Analytics Pixie Dust Can't Assume Away Ovechkin's Glaring Deficiencies

Surprisingly, many in the analytics community are in agreement with many mainstream analysts who believe that Alexander Ovechkin merits serious consideration for M.V.P.

Considerably less surprisingly, I disagree with all of them.

To be fair, Ovechkin has had a good season and there really aren’t any forwards that have stepped up and separated themselves from the pack. Still, giving Ovechkin the MVP would be a travesty.

Mainstream analysts see that Ovechkin’s 47 goals leads the league by 7, he has a +/- of +11 -- which looks positively stellar compared to the disastrous -35 he put up last year -- and that the Capitals are going to make the playoffs.  That’s all they need to know.

To them I say it’s time to look beyond goals. Ovechkin’s offensive numbers actually aren’t particularly impressive. In 5-on-5 play he’s 90th in the league in points per 60 minutes. Plus, Ovechkin has only 26 assists, a microscopic 14 of which are 5-on-5. Since 1970, the fewest assists by a forward to win MVP in a full season was 45 – and that was by Brett Hull in 1990-91, when he potted 86 goals. Even adjusting for the overall decrease in scoring in the league since 1991, Ovechkin’s season isn’t in the same universe,

The love from some in the analytics community is more unexpected. Their argument focuses primarily on Ovechkin’s solid shot attempt differential of 54.5%. They then apply some magic analytics pixie dust by disregarding Ovechkin’s actual goal differential to calculate what the Capitals’ “expected” goals for and against when Ovechkin is on the ice would be if Ovechkin’s linemates and goalies had a “league-average shooting and goaltending,” rather than the considerably below-average shooting and save percentages they actually have. One commentator suggested that the Capitals’ shooting percentage when Ovechkin’s on the ice should be assumed to increase by 8 points from 9.12% to 9.20%, and the Capitals’ save percentage should be assumed to increase by 14 points, from 90.9% to 92.3%.

In other words, these analytics experts are assuming that Ovechkin’s actual productivity is artificially low because of bad luck and natural variance in volatile stats like shooting and save percentage.

They seem oblivious to the possibility that his linemates’ and goalies’ struggles are actually caused by Ovechkin’s play.

Aside from being a premier goal scorer on the power play there are two things about Ovechkin’s game that stand out. First, he has never seen a shot he didn’t like. Over the past four seasons Ovechkin attempted 2,541 shots, a mind-boggling 635 more than anyone else in the league. Second, although his defense has definitely been better under new coach Barry Trotz, Ovechkin is still prone to grotesque defensive lapses.

Assuming that Ovechkin “should” be getting league average shooting and save percentages from his teammates conveniently assumes these problems away.

When a player is as poor defensively as Ovechkin is, it isn’t realistic to assume his play will have no impact on his goalies’ save percentages.

When a team’s offense runs through a player with a unique propensity to shoot indiscriminately, miss the net a ton, and rarely pass, then it isn’t realistic to assume that his linemates’ shooting percentages are going to be the same as they would be if they played with a more conventional player.

So I’m going to suggest something truly radical to the analytics community: to gauge Ovechkin’s value we should focus on actual, real-life goals.

When we look at goal metrics, it turns out that when Ovechkin is on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Capitals’ goal differential this season is 0.8% lower than when he isn’t on the ice (this is called Goals For % “Rel.”, as in “relative” to the rest of the team). In other words, 5-on-5 the Capitals do better when Ovechkin isn’t on the ice than when he is.

For some elite players it would be fair to dismiss such a result as an aberration. Over the relatively small sample of 70 games, it would be reasonable to conclude that the player was a victim of variance; that he’s just on the wrong side of puck luck.

For example, so far this season Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, and John Tavares all fall in the same negative territory as Ovechkin.

But as shown in the table, the difference is that these players have a long track record establishing their positive goal differentials, whereas Ovechkin has just the opposite. This year’s negative numbers aren’t an aberration for Ovechkin, they’re the norm. They’re most likely an accurate reflection of his true contribution to his team.

Contrary to what the analysts are saying, Ovechkin isn’t even break-even for the Caps, let alone the league’s MVP.


GOALS FOR % 2010-2015 (5v5)

Player GF% GF% Rel. 2014-15 GF% Rel.
Sidney Crosby 62.7 12.5 6.9
Henrik Sedin 61.0 12.2 7.6
Jonathan Toews 62.2 11.5 15.5
Anze Kopitar 60.7 11.1 -7.0
Jakub Vaoracek 56.0 10.3 17.8
Joe Pavelski 58.7 9.7 15.3
Pavel Datsyuk 59.1 8.4 6.6
Tyler Seguin 60.5 8.2 5.3
Taylor Hall 49.2 8.0 8.7
Patrice Bergeron 62.6 7.6 -3.4
Steven Stamkos 55.9 7.2 -4.1
Jamie Benn 54.9 7.1 5.3
Ryan Getzlaf 56.0 6.5 5.9
That John Tavares 50.4 6.2 -0.8
Alex Steen 56.8 6.0 0.7
Evegeni Malkin 57.9 5.6 2.0
Claude Giroux 54.9 5.5 7.2
Martin St. Louis 55.5 5.0 -1.5
Phil Kessel 47.6 0.0 -10.7
Alex Ovechkin 49.3 -1.6 -0.8


*numbers courtesy of


  1. tms71's Gravatar tms71
    March 28, 2015    

    I think you are right, the percentages (on-ice shooting, on-ice save) are volatile and most of the time when they differ significantly from the league norms for a particular guy it is due to bad luck but you are looking at a four season sample here. It's a lot harder to believe that on-ice shooting percentages and save percentages that have been significantly worse than his own team without him on the ice for a four season span are due to bad luck. This would certainly make him an outlier but watching him play his style of play is definitely unique which supports the idea that he is responsible for those bad percentages.

    One thing that needs to be mentioned is the enormous value that Ovechkin has on the power play. It makes up for a lot of his 5 on 5 deficiencies.

    It's interesting to see Kessel there too as he has been heavily criticized in Toronto by some fans and some of the media but the advanced stats guys are also quick to defend him. He does have disadvantage of not having a legitimate first line center. This is comparing him to his own team while he is off the ice and they are doing better without him again over a four year span so bad luck is an unlikely explanation. Playing with Bozak probably explains some of it.

  2. bobclobber's Gravatar bobclobber
    April 3, 2015    

    I read this with interest, especially given the recent effusive praise for Ovechkin this season. I follow the argument on 5 on 5 but I am not sure you can make a holistic assertion of value to his team without detailing the special teams contribution (n the case almost exclusively PP).

    • IJay Palansky's Gravatar IJay Palansky
      April 3, 2015    

      Thanks for the comment clobber. It pains me to admit it with respect to Ovi, but I think you're right. Analytics in general dismisses powerplay stats because it (we) don't quite know how to measure it appropriately yet. But clearly a big chunk of Ovechkin's value comes on the PP.

  3. Vance's Gravatar Vance
    April 7, 2015    

    Actually, if you look at Ovi 5v5 Close stats it shows he's at a +3.86 on GF% REL, although to be fair, he was at a +0.46 at the date of this post. Also, I'm seeing on that his GF%RELTM for 5v5 and 5v5 Close indicates he's a +4.0 and +11.7 respectively.

  4. Eric's Gravatar Eric
    May 2, 2015    

    Interesting argument, but I think that some of your conclusions are off base.
    Not going to get into the MVP discussion as much as I want to point a few things out about Ovechkin (and full disclosure, I am a Caps fan.... who has often been critical of his performance in the past).

    First, to the argument that Ovi doesn't play defense. At all. Ever. Well, if your coaches name rhymed with Radam Goates, you might be right.
    For the defensive question, I'll point to even-strength Fenwick numbers. In the 13-14 season (78 GP), Ovi's FF60-FA60 was -3.74. Like Mike Green, he would usually just watch the puck go by him as he glided around near the blue line.
    Fast forward to the 14-15 season, under Trotz, and the numbers over 81 games change significantly. His FF60-FA60 is now 6.15. In the playoffs, so far over 8 games, he is 15.18 (however, we'll see if that changes against the Rangers).
    During the 14-15 season, the Caps FF60-FA60 was 2.4. (Haven't figured out where to pull the data to figure out with/without Ovi), and their Fenwick60 diff for the playoffs is -0.3.
    To say that Ovechkin is not involved in the total team game this year is simply incorrect.

    Second, you correctly point out that the Capitals "do better" when Ovechkin is not on the ice. For even strength play, Ovechkin scored 21 goals during both the 13-14 season and the 14-15 season. So now the question is, what did the Capitals do?
    For 13-14, the Capitals scored 135 total even strength goals (114 of them were OTO - Other Than Ovechkin). In 14-15, the Caps notched 148 goals (127 OTO). The 13-14 CF%? 47.7. In 14-15, it is 51.4.
    So, all told, the Capitals have become less dependent upon Ovechkin to win games.

    Finally, Ovechkin has been more complete on even-strength offense. For example, when the Caps trailed last season (which they did a lot - 57 games), Ovechkin scored 8 goals and notched 3 assists. This season, he dropped to 5 goals in 47 games, but picked up 6 assists. He is still a shooter, but nowadays, he is also creating plays instead of ripping bad shots.

    Interestingly, he shot 224 times over 78 games in 13-14, and 220 times in 81 games in 14-15. So, like the goals, his shot performance has been pretty consistent. However, his line has improved from 343 shots in 13-14 to 441 in 14-15. In other words, Ovi is doing other things offensively in addition to shooting.

    As you can see, Ovechkin's actual even strength shooting and scoring performance is not different from last year to this year. The difference is that he is participating in the team's defense and making passes.
    Trotz said from the get-go, he wants Ovi to "do what he does" when he has the puck. He has. Trotz also told Ovi to "do what [Trotz] wants [Ovi] to do when he doesn't" have the puck. He has.

    MVP questions aside, Trotz sprinkled coaching pixie dust on Ovechkin, and the team, as a whole, is benefiting from it.

  1. NHL Blog Beat – March 29, 2015 | Spectors Hockey on March 29, 2015 at 7:13 pm

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