Explaining Ovechkin’s slump

The Ovechkin “slump” is just about the most talked about topic amongst D.C. puckheads.  It is undeniable.  Ovechkin is mired in a scoring slump unlike anything we have seen in his six years in the NHL.    Ovechkin has just 15 goals this season, and is on pace for 27 goals, 55 assists, and 82 points.  Rather putrid by Ovechkin standards. 

 It seems like everybody has their two cents on what the cause is.  I’ve heard everything from his work ethic, to his weight, to the tweaks in Boudreau’s system designed to produce better results in the postseason.  Some have credence, while others are from so far out in left field they can’t be taken seriously.

 Regarding Ovechkin’s work ethic; unless you are physically training with Ovechkin, you can’t really say whether or not his work ethic is up to snuff or not.  All we can go by is the words of those who go through the grind alongside him.  Not one Caps’ player or coach has been outspoken in a negative way regarding his work ethic.  Nobody can deny his craving for a Stanley Cup and his competitive spirit.  Ovechkin is on a mission every night to win and to win big.  Very few forwards in the league today throw their weight around like he does.  The 136 hits he’s thrown thus far certainly takes on a toll on his body.  Along with that are the 20-25 minutes he plays every night.  No player can sustain that over the course of an 82 game schedule without putting his work in off the ice.

 Regarding Ovechkin’s weight – if you’re a sports radio listener here in D.C., especially during the morning commute, you’ve probably heard some discussion about Ovechkin’s weight.  HBO’s 24/7 made reference to these morning commentators as well.  If you’ve been in, or seen the players that make up an NHL locker room, you are fully aware that NHL players come in all shapes and sizes.  There is a misconception that you have to be chiseled out of rock to be a professional athlete.  Trust me, not all professional athletes moonlight as Greek Gods.  The point I am making here is that each and every season, Ovechkin weighs in at around 230 lbs.  He has scored 50 goals in four of his first five seasons carrying that weight.  Face it, Ovechkin is a large man.  That can’t be denied.  For people who are self-proclaimed ignoramuses about the sport of hockey to then comment on the condition of the team’s best player; while at the same time provide no historical context whatsoever is foolish.  I take that for what it is; a bunch of hot air. 

 Ovechkin’s drop off in production can be attributed solely to events taking place on the ice in the context of game situations.

 Defensive adjustments:

One thing that even a unseasoned hockey enthusiast can see is that that opposing defenders have adjusted how they play against Ovechkin.  No longer are the days in which Ovechkin takes the puck at his own blueline, surges through the neutral zone, and finally enters the opponent’s zone with lightning-like speed and fires a shot from the left dot with relative ease.  Ovechkin’s patented “use the defender as a screen” move, while still effective, has lost much of its magic.  Same can be said for his cut to the middle of the ice.  The downside of playing more games in the NHL is that teams have more video of you.  Coaches are doing their homework and game-planning for Ovechkin.  So what are they doing to corral the Great Eight?  A double-team is usually in order for Ovechkin, followed by a back-checking forward to guard against the cut to the middle of the ice.  Picture a triangle, and imagine yourself trying to navigate through it while skating 20mph.  It’s a difficult task for even the game’s elite. 

 Ovechkin must make his adjustments as well.  It is becoming more and more like a chess game.  Boudreau has experimented with Ovechkin on the right wing to counter what defenses are doing.  This hasn’t been as effective due to Ovechkin being a right hand shot.  Any moves to the middle are then to Ovechkin’s backhand, which more difficult and less effective.  The key is getting Ovechkin to the front of the net where he can utilize his “over-weight” body.  He has the size and strength to be a force down low.  Ugly goals count just the same as the pretty ones.

 Nicklas Backstrom: 

 Alex Ovechkin isn’t the only star player currently slumping.  Nicklas Backstrom, a 100-point scorer a season ago is mired in a scoring slump of his own.  Backstrom is on pace for his lowest point totals since his rookie year.  Backstrom, on pace for 72 points, and just 20 goals hasn’t scored a goal since December 1.  In that span of 18 games without a goal, Backstrom has just 10 points and most shockingly is his -1 rating.  Backstrom typically is boasted as one of the Caps’ best two-way forwards.  So what’s the connection?  Well, Backstrom and Ovechkin are line mates, and have been for the past four seasons.  As Ovechkin’s primary distributor of the puck, it is no surprise that Ovechkin’s numbers have fallen off dramatically due to Backstrom’s poor play.  Backstrom’s timing has been off.  He hasn’t been making the smart plays like he did a season.  He’s losing the puck in the offensive zone, something we certainly don’t expect from Nicky.  As the center goes, so goes your line.  Backstrom’s poor play as of late further exemplifies the Caps’ dire need for a legit second line center.  Typically coaches can swap the centers on their first two lines and be confident that the team’s ability to score won’t be hampered.  The Capitals don’t have the option at the moment.  Marcus Johansson is the man in waiting, but his time is still a year away.  He has been playing his best hockey of the season, but the experiment with him on a line with Ovechkin lasted about two periods.  If Backstrom isn’t playing the role of elite distributor like he has the last two seasons, Ovechkin’s production will suffer as well.

 Power Play: If you’re a Caps fan your probably asking yourself “what power play?.”  The Capitals’ power play has been a complete embarrassment for roughly the last month.  It currently consists of five individuals playing against a team of four penalty killers.  The team will beat the pack of individuals every time.  They can’t enter the zone with any type of speed or timing.  They don’t forecheck hard when they decide to dump the puck.  They continually pass on shots in favor of cute passing plays.  It’s a disgrace.  Ovechkin is the point man on the power play.  He has struggled on the point all season long.  Ovechkin has just two goals this year on the power play, both of which were in the same game.  He hasn’t scored a power play goal at the Verizon Center since last March.  Ovechkin was among the top three is power play points each of his first three seasons in the NHL.  The Caps’ power play has never finished below 25% under Bruce Boudreau, thus Ovechkin made a living collecting points on the power play.  So far the well has dried up for Ovechkin.  It’s time to move Ovechkin off the point, replace him with John Carlson, and put Ovechkin down low.  I can’t reiterate this enough – ugly goals count the same as the pretty ones.

If there is anything positive to take from this slump, it’s that the Capitals are still challenging for the Eastern Conference and the Southeast Division.  With the emergence of Tampa Bay and Atlanta, the days of cruising into the post season are over.  This is a good thing.  This is what killed the Caps a season ago.  A lackadaisical approach to the regular season bit them hard in the postseason.  There are still 37 games to be played.  Ovechkin is too good for this to continue.  Eventually he will break out of this slump, and the rest of the league better be on notice.

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About the Author: Jeremy is a life time hockey fan currently living in Washington DC. Jeremy also runs a Capitals blog called The Nation's Capitals where he frequently posts blogs about the state of the Caps. His other interests include music and politics. Jeremy has a degree in Political Science. Being from DC, politics kind of comes with the territory.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by LightningShout. LightningShout said: RT @JCScriven: New Hockey Independent: Explaining Ovechkin's Slump. http://bit.ly/eOQMKE #Caps #NHL #Ovechkin [...]

  2. Gabi says:

    I am a long time Caps fan and dont miss a second of any game. I agree with virtually everything you write and have been thinking the same things for the last few months. I do agree that Ovie needs to get off the point on the PP but disagree with him being the guy in front of the net. His shot is his strongest asset and should be utilized but it does not have to be all the way from the point. The point on the PP should be reserved for someone with a shot and with passing touch. While Ovie has the ability to make nice passes his touch is terrible. So many of his passes are too hot to handle.

    Any theory of a more defensive style is junk. The Caps are giving up less goals because their personel on defense and in net is better this year. A more defensive style clearly has nothing to do with how bad their offense and especially their PP have been.

    With the way teams are playing D against Ovie he has to pick his spots when he tries to shoot through them rather than trying it (or cutting to the middle) every time he enters the zone as the puck carrier. When is the last time you saw Ovie carry the puck all the way behind the net and let trailers enter the zone and allow a play to develope, or hit the breaks at the half board? Defenders are conceding him the outside part of the rink. He should take advantage of that. He is too predictable and has to change it up to keep defenders honest. Once he starts to mix it up and keep defenders a step further away, other things will open up.

    Finally, the most perplexing thing to me is how many fanned (or shanked or broken stick) shots Ovie has this year. There are no stats that show this but as a keen watcher of every second of every game for more years than I’d like to admit, I can tell you that it seems clear to me that it is happening to him far more often then ever before. I don’t know why that would be but I am confident it is the case. Maybe its trying to hard, or gripping the stick to tight. Who knows, but it is the case.

    The good thing is, if Ovie, and the rest of the Caps offense can get it figured out it will give us our best chance ever of success.

    • Great points! I tend to agree that the defensive system the Caps are trying to implement shouldn’t effect OV’s numbers. If the system is designed to create turnovers in the neutral zone, the opposite should hold true. OV should be getting more pucks and odd-man rushes.

      Regarding OV fanning shots and breaking sticks: bad luck has to be a contributing factor as well. He broke 5 sticks against the Lightning! He is snake-bit at the moment. Whenever he has a great scoring chance, like you said, he breaks a stick or fans on it. OV has always like the low flex sticks which provide the torque necessary to shoot the puck like he does. But the trade off is that they are far less reliable. Eventually his bad luck has to turn around.

      • Gabi says:

        Being a mathematician (at the risk of sounding like a geek I admitted it) I don’t believe in luck. The bad kind or the good. There is a cause. I dont know, maybe it is the wrong flex for him. Maybe it’s too much weight on the stick. Most likely it is mechanical. That cause has to be diagnosed and corrected by the coaches or they will be held accountable.

        All season long I have been waiting for the team to click. I keep thinking that is just a matter of time. Maybe that starts tonight. It feels like

        Anyway, any hockey fan knows the second season which starts in April is a different one. The game changes.

        Keep the faith. Lets go Caps!

        • Yup, the second season is in April. The Caps are just 4 point out of the top spot, but only 4 spots out of the eighth spot (as of yesterday). Hopefully we don’t get to the point where the “second season” is in question.

  3. Me says:

    The thing is that the Caps need to play smarter rather than harder. Ovie takes his shots from too far back, which the defense and goaltending of other teams have figured out.

  4. Jeremy says:

    “Ovechkin is on a mission every night to win and to win big.”

    I sit only a few rows behind the Caps bench, night in and night out. I don’t see ANY evidence that “Ovechkin is on a mission every night to win and to win big.” In fact, he’s more FLOATvechkin this season than anything else. I think people saying such things as “it’s clear he’s driven to win” are confusing their thoughts with past memories. It’s been a cruddy season by Ovechkin’s standards because Ovechkin’s performance this year has been cruddy. His energy, too.