Photo credit: Andre Ringuette
Earlier I wrote about how the Hart Trophy was a poorly defined award of limited value. Now I’ll share why I think Alex Ovechkin absolutely must have it. I’m going to share some stats and rebut some excuses, but the whole thing boils down to this: the Capitals needed the best from Ovechkin, and he delivered it.
But first, I’m going to repeat what we talked about before. This is the most valuable player to his team, not just the best all-around player. If we’re talking best player? I’d say it’s Sidney Crosby. Hands down. But most valuable? And to his team? That’s a more interesting conversation. And now, baby, you’ve got a stew going.
I suppose there are a bunch of ways to measure how valuable a player is to his team, but the most obvious is how much of his team’s offense (sorry, goalies) comes from him. The chart below shows the percentage of total team goals each of our four big names has personally offered.
Despite missing a quarter of the season, Crosby still has had his greasy Canadian fingers in nearly 40% of the Penguins’ league-leading goal tally. Alex Ovechkin isn’t far behind (37.2%), but he also scored more than one-fifth of Washington’s goals, slightly above where Long Island’s John Tavares placed. Jonathan Toews isn’t all that exceptional when it comes to carrying production water for Chicago.
(By the way, Steven Stamkos’s numbers last years were better than all these guys: He had points on 40% of Tampa’s goals and scored 25% of them personally, but no playoffs, no trophy.)
The point here is that a player’s raw numbers– goals and assists– should be considered in context of his team. Washington depends on Alex Ovechkin to produce, and he this year has done exactly that.
The most compelling argument against Ovechkin as “outstanding player” is all about how his slow start to the season doomed him. Those people are right. Alex Ovechkin had just 2 goals through the season’s first 10 games, and his team had just two wins in that same span. I think that’s enough to cost him any chance at league MVP, i.e. the Ted Lindsay– but it just underscores his case as the player most valuable to his team, i.e. the Hart.
This next graph shows how the Caps’ fate has been tied to Alex Ovechkin’s goal production… and how fantastically that has turned out for them.
The Capitals didn’t win until Alex Ovechkin started scoring. The Capitals couldn’t hit .500 until Ovi cracked .6 goals per game. They’re on the same trajectory here– away from a lottery draft pick and headed towards the postseason. It should be noted that within 10 days after Adam Oates switched him to the right wing and reunited him with the uber-Swede, Nick Backstrom, Ovechkin jumped from 0.36 goals per game to 0.50 goals per game and climbing.
Consistency is a virtue– one that Ovechkin does not possess– but I don’t think it’s critical to the proposition of the Hart. The more important matter is how Alex Ovechkin’s goal scoring (and assisting!) has been critical to the Capitals’ success. The Capitals without a great Ovechkin are not a good hockey team. The Penguins without Sidney Crosby, meanwhile, are still terrifyingly good; they just move less merchandise. It’s your basic Michael Jordan on the Bulls versus Michael Jordan on the Space Jam team scenario– although in my metaphor the Swedish Bugs Bunny is really driving puck possession for MJ.
Another dig on Ovechkin is that his playing in the Southeast Division puts him on the NHL version of the bunny slope. The other four teams in his division rank mostly in the bottom third of teams in shots and goals against. None of them has a save percentage above 90.1%. The Southeast really does stink, and Alex Ovechkin is wafting the fumes. His point production against the SE more than doubles how he does against the Atlantic and Northeast divisions.
Still, I really doubt people are filing the same objections about the Northwest.
Finally, there’s the fancystat argument. Alex Ovechkin’s underlying numbers– particularly in puck possession– just aren’t as strong as his peers.
Alex Ovechkin is the only player in the group who sees more shot attempts go towards his team’s net than the other guy’s net when playing 5-on-5. We could try to explain that away, but it’s true. I just don’t think it matters. These advanced stats are helpful in estimating how a player may perform in the future independent of variance, but we have actual performance metrics for this season we could use instead. The fact that John Tavares likely won’t shoot 17% next year is immaterial to adjudicating how well he did this year.
Again, I don’t know who will win the Hart, and I think it’s foolish to try to guess how hundreds of pro hockey writers will vote, particularly given the criteria for Hart we’ve heard before. I do know that Alex Ovechkin has a damn good case to win. But so does Sergei Bobrovksy.
In the end, it doesn’t matter all that much. We’ve got the Art Ross and the Rocket Richard, and those guys don’t care about Southeast bias or ZoneStart-adjusted Fenwick Close on turf against left-handed pitchers. And the totality of NHL Awards adds up to exactly shrapnel compared to the real goal of a hockey season: the Stanley Cup.