The O-train derailed.

I am an unabashed Ovechkin fan. I’m not afraid to say it, despite my Canadian citizenship and my love for my hometown Canucks. I’m sure there is no more entertaining player in the league right now, from pre-game to post-game and beyond, Ovechkin is an absolute joy to watch. His combination of size, skill, speed, and mentality is unmatched. Period. I don’t think anyone can argue that, based on his body of work.

And yet, here we are, a full week or so after the Caps’ elimination from the playoffs, wondering just exactly what went wrong. A 3-1 lead in the series, a tandem of goalies on the run, an overmatched opponent … and the Caps couldn’t seal the deal.  How?  Why?

A lot of people are willing to pin this on Ovechkin, simply saying that as he is one of the NHL’s brightest stars, and since he is the team’s offensive, statistical, and emotional leader, his teams failings are his failings.  I don’t necessarily think that’s fair.  Alex Semin had exactly 2 points, both assists.  Mike Green had 3 points, all assists.  Tomas Fleischman had 1 point, an assist.  Joe Corvo had 2 points, a goal and an assist.  That represents $13.5MM worth of offensive-player cap hit this season, and, collectively, they didn’t outscore Niklas Backstrom, who, admittedly, had a fantastic series.  For the record, Backstrom makes $825k.

And yet, having watched most of the games in the series, one has a certain overwhelming sense that something was amiss.  Ovechkin looked either hurt or lost for most of the series, allowing a defence tandem of Jaroslav Spacek, Hall Gill, Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges to essentially bottle him up.  He seemed either disinterested or unable to go to the dangerous spaces, and looked unremarkable at generating offence down low.

Check out this article from mc79hockey.comhttp://www.mc79hockey.com/?p=3406.

I think the most telling part of the article is Gorges’s contention that Ovechkin’s first move is to the middle, so that he can unleash his wrist shot through the defenceman.  Watching some game tape, that is, indeed, often his first inclination off the rush and circling out of the corner.  And why not?  He’s scored plenty of goals that way, and if you bite on it, he pulls it back outside on you and bulls his way around you to the net.  However, look closer at what Montreal did to him (this is not the best example, but it is, unsuprisingly, difficult to find video of him where he doesn’t score or get a good shot off):

If you notice, Montreal created a box around him, where the defenceman was playing him one on one, but if he cuts to the middle, either the backchecking forward or the weak side defenceman make a play on him.  This basically eliminates his outside move, and, as long as he doesn’t pass the puck, turns him into a perimeter player that just takes a lot of shots.  Many of which were blocked.

While many would take issue with the call to use his teammates better, there’s clearly the idea that he is too much of a shoot first player out there in the league.  If coaches and defencemen are able to plan for his onslaught, perhaps this criticism is not so wrong.  If there is a call for every playmaker to shoot more to vary his offense and make himself less predictable, then the reverse logic must be applied to a shooter – one needs to know when to pass, so that opposing players have to respect the pass.

I might add that the analysis presented on mc79hockey is a prime example of the kind of purely statistical analysis that is unfortunately being tossed around pretty frequently these days.  While I am definitely not opposed to the various and interesting sabremetrics being introduced to hockey – I think it allows us to understand and evolve our collective understanding of the game far beyond where we are now – there is a limit (currently) as to what can be measured, and there’s a relative paucity of good metrics.  We’re baseball, right after Money Ball, before everyone had fully grasped the idea.

Just as in any good analysis, some measure of qualitative analysis must also be exercised.  Sure, Ovechkin had 10 points, including 5 goals. But 7 of those points were scored in 2 games.  2 games does not, a series, make.  That means he had 3 points in the other 5 games.  To say that Montreal did not do a good job of shutting him down is to say that you’re okay with winning 2 games out of 7.  Furthermore, saying that Ovechkin was contained says nothing about the Caps – a reach that mc79hockey is more than happy to make in trying to validate Ovie’s production: “I found the quotes from Gorges and Gill interesting. With them on the ice at ES – and ignoring empty netters – the Caps outscored the Habs 6-2. Way to shut him down, boys – the Caps scored 75% of the goals when you were on the ice together.”

One of the best arguments in the Sid Vs. Ovie debate is that Crosby is fantastic about developing his game.  This is easily demonstrable, both anecdotally as well as statistically.  Ovechkin – not so much.  It is unfair to say that he needs to learn to pass; he has wonderful vision already, and, like Kobe Bryant, can pass exceptionally well when he wants to.  However, when it comes down to it, just like Bryant, when the game is on the line, he tends to want to bend the game to his will a little bit too much.  It’s possible in basketball to get away with this, but hockey is a totally different animal.  Athletes in the NHL are too good for anyone to be able to do this on a regular basis anymore.  Ovechkin’s game needs to evolve.  I, along with every other hockey fan, can’t wait to see what the next iteration is for him.

Still, it’s not all bad. At least he has time this summer to work on this:

Ye gods, that’s a rough hewn swing…

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