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.
[chart] Ovechkin Sh%, 20-game moving average over last three years twitpic.com/ciek2f. Won’t last forever so enjoy the ride.
— Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg) April 10, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.