A Boston writer named Michael Hurley wrote an article about how Alex Ovechkin‘s plus-minus rating is really bad and therefore Alex Ovechkin is really bad. I’m going to link to it here because that’s the responsible thing to do, but please don’t read it. Hurley, who actually gets paid for this dreck, goes through some half-hearted apologia for plus-minus (“As everyone knows, plus-minus is a greatly flawed stat”), and then he uses it as the centerpiece of his argument (“Still, it’s not completely meaningless, as some would like you to believe.”)
He also uses a GIF as part of his proof. You know which one.
So, real quick, I’m just gonna bust out a couple reasons why a) Alex Ovechkin’s plus-minus is low, b) plus-minus is not an indicator of talent, and c) Michael Hurley’s column is bad and he should feel bad.
Exhibit A: Jeff Schultz
In 2010, Capitals defenseman Jeff “Mister Nasty” Schultz led the NHL in plus-minus. His plus-50 was the highest the league has seen since the lockout (no, not that one; the one before that one, yeah). Yet, within three years, Schultz was bought out of his contract and drummed out of the league. By the substance of Hurley’s argument, Schultz should be an elite player. His extreme plus-minus certainly testified so. But here we are, living in a post-Schultz hockey world.
Something doesn’t match up. Either plus-minus didn’t actually tell us anything about Jeff Schultz, or everyone missed the boat on writing a “Jeff Schultz is the Greatest Player on Earth” article back in 2010.
Exhibit B: Shots, Shots, Shots
Alex Ovechkin’s best plus-minus year was also 2010, the same year Schultz won the Hurley Memorial Trophy for Highest Plus-Minus. (Weird coincidence there, almost as if it’s more of a team stat than an individual thing.) From Hurley’s piece, you’d think Ovechkin’s two-way play had tanked since 2010, but that’s not true. While Ovi’s shot-attempt differential has dropped, he’s on the ice for only about two shots more per game than he was in 2009-10.
So, to Hurley’s credit, Ovi is definitely not living in the O-zone like he was in 2010, and he’s not immune to the Caps’ possession decline since firing Bruce Boudreau (which they shouldn’t have done). But the difference between then and now should mean only about one extra goal every 6 games, or a minus-13 swing over his 80-game season.
The difference in shots should account for less than half of Ovi’s plus-minus rating, so something else must be going on here. Our next piece of evidence is a much bigger factor.
Exhibit C: Linemates and Luck
Individually, Alex Ovechkin is doing just fine scoring during 5v5. He’s personally generating a lot of shots (especially compared to the last two years), and that’s been the main indicator of his resurgence during even strength.
Meanwhile, everyone else playing with him is ratchet.
This is not evidence of puck-hogging. This is evidence of some really bad breaks and perhaps some systemic failure to execute scoring chances during even strength.
The 3.41 shooting percentage by everyone else means they’re scoring about half as many goals as they should. Were those players were shooting league average, Ovi would have been on the ice for 23 or 24 more goals. His minus-31 would be a minus-8.
Ain’t no columns to write about a minus-8.
Exhibit D: The Caps Defense
The big story on the Capitals this season is their defensive
trouble suckitude. They’re the worst PK team in the league and they’re ranked 25th during 5v5. There are a few factors at play here, and I suspect they’re both involved in Ovi’s plus-minus. Which, again, is stupid stat.
Let’s start with the roster. The Caps have suited up fourteen defensemen this season, and most of them have been pretty bad. I’ll pick out one.
Ovechkin has shared the ice with rookie Connor Carrick for 97 minutes of 5v5. During that time, the Caps have scored one goal and been scored on 8 times. Put another way: when Ovi and Carrick are playing, just 11% of the goals scored belong to the Capitals. Yuck.
(In Carrick’s defense, that comes despite some not-awful possession numbers: 48.2%.)
All of this suggests three things, each of which may factor into Ovi’s plus-minus to a different extent:
- Bad luck.
- Bad players.
- Bad systems.
Now, there’s a perfectly reasonable rebuttal to this, and it deserves to be heard: Isn’t Ovi somewhat responsible for his own on-ice save percentage?
Absolutely, he is. But the pertinent question is how much? I’d argue less than you might think. Peruse the lists and you’ll see that players experience dramatic jumps in on-ice save percentage from season to season. Same thing with on-ice shooting. Same thing with plus-minus. The lack of repeatability hints that these numbers are not reproducible skills and therefore not indicative of talent.
But if Mr. Hurley really wants to stick to his guns about this, fine. I won’t stop him.
If you really believe that on-ice save percentage is an indication of a player’s talent, then you must conclude Ovechkin is a better defensive player than Sidney Crosby.
|Player||Five-year on-ice Sv%|
Listen: I don’t like having to defend Alex Ovechkin all the time. The name of our site tends to short-circuit the brains of casual visitors; they can’t believe capable of nuance (when actually, the truth resists simplicity). Our regular readers know better; they’ve seen all those recaps back in 2011 and 2012 where I bemoaned the way Ovi would sleepwalk through games or pout for penalties.
But in the last two seasons, that has not been the case. If you sit down and write a Top Ten List of Best Things About the Capitals, and the first item on your list isn’t Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin, you’re doing it wrong.
I want a community where people can have an intellectually honest and complex discussion with each other about this really dumb sport. Instead, we get twaddle like Hurley’s column, a shamble of intellectual laziness and predetermined, data-be-damned conclusions, intended to inflame rather than inform, and to derail rather than delight.
You’d think a professional writer would know better.
Sure, there’s a lot to criticize about Alex Ovechkin, but we as a group are hot garbage at keeping those conversations in context.
- Is Alex Ovechkin a good player in the defensive zone? Not really, no.
- Is he the best scorer in a generation? Yes. Unequivocally, yes.
- Is he having a good season? Definitely.
- Is his team having a good season? Hahahahahahahaha.
Plus-minus doesn’t measure any of those things, except maybe the last one. Plus-minus is not a metric of a player’s talent, his impact, his grit, his heart, his compete level, or anything else. Plus-minus doesn’t even really measure a players’ on-ice goal differential (what the hell are shorthanded goals even doing in there?).
Plus-minus just a number to which we arbitrarily assign a story.
Or, in Jeff Schultz’s case, I guess we just ignore it.