Photo credit: Justin K. Aller
Players get older; they slow down. Elite goal scorers drop off as they enter their late twenties. It’s time to realize this has happened to Alex Ovechkin. He may have the same name as the guy who scored 65 goals five years ago, but he is far from the same player. And it’s not his fault.
Nine of Ovechkin’s 15 goals have come off the same shot from the same spot: a one-timer from the circles. Seven of those have been on the power play. More remarkably, Ovechkin has not held the puck for more than a second on any of his goals this season save for one. He no longer scores on the rush.
The Washington Capitals invested $123 million dollars in Alex Ovechkin. They cannot have him not score. If he isn’t scoring the way he used to, they will adjust the game plan for him. That’s exactly what first year head coach Adam Oates has done. The new power play he instituted is designed to get Ovechkin the puck at any costs — and it works brilliantly. Ten of his 15 tallies this year (2/3) have come on the power play, the highest ratio of power play to even-strength goals of any player with more than 10 markers. He leads the NHL in man advantage goals.
The power play was one of two changes Oates made at the start of the season in an attempt to reignite Ovechkin. He also shifted Ovechkin from left wing, the position he had played his entire life, to the right side. There were likely a few reasons for this. Oates insists, almost obsessively, that right-handed shooters play on the right side and conversely that lefties play on the left. Anything else, he contends, is unnatural.
“You look back through the history of baseball and every shortstop throws right,” Oates told CBC’s Elliotte Friedman. “How many plays won’t be made because a left-handed shortstop isn’t able to turn, get set, and make the throw with strength or speed?”
That is Oates’s philosophy.
At first, Ovi looked bemused on the right wing. He crashed into teammates twice before he scored a goal this season. After a quick switch back to the left side at Ovechkin’s request, Ovi was at right wing once again. Oates didn’t just want Ovechkin to have a slightly better angle on the net by making switch. Rather, Ovi was getting stale at left wing — defenders knew his moves and how to stop them. The rate at which Ovechkin was poke checked or bumped off the puck after entering the offensive zone on the rush became frustrating.
Ovechkin looks comfortable now on the right, but the goals on the rush still don’t come — has just one this season. He still tries, he still wants to carry the puck into the zone, but he doesn’t score.
The goals must come from somewhere else, and they do. The Caps feed him the puck so he can launch a quick shot from the circles, usually on the power play.
Unlike last year, Ovechkin is now at the circles, not the point, during the man advantage. This means he is often wide open thanks to Washington’s new 1-3-1 power play. Roughly, that means one player is near the net, one player is in the slot, one player is on each circle, and one player is on the point. When the Capitals move the puck around, the defense reacts, collapsing on the player with possession. If that guy is on the right side, Ovechkin is able release a one-timer before the defense reacts.
“It really puts on emphasis on that weak side position where Ovechkin’s playing,” Hershey Bears head coach Mark French, who oversees a similar power play with his team, told RMNB’s Ian Oland a month ago. “He’s really the guy that’s going to score a lot of the goals because the puck’s going to eventually get to him.”
When executed well, this game plan is deadly. The Caps have the best power play in the league, one that coverts 24.5% of the time. Last season, Washington’s unit was ranked 18th in the NHL. Ovechkin is responsible for almost 40% of the team’s 26 power play goals. Ovi has four assists a man up too, meaning he’s been on the scoresheet for 54% of the team’s power play goals.
Despite the myriad of struggles the Capitals have faced this season, their power play is excellent. What happens, though, when defenses realize it’s worth leaving a man open in front to prevent an Ovi Shot from the Ovi Spot? Eventually opponents will catch up on Washington’s strategy as the tape piles up. Of course, the nature of a power play is that one team has more players than the other. Somebody must be open. If opponents cue on Ovi, another Cap will be left free to shoot in front — maybe Nick Backstrom, maybe Troy Brouwer.
“I guess you pick your poison,” said French.
This power play works. Adam Oates is a good coach. The Capitals may not have a good roster yet, and it’s certainly losing them games, but they do have a smart tactician behind the bench. This team has a solid foundation, but they still need the right players.