Fifteen goals. That’s all Alex Ovechkin is on pace to finish the 2023-24 season with at this rate.
Ovechkin’s never finished a season with a measly 15 goals. He’s never fallen below the 20-goal marker, not even in condensed seasons. And now, for the first time in his career, he’s gone 13 straight games without a goal. The five goals he has at this point aren’t even all that impressive — only three were scored with a goaltender in net.
Even if 38-year-old Ovechkin is far removed from his prime, this is a stark, unexpected decline for one of the greatest goal scorers of all time. So, what’s behind the aging superstar’s drop-off? Is this harsh reality the new normal? Is there a chance he can turn it around in the second half of the season?
The elephant in the room is his age. Not every player makes it to 38 in the NHL, and if they do, they’re often a shell of themselves at this point in their career. Aging curves — outlined in the work of Evolving Hockey’s Luke and Josh Younggren or Cam Lawrence, now of the Columbus Blue Jackets — support that. These curves tell us a player tends to peak in their early-to-mid-20s and starts to decline in their 30s with a sharp downtick in their late 30s. It’s worth noting the sample of skaters still playing into their late 30s is obviously a lot smaller to work with.
There can be outliers and randomness in aging curves, and that usually centers around elite talent. Their peak tends to be so high that their eventual trend down can still be above-average. That, paired with the fact that power-play scoring tends to age better than even-strength production (as now-assistant GM of the Carolina Hurricanes Eric Tulsky’s work indicates) should, in theory, work in Ovechkin’s favor. So should the fact that volume shooters tend to age better than snipers (as Tulsky’s and Ryan Stimson’s work both pointed to). It just hasn’t been the case this season.
The power-play aspect is particularly glaring since that’s where Ovechkin tends to do a lot of his damage. About 37 percent of his goals per season, on average, have come on the power play. At his best, power-play scoring has made up 50 percent of his goal totals. This year, with just one tally on the power play, it accounts for a career-low 20 percent of his scoring. That’s a dip of more than 10 percent from each of the last two seasons.
Ovechkin’s had awful shooting luck this year, converting on only 2.6 percent of his shots on the power play when he’s generally closer to about 15 percent. That should regress closer to average and lead to more goals — especially since his shot rate isn’t much lower than last year’s when he managed 14 power-play goals. In fact, the quality of his shots is better than last year’s with an individual expected goals rate of 2.3 per 60. Based on the quality of his shots, before even accounting for the shooting talent he has, he’s expected to be closer to five goals on the power play.
About 30 percent of the winger’s unblocked attempts have missed the net, which is relatively low compared to years past. But one difference is just how much opponents are blocking his shots. Just under 32 percent of his attempts have been blocked this season, which is pretty close to last season. On average (going back to 2007-08, due to data limitations), penalty killers only blocked about 27 percent of his shots.
In years past, penalty killers couldn’t afford to overcommit to Ovechkin even though he was the team’s biggest threat on the power play. There was too much talent elsewhere on that top unit to stay aware of. So having fewer options on the power play now likely plays into why penalty killers are actively blocking Ovechkin’s shots even more.
That also may be why penalty killers feel they can try cheating toward Ovechkin more, if not outright blocking his shooting lanes. Limiting his ability to get the puck in the first place neutralizes the team’s best power-play shot. Even better for the opponent if they can gain possession and clear the zone. Forcing someone like Ovechkin who plays 95 percent of the available power-play time to skate back can lead to fatigue during lengthy shifts.
What also has to be considered is the predictability of their power-play formation. Sure there have been tweaks this season — losing Nicklas Backstrom was one, shifting Evgeny Kuznetsov off the top unit and adding Tom Wilson on has been another. But a lack of fluid movement and too much stagnant standing in formation hurts Washington. So does the obvious strategy of trying to feed Ovechkin for his patented one-timer.
Slap shots aren’t used as much in today’s game because it’s pretty easy for players to read the setup, and in Ovechkin’s case, that can mean waiting while his stick is in the air ready to rip. With the right pass to precede it, it can be one of the toughest shots to stop. That pre-shot movement is essential to the danger of a shot. It’s difficult for a goaltender to react to one that’s set up by a lateral cross-seam pass. What makes his attempts less dangerous than in years past is where that set-up pass often comes from. Whether he’s deployed with the first or second unit, he’s typically teed up from the point by either John Carlson or Rasmus Sandin.
Compare that to last year. Of Ovechkin’s 15 power-play goals last season, 11 were one-timers. While six were set up from centralized passes from the point, another five were perched by a lateral pass. So as dangerous as his one-timer is, those shots aren’t as lethal as they could be because of the set-up pass. The game’s evolving and even some of the best have to adjust.
The one power-play goal Ovechkin did score this year actually started with a cross-slot pass from Wilson. While the initial one-timer wasn’t the shot that beat Toronto’s Joseph Woll, the player movement on the sequence afterward led to a goal for instead of the play getting cleared out or the Capitals attempting to just repeat the same attempts.
The problem for Ovechkin is that his scoring woes extend past just the power play. He has just one five-on-five goal on the season. Here, a lowly shooting percentage bites him again at 1.85 percent, when his career average is around 11. But there are other concerning trends, including career lows (since 2007-08) in shot volume and expected goal generation. A higher percentage of his shots have missed the net compared to last year, and more have been blocked by opponents, too.
In addition to individual declines that should be anticipated at this point in his career, the team around him is influencing his start. It’s not unrealistic to think that at age 38, someone even of Ovechkin’s caliber would need more support to play to his potential. Surrounding him with high-caliber passers may be the key to sustaining his success since he’s no longer at the heights of years past. But according to Corey Sznadjer’s tracking, his primary centers Dylan Strome and even Evgeny Kuznetsov have been moving the puck less. Both players have seen downticks in their passing to set up their teammates’ shots and scoring chances, and there isn’t a playmaking winger who can skate across Ovechkin to make up for that on this roster. That may explain why his shot and scoring chance numbers are down relative to last year in his isolated minutes with both Strome and Kuznetsov.
What does this mean for Ovechkin’s chase for the all-time goal-scoring record?
Some areas in Ovechkin’s game should regress closer to average. He shouldn’t shoot at five percent all year and could get closer to his career average of 12.8 if he can keep firing the puck at a high rate. As it stands, he’s the 10th most frequent shooter in the league in all situations. And he has the fourth biggest differential between his actual goal total and expectations, behind only Matthew Tkachuk, Josh Anderson and John Tavares. It all bodes well for a more productive stretch ahead. Had he stayed on pace with expectations to start the season, he’d be looking at a potential 36-goal season that would have been ideal progress to this next milestone. That’s before even accounting for the shooting talent that he has very clearly shown he’s had year after year, including last season.
But even if Ovechkin’s pace picks up, he’s lost so much ground through the first third of the season. And there’s no guarantee that pace will reach the rate he needs to stay on track for the scoring record. The roster support just isn’t there to make up for the individual declines, and stamina could be a problem down the stretch. He’s been less physical this season which may preserve him from that wear and tear, and his average ice time is down to a career-low 18:22 in all situations. But an 82-game slate is a grind for anyone, especially an aging star.
Aging is inevitable and no player, not even the greats like Ovechkin, is immune to that. The race for goal number 894 to tie the record isn’t lost just yet — but a start this slow to this season makes the next 67 goals seem all the more daunting.
— Data collected prior to Sunday’s matchup versus Carolina, via Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, Hockey-Reference, AllThreeZones and NaturalStatTrick. This story relies on shot-based metrics; here is a primer on these numbers.
(Photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)