In Tuesday’s win over the Montreal Canadiens, Alex Ovechkin scored his 26th goal of the season. For about an hour, he was the sole occupant of the NHL goal-scoring lead– until Tampa’s Steven Stamkos recorded his 26th with a game-winner against the Senators. Stamkos are Ovechkin are now neck-and-neck in a race for the Rocket Richard Trophy, given each year to the player who scores the most goals. I’m wondering if we can figure out who has the edge here.

But first, on Wednesday afternoon Neil Greenberg observed that Ovechkin’s career is prone to streaks and slumps when it comes to shooting percentage.

He’s right. The rate of goals Ovechkin scores will almost certainly fall off from its current high, and we don’t know when it’ll happen. If Ovechkin can maintain his shooting percentage for the next 8 games, the Richard is his– but I doubt he can do that. Still, he still has a damn good chance, and that’s mostly due to his inhumanly high shot volume.

chart_1 (1)


That chart shows how many shots Alex Ovechkin has fired per game over the last three seasons. Ovechkin’s lifetime average is a little over five shots a game, so notice how dramatically he dropped off during the Hunter era. For whatever reason, that’s when people-who-are-paid-to-have-people-talk-about-the-things-they-talk-about said that Ovechkin was washed-up. And now please direct your attention to the far right, the most recent block of games, where Ovi is once again generating shots nearly on par with the Boudreau era. If Ovi’s recent spike in shot output is more than just a fluctuation, then happy days are here again and Adam Oates is an evil genius. His pairing Ovechkin with Backstrom, moving him to the right wing, and prioritizing him on the power play have almost restored Ovechkin to the player he used to be.

But it’s early, and I don’t know if that’s true yet. So to figure out what’s happening with the Richard race, we’re gonna try it two ways. To estimate how many goals Stamkos and Ovechkin might score in the remainder of the season, we run a simple formula:

games remaining x shots per game x shooting percentage

First, here’s how that works out using each player’s career stats. That includes Ovi’s insane-o first couple of seasons and the drudgery of the Hunter grind.

Games Shots S% Est. Goals
Ovechkin 8 5.07 14.6% 5.92
Stamkos 9 3.25 17.3% 5.06

Ovechkin comes out ahead by about a goal.

But Ovechkin today isn’t shooting like Ovechkin from 2008-09. The ravages of his old age (a creaky 27) and the Capitals’ shift from fun hockey to whatever last year was certainly slowed his output. So I’ll do the table again using just the last three seasons of data, when Ovechkin has shot less often and scored at a lower rate on those shots.

Games Shots S% Est. Goals
Ovechkin 8 4.30 11.32% 3.89
Stamkos 9 3.48 18.53% 5.80

Stamkos is the winner.

So the real question is whether is Ovechkin truly back, or if we’re just seeing one of those glimpses I talked about the other week. But at this point, the Richard Trophy is just an 8-game sprint, and it will be probably decided by the natural variance of hockey.

As Neil’s chart showed above, shooting percentage fluctuates a lot– especially in small samples. We know both Stamkos and Ovechkin are elite scorers, so it’ll probably come down to who gets lucky, who gets more ice time against the Panthers, or who gets more power plays because some plug on the other team gives up a hooking penalty. And John Tavares is only two goals behind; it’d take just one bad night for a goalie to put him in the lead. This is a cop-out answer, but no one can accurately predict this race. And it doesn’t really matter in the long run.

Don’t get me wrong: the Rocket Richard Trophy is a big deal. Winning it would re-establish Alex Ovechkin as one of the pre-eminent stars of the sports world (and can I be the first the float the idea of an Ovi-Maria wedding in Las Vegas as he accepts the trophy?) But in the long run, what will truly matter for the Capitals is how Ovi performs next year– and the one after that.

The difference between an Alex Ovechkin who averages six shots a game and one who averages three is like 22 goals a season. Ovechkin is still going to slow down with age, but if Adam Oates can put that off for another year or two… well, then, is party now.

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  • Tell Mr. Greenberg that opinions are like @$$ holes everyone has one lol These people in the media are like a high school girl with a big rack at homecoming time…..can’t make up their mind on which opinion is right and which one is wrong for one night……these are the same people who have been hitting my boy Ovi over the head with a shovel saying his career is over. I think it’s funny all this double talk they have been doing the last week. Their is a difference when you are learning to play another way while thinking it about i.e. where to be on the ice AND doing what he is doing now. I never felt he was that bad off during this transition because the numbers were a little lower but who can say 80+ pts is a bad year? About 90% of the league would kill to have a bad year at 80+. It’s all laughable !!!!!

  • Personally I think these numbers can be misleading. Correct me if I’m wrong but the majority of this data is with OV on LW and carrying the puck into the offensive zone. With OV now working more on RW and being 2nd or 3rd man in the zone, which I’m acually loving, he’s getting better looks due to opposing D-men having to respect the man with the puck entering the zone. I would love to see a breakdown of SOG and S% with OV on RW vs LW.

  • what percentage of ovi’s 5v5 goals have been primarily assisted by backstrom

  • The shots chart is sexy. I’m seeing his current return of high-volume shooting as a correction of a downward fluctuation, brought on by an ex-bruiser junior league coach being given the keys to a Ferrari he had no idea how to drive.

  • better question, how do i query hockeydb to answer this

  • Kolzig37

    Ovechkin has the highest cap hit of any player, he should not be compared to 90% of the league. He also only had 65 points last season, not 80+, on a down year.

  • I usually just ask Neil.

  • blondinwrx

    the ride only needs to last until the end of june, and he doesn’t need to play like a man possessed for them to be successful. The comparison between the two sets of years is pretty obvious also – yeah, he’ll win if he plays like he used to, and he won’t win if he plays like he did the last two years. Who cares if he wins anyway? Playing the right way in the playoffs is all that matters.

  • blondinwrx

    we as caps fans should be grateful he’s played so strong, to give us that hope that was taken away from us so early in a season. thanks ovie – sincerely, a loyal caps fan that refuses to have pessimistic stats be the focal point of my passion.

  • Lemme offer a qualified agreement.

    The Caps don’t NEED Ovechkin to be awesome to win, but they don’t have much secondary scoring otherwise– and they’ve needed the Southeast to commit seppuku to climb the standings.

    But yes– until the playoffs, I care more about playing “the right way” than “win at all costs.” Woot.

  • Absolutely. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough data about Ovi at RW to compare it effectively. Plus, a LOT of other factors have changed as well (linemates, age, competition) so it’s hard to make an informative conclusion.

    And thank you for mentioning him sharing the puck. That’s a big factor that I failed to mention above.

  • Ok well since you are splitting hairs……on numbers…..Ovechkins GPG is 0.616 as of right now compared to Wayne Gretzky’s GPG at 0.601. Difference between the two goal scorers? One has 4 Stanley Cups the other hasn’t yet to win one. I will trade 65 points (’11/’12) last year and 85 points in (’10/’11) from the highest paid player vs the cap who learned to play a 200 ft game the last 2 1/2 years if it means more wins post season and the Team Concept kicks in.

  • ChuchutrainLA

    I don’t mind him losing to Stammer. At least he is a manly hockey player. Unlike the other one, undersized, bottom-heavy, cute, vagina-boy #87.

  • yv

    These numbers game remind me people obsessed with MegaMillion and PowerBall lotteries, and who are using all previous winning numbers in attempt to predict what winning numbers would be next and to play them.
    I wonder when the player scoring in last 15-25 games in a row is it aberration or he just in better condition, and become a better player and shooter? So, just for comparison, why not to take last 20 games, which already relatively big period to understand in what condition the players currently are, and look on #shots/per game or better per 60 min on ice, S% and then interpolate those numbers for remaining games? That might be better prediction of the possible outcome, than taking into consideration the past period of times when players have been in different conditions, systems, or played without head, leg, or were a defenseman, or whatever.

    Just for notice, about hockey analytics, it looks like right now it is a confession time for them on most hockey-related sites, including NBC and Milbury, SI, Yahoo and many others in which they admitting, that they were very wrong about Ovi and Capitals.

  • johnnymorte

    Analysts are always wrong. Everyone was calling for the end of Ovi and he comes back like no one expected. No one predicted this, except for the fans that believed. Take your own advice Greenberg. Start loving the game.

  • The people who obsess about MegaMillions do the opposite of what I do. They look at results and use them unsuccessfully predict future behavior. I try to understand the mechanisms of observed behavior and use them to predict future success.

    That means I understand and can demonstrate how a small sample of games– like the last 20– will have a very low correlation to future performance when compared something stable– like a three-year shooting percentage. You see so much noise in small samples (Ovi had 10 shots last week, but just 2 the other night) that it would utterly wreck your ability to make sense of it. So no, 20 games is not a big sample– and if we were to use that we would predict Ovechkin to score a goal per game– .4 higher than his career average. That’s an asinine prediction– although it’s possible.

    There are always mitigating factors like linemates, TOI, competition, injury, weather, conditioning, and bio-vibrational crystals, but their effects on the play would be totally masked by the variance inside your meager sample.

  • p.s this is like 10th grade math– don’t overthink it.

  • Jonny

    I think Ovie wants to have the Stanley cup at his wedding this summer… Hey! Crosby didn’t do that!! lol

  • This crap is technical analysis for hockey players. Technical analysis makes sense in finance because peoples opinion matters and stop losses. This is hockey.

    Nothing he says takes into account the Caps PP has 2 players that can pass it right into his wheel house(which IMO the past few years has been missing). Then on a great night you can have Green doing it good too, which we already know he can.

    This analysis doesn’t take into account how bad the Carolina Hurricanes are right now… Their PK is bad and they have a loser mentality going on badly.

    Then they play the Lightning. Stamkos has already proven he could either go on a tear or like 2010-11 go on tear then really suck at scoring the rest of the season, 7 in his last 30. It doesn’t take it account Ovechkin scoring 2-3 goals in the next 2 games and getting Stamkos flustered.

  • “It doesn’t take it account Ovechkin scoring 2-3 goals in the next 2 games and getting Stamkos flustered.”

    Yeah it does. That’s the “variance” I mentioned above. That’s how all those little fluctuations you mentioned express themselves.

    I want better and more comprehensive data too, but the “math is hard” argument doesn’t really jive.

  • No it doesn’t. And it also doesn’t take into account how the Lightning last year seemed hell bent on getting him to 60 goals.

  • Well it does matter some, but not as much as capturing that last Southeast division title.

  • Problem for OV is the Lightning are out of it so they can work on feeding Stamkos the puck and not worry about the scoreboard, Caps have to win and that means feeding OV isn’t on their radar as much as winning the game. Still think OV can do it though. 🙂

  • you want to say, Ovi can’t score 6 goals in 8 games?
    after his goal streak of 9 (?) games?
    C’mon 🙂

  • Can he? Hell yeah he can.

    Is it likely? Hell kind of it is kinda likely I guess but not really.