and the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in NYC. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.