Why Alex Ovechkin on the Penalty Kill is a Bad Idea

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Photo credit: Kim Klement

The scuttlebutt about Alex Ovechkin on the penalty kill turned to be accurate on Saturday night. Kicking off the season in Tampa, Alex Ovechkin served 69 seconds of the game’s six man-down situations, and while he kept the Lightning scoreless in that span, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for the team’s best scorer to spend his time on the wrong side of the ice.

Looking at the habits of the league’s best scorers last season, we see that more PK time isn’t the key to getting the most out of Ovechkin– it’s the opposite.

Since we’re talking about Alex Ovechkin and the league’s goal-scoring elite, I looked up the top-20 goal-scoring forwards in 2011-2012.

Player Goals Games Played
Steven Stamkos 60 82
Evgeni Malkin 50 75
Marian Gaborik 41 82
James Neal 40 80
Alex Ovechkin 38 78
Ilya Kovalchuk 37 77
Phil Kessel 37 82
Scott Hartnell 37 82
Corey Perry 37 80
Matt Moulson 36 82
Radim Vrbata 35 77
Michal Ryder 35 82
Erik Cole 35 82
Milak Michalek 34 80
Jason Spezza 34 80
Jordan Eberle 34 78
Patrick Sharp 33 74
Max Pacioretty 32 79
Jarome Iginla 32 82
John Tavares 31 81

Of the top-20 goal scorers, just five averaged more than a minute per game on PK: Ilya Kovalchuk, Corey Perry, Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza, and Patrick Sharp– 4 players known as “two-way forwards” and the guy Adam Oates coached last year. While Radim Vrbata and Steven Stamkos also played shorthanded, the majority of top-scorers last season played virtually no time at all back there.

Player Avg. PK Time
Steven Stamkos 0:33
Evgeni Malkin 0:02
Marian Gaborik 0:05
James Neal 0:01
Alex Ovechkin 0:01
Ilya Kovalchuk 1:09
Phil Kessel 0:05
Scott Hartnell 0:05
Corey Perry 1:16
Matt Moulson 0:00
Radim Vrbata 0:55
Michal Ryder 0:00
Erik Cole 0:00
Milak Michalek 1:11
Jason Spezza 1:07
Jordan Eberle 0:10
Patrick Sharp 2:05
Max Pacioretty 0:00
Jarome Iginla 0:01
John Tavares 0:19

I consider that a pattern, and one with an obvious meaning: highly successful goal-scorers spend time where goals are scored. Taking the player who is most valuable to your team as a goal-scorer and putting him in a situation where goals are rarely scored is a poor deployment strategy.

Adam Oates should do the opposite. When teams are at even strength, Ovechkin should start at least 60% of his shifts a faceoff in the offensive zone. Per Behind the Net, Ovi started in the O-zone just 52.6% of the time last season. Of those same top-20 goal-scoring forwards, 14 saw better deployments, including all four of the players ahead of him in the Rocket Richard race.

Player Off. Zone %
Steven Stamkos 54.6
Evgeni Malkin 65.8
Marian Gaborik 62.9
James Neal 64.3
Alex Ovechkin 52.6
Ilya Kovalchuk 56.2
Phil Kessel 54.3
Scott Hartnell 52.9
Corey Perry 48.5
Matt Moulson 54.1
Radim Vrbata 52.7
Michal Ryder 51.8
Erik Cole 51.5
Milak Michalek 51.8
Jason Spezza 59.3
Jordan Eberle 61.9
Patrick Sharp 64.1
Max Pacioretty 49.4
Jarome Iginla 52.9
John Tavares 55.6

Note: Offensive zone % excludes neutral zone starts.

Alex Ovechkin is now one year older than the average age of last season’s top goal-scorers. He’s 27, two years past what is usually the peak year for scoring. He needs a deliberate effort to counteract the natural effect aging has on scoring. He needs great linemates and more ice time spent nearer the net that needs crashing. Placing Ovechkin in shorthanded situations would just accelerate the inevitable decline in his offense.

The only compelling argument I’ve heard in support of Ovechkin playing shorthanded is that he may gain insight on how to be more effective when he’s on the powerplay. Wouldn’t in-depth video sessions yield the same result without the costs and risks that come with penalty-kill service? There are markedly fewer incidents of broken bones from blocked shots in the video room at Kettler.

But if you still want Alex Ovechkin to serve on the PK, you should also attenuate your expectations for his goal output this season. You should expect the inevitable dropoff in his production to come sooner and with more severity. That is the cost of creating a well-rounded player out of a goal-scoring phenom.

And frankly, I’m not sure what the virtue is in making Alex Ovechkin more well-rounded anyway. “Well-rounded” smacks of all the same euphemisms as the “maturity” stuff I hear surrounding his engagement to Maria Kirilenko. I don’t want Ovechkin to be a mature, well-rounded player; I want him to be an effective, optimized producer. I want him to be a manic, goal-scoring machine. I want him to be himself, because that’s how the eight became great in the first place.

Let’s give Ovechkin 60+% of his starts in the offensive zone. Let’s give him 20 solid minutes of ice time per game. Let’s give him a PK shift every once in a while, but keep his average under 10 seconds per game. Let’s let him play the way we know he can.

Let Ovi be Ovi. 

  • Andrew Merewitz

    I think the last line says it all.. Let Ovi be OVi

  • AAA

    They haven’t “let Ovi be Ovi” for a while now and it shows. Do the powers that be not remember his first 5 seasons?

  • I wouldn’t do it all the time, but if the team is really going to use puck pressure as a big strategy in penalty killing, it could pay off in certain scenarios. My guess is that Oates is trying to squeeze every advantage he can out of Ovi’s offensive talent and the 40 or so seconds he’s on the PK could be the only time he doesn’t have a top defensive pairing on him. There’s no way Oates has him in there to block shots, he seems too smart for that. So I think on a situational basis, it could work. Another thing to consider: pretty sure if you asked Adam Oates who his favorite penalty killing team was last year, he would probably give the edge to the Kings over the Devils. He witnessed, in person, some incredible hockey, and I’m sure that made an impression. They were relentless in their puck pursuit in the playoffs and that coupled with Quick is why they won. “With Quick” being the operative part of that sentence. Which is really my bigger concern. Do we have the defense and goaltending that allows us to take the risks that could pay off for the likes of Ovi? Not yet. Gotta have it though, or Ovi will continue to be Ovi – the greatest player to never win a Stanley Cup and that would just make me super depressed and sad.

  • “the PK could be the only time he doesn’t have a top defensive pairing on him.”

    Very good point!